India’s satellite launch breaks record – and could bring big benefits for humanity


Photo: ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched 104 satellites from seven countries on a single mission using the popular Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), overtaking the previous record of 37 satellites set by Russia in 2014.

India aims to cement its position as a destination for low-cost launches, and Wednesday’s success spotlights India as a major player in the multi-billion dollar commercial space market.

“It’s not just a record-setting mission, but further consolidation of the already well known technological prowess of the Indian space program,” said Susmita Mohanty, CEO of Earth2Orbit, a Bangalore-based space start-up that helped Google Inc. launch a satellite on the PSLV last June, told NDTV. “The small-satellite launch market is growing at an alarming pace and this launch is a way to say that the PSLV is all set to respond to emerging-market demands.”

India has increased its budget for launches in 2017. This is the first of five launches expected this year, and the country announced plans to send a mission to Venus.

The role of Planet

Eighty-eight of the satellites in the record-breaking launch are owned by Planet, a US-based imaging startup which wants to take daily photographs of the entire planet. This launch should allow every corner of Earth – every park, road and tree – to be imaged at medium resolution every day. Previously, Planet’s constellation of satellites allowed it to cover one-third of the earth’s landmass daily.

The company designs and launches its own satellites, but has also acquired a number of satellite imaging assets including Blackbridge, a German company that had five satellites, and Terra Bella and its seven satellites from Alphabet.

With the successful launch, Planet now owns the largest private satellite constellation ever built with 143 operational satellites, making the the new dominant provider in satellite imagery.

Larger benefits to humanity

But what are the benefits of imaging the Earth on a daily basis?

“Collection of the data is one thing, but arguably the access is more important to using it to make smarter decisions,” Planet spokesperson Trevor Hammond told Quartz earlier this month.

This is especially true when you look at the benefits the images could offer environmental scientists, and companies wishing to use the data to enhance machine learning and big data techniques.

RELATED: How machine learning can help protect life below water

The images gathered from this space launch could be used to monitor illegal fishing and piracy, observe climate change in greater detail, and track environmental disasters. They can also conduct microgravity experiments which previously would have required an expensive trip out to the International Space Station.

Lucy Spencer (@L_M_Spencer)

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