India & Europe Eye Smallsat Launchers

PSLV C38 mission launches (Credit: ISRO)

Officials in India and Europe are eying a greater share of the emerging small satellite market with light versions of the PSLV and Vega C boosters, respectively.

The Indian space agency ISRO is actively working on a PSLV light variant capable of launching payloads up to 500 kg into low Earth orbit.

“Owing to advancement in technology, the mass of satellites is coming down — including that of communication satellites. A lot of start-ups are building small satellites and they would like to put one in orbit at a lower cost,” K. Sivan, Director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), a part of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), told IANS.

According to Mr Sivan, the preliminary design for the proposed four-stage rocket that would weigh around 100 tonnes is ready and its feasibility study has also been conducted. Mr Sivan said the first rocket would be ready in two years once the project gets the necessary approvals.

At present ISRO gets contracts from foreign organisations to carry small satellites. These are largely carried piggy-back whenever India launches a bigger satellite for its own use with the rocket Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

The PSLV rocket has three variants weighing between 230 tonnes and 320 tonnes, with a carrying capacity ranging between 1,100 kg and 1,900 kg.

In Italy, Avio is “actively weighing” a scaled down Vega C booster that could complete with smallsat launchers being developed by Rocket lab, Virgin Orbit and other startups in launching payloads weighing up to about 250 kg. Vega C is an upgraded version of the currently operational Vega booster.

Ettore Scardecchia, Avio’s head of engineering and product development, said Avio has an advantage over newcomers in that the company already has the essential components for a “Vega C Light.”

“Our idea is that if we are able to develop a system that is really a downscale of Vega C, we will have also the economy of scale to guarantee it because we use the same pieces in both cases,” he explained….

With Vega C Light, Avio and Arianespace would also be able to offer missions to a wider range of inclinations, a perk Scardecchia said is of interest to Earth-observation companies that want their satellites to cover the planet’s more-populated areas. If Avio pursues the mini-launcher, it would want to have the system ready by 2020 or 2021, he said.