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.

  • Michael Halpern

    Not sure about dedicated small launchers unless they focus on high cadence, things like SHERPA which act as a cross between a payload adapter ring, small satellite deployer and SEP psuedo upper stage, can get secondary payloads into specific orbits at very low cost, with SpaceX’s cadence, unless you need a payload up on short notice, ride-sharing on large RLVs may be the way to go. In the past I have said small launchers have a potential advantage, and while I believe that, i don’t think the oldspace approach to them will work, scaling down (or up) existing vehicles is not as simple as it sounds, by the time you make the special hardware for it you might as well make a whole new vehicle, mass ratios and such encourage designing hardware such as tanks and srm shells for a specific size, engines will have to be different or modified and there is most of the development cost of a rocket for a sub optimal design

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  • Jeff2Space

    To be fair, “hitchhikers” really can’t get into any orbit they want. The delta-V available (once the primary payload(s) is deployed) is very limited. Specifically, the secondary payload is pretty much locked into the same orbital inclination as the primary payload(s) since orbital plane change maneuvers are extremely expensive in terms of delta-V.

  • Michael Halpern

    Yes this is true but the launcher and Launch service has to be built from the ground up to leverage that service properly,

  • windbourne

    This is foolish of both Europe and India. Far better to allow private Enterprises to fill that arena.

    Instead, both Europe and India should focus on going for the edge. In particular, how to land on the moon economically. Likewise, living in space, economically, remains an issue. The ISS has been useful, but economical it is not. Worse yet, it really needs a number of design changes as well as subsystems to be done.
    Right now, the design of ISS is hard to add more modules. At the least, Europe should consider building a few stripped nodes to add to ISS and be used for private space station.