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How ISRO’s GSLV fares against heavy lift launch vehicles – Falcon 9 and Ariane 5

How ISRO’s GSLV fares against heavy lift launch vehicles – Falcon 9 and Ariane 5

India, a space underdog clinched another victory with ISRO’s 104 satellite launch from a single rocket, fired into space from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota. The super feat jettisoned India into the elite space club dominated by USA, China, Japan and Russia. India surpassed Russia’s 2014 record of launching 37 satellites in the orbit in a single launch.

Out of the 104 satellites launched, 88 were Doves satellites, collectively known as “Flock 3p” and weighing about 10 pounds that rode aboard the PSLV rocket. The 88 satellites belonged to San Francisco-headquartered Planet Labs, that operates the biggest constellation of earth-imaging satellites and provides endless data on natural resources and how to respond to natural disasters.


And it wasn’t just the Indian community that was watching ISRO’s record-breaking feat. American business magnate Elon Musk congratulated ISRO on the exceptional launch.

Big launch is where the big money is – a space dominated by Arianespace and SpaceX

India has earned a reputation for launching low-cost, low weighing satellites to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO). The preferred launch vehicle is PSLV which has a cap for load capacity – around 3800 kg for LEO and up to 1750 kg for SSO. 

Globally, big payload is where the big money. Space companies such as billionaire Elon Musk-backed SpaceX and European Arianespace, world’s leading satellite launch company are vying for the heavy lift launch market.  Arianespace’s Ariane 5 is considered the “champion heavy lift” launch vehicle that can deliver heavier payloads into LEO and GTO backed by a great launch history Ariane 5, has launched several European Space agency missions, most notably Rosetta, a space probe built by the European Space agency for studying the Jupiter family comet. 

GSLV vs Falcon 9 vs Ariane 5

India’s GSLV payload for geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) is only 2,500 kg according to Wikipedia.  And in a stark contrast, Ariane 5 can carry 9,100 kg; and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 can carry 8,300 kg to GTO. But the $300 billion satellite launching market is cornered by Space X and Arianespace that have their order books chock-a bloc.

Arianespace, the European space industry veteran has further planned Ariane 6 and Vega C launch system that will bolster its position as the preferred heavy launch system.  In 2015, the European space company carried out 12 missions with 6 Ariane 5 launches. SpaceX has dramatically pared down the cost of launches, with reusable rocket launches to $43 million as compared to United Launch Alliance of $225 million.

Falcon Heavy from Space X – took off on Feb 19, 2017 from NASA’s historic launch site

And who hasn’t heard about SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy (SpaceX designed and manufactured heavy lift space launch vehicle) that returned to service last week with its private rocket launch from NASA’s iconic site 39A, in Cape Canaveral, Florida that has seen Apollo and Space Shuttle successful missions.

SpaceX’s first launch was a cargo mission (Dragon space capsule) to the International Space Station, that was reportedly packed with 2,500 kgs of cargo and will return to earth after 29 days with 2,300 kg of trash that will burn in outer atmosphere. Some of the other space stations additions are —  an earth-monitoring tool that will hunt for ozone in atmosphere and a Space Test Program payload that comprises of Lightning Imaging Sensor, which will track lightning worldwide, and Raven, that will do data collection for future autonomous spacecraft sojourns.

Falcon Heavy’s successful landing was greeted by Elon Musk with this Instagram statement, “Baby came back”. The successful landing comes close on the heels of Falcon 9 rocket’s aborted mission that exploded on the launch pad last year.

NASA Delta IV Heavy – Big Daddy of Rockets

NASA’s Delta IV Heavy is by far the most robust heavy lift launch vehicle with a payload capacity to LEO of 28,790 kg.  Earlier last year, a Delta IV rocket delivered a special payload into the orbit – NROL-37, a spy satellite payload. The world’s most powerful rocket has clocked 9 launches since 2004 and its last outing was in December 2014 when it launched NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

Much like the Falcon Heavy rocket, Delta IV Heavy uses three booster cores and if news reports are to be believed, it will soon lose its usability and supremacy to Falcon Heavy that offers a heavy lift service at significantly low cost. As per news reports, a Delta IV comes at a steep price of $14 million per ton to orbit, as opposed to SpaceX’s at $1.7 million per ton.

Where does India’s GSLV stand in heavy lift space market?

India’s heavy satellite launch vehicle is Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) mostly used for domestic satellite launches can carry a payload of 2,500 kilograms to GTO. Since its first launch in 2001, GSLV has carried out 10 launches, the most recent being INSAT-3DR in September, 2016. Critics argue that India’s cautious approach can be attributed to the fact that it is state-sponsored program. According to an opinion piece, GSLV was initially built to carry satellites like INSAT and GSAT and not compete with market leaders Falcon 9 or Ariane 5. As per news reports, India’s share of global revenue is only 0.6%. ISRO still has to ramp up its commercial viability in the heavy satellite space. If ISRO wants to increase its market share in the heavy lift launch space, it should have a sizeable budget.

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