India’s record-breaking launch ramps up space race

By Zhang Ye Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/19 20:28:39

China to speed up commercialization in bid for small satellite business: experts

Following India's record-breaking satellite launch last week, China will likely fast-track the commercialization of its rocket launches to vie for the world's burgeoning small satellite launch market, according to Chinese satellite experts.

On Wednesday, India's space agency successfully put 104 satellites into orbit from a single rocket, smashing the previous record of 37 set by Russia in 2014.

Of the 104 satellites, 103 were small ones with a combined weight of 664 kilograms and one was a 714-kilogram Earth observation satellite, according to information released by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

"The launch indicated that India can send commercial satellites into space at lower costs, giving the country's competitiveness in the global race for the burgeoning commercial space businesses," Zhang Yonghe, director with the new technology department of the Shanghai Engineering Center for Microsatellites, told the Global Times.

Commercial rocket launch services should be a promising market, fueled by private firms like Beijing Shareco Technologies Co which is intent on infusing communication with satellites.

Shareco, a subsidiary of HNA Group, focuses on developing in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity, which costs hundreds of millions of yuan in renting satellite services every year, Shareco CEO Brooks Pan told the Global Times.

Pan said a great amount of commercial satellites are expected to be delivered in the following years to replace most of the satellites in space which were used for TV broadcasting but aren't suitable for new ventures like Shareco's.

Paris-headquartered space consultancy Euroconsult anticipates that a total of 560 satellites will be launched by 40 commercial companies from 2016 to 2025. Among them, 370 small satellites are expected to be deployed into low- or medium-orbit for communication services and Earth observation imagery which would represent a yearly market of $1.6 billion on average over the next decade.

Commercial launch race

Over the past several years, private firms in the US, the EU, Russia and China have raised their stakes in the commercial rocket launch market, which experts said will grow significantly as the private demand for space-based surveillance and communication increases.

US company SpaceX is a veteran in the market and aims to make rocket launches more affordable with its reusable rocket Falcon 9. The company, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, plans to launch 27 rockets this year, more than triple the eight rockets it sent up last year, according to financial records obtained by the Wall Street Journal.

China, a latecomer in the sector, witnessed its homegrown launch service provider Landspace Technology Corp secured a satellite launch contract with Danish company Gomspace in mid-January, marking the first time a private Chinese company obtained satellite launching services in the international market. State-owned aerospace firms such as China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp created Expace Technology Co in early 2016 to bid for small satellite business with commercial rocket launch services.

The Wednesday launch is India's latest triumph for its space program.

In 2014, India became the fourth country to successfully send a spacecraft to orbit Mars, signaling a regional rivalry with China which suffered a failure in its Mars mission in 2012.

Zhang believes that India's record-breaking launch will speed up China's commercialization of rocket launches. He noted that India did a better job promoting its launch services internationally than China.

Nearly all of its 103 smaller satellites are from other countries including Israel, Kazakhstan, Switzerland and the US. 

Still far from the top

With respect to the research and development of both military and commercial rocket launch services, India lags behind China, the US and Russia, said experts.

"India cannot match them yet unless it has enough rockets types to fulfill all satellites launches," Zhang said.

According to Xue Lijun, general manager assistant of Shenzhen Aerospace Dongfanghong Development Ltd, India's launch on Wednesday is a breakthrough in terms of numbers, but not in technology.

"Technologically speaking, the launch did not have any big difficulties… what [Indian engineers] need to do is to avoid the conflicts among satellites, which involves lots of calculation and data analysis, but is not a tough task," Xue told the Global Times. Xue is a satellite expert who has participated in the design and development of six satellites.

The 104 satellites are mostly in the same orbit, indicating that India still lacks capabilities of sending multiple satellites into various orbits, said the experts. 

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