An Indian rocket delivered a record-setting 104 satellites into orbit Tuesday night.
A camera on board the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle captured the spacecraft, most of them tiny CubeSats, as they tumbled into orbit—the most placed into orbit by a single vehicle. A majority of the satellites belong to a U.S.-based company called Planet which hopes to establish a network of tiny satellites to provide near-real-time imaging of Earth.
An Indian cartography satellite and two experimental nanosatellites, weather-monitoring CubeSats and student-built experimental craft were also on board. The 101 CubeSats took flight shortly after the rocket entered orbit in a carefully orchestrated maneuver involving 25 “Quadpacks.” Packed with four tiny probes apiece, the Quadpacks used a spring-assisted delivery system to eject the probes into orbit two at a time.
The 88 satellites from Planet, called Doves, will join 12 others already in orbit to form a string of small imaging probes that completely encircles the globe. Placed in a Sun-synchronous orbit that reaches from pole to pole, their network should allow them to take pictures of Earth multiple times an hour once they are all in place. And, because their orbit takes them over the same place every day, it allows for day-by-day comparisons of specific areas.
The company says that with this launch they are operating the largest fleet of satellites ever assembled. The CubeSats they use are only about a foot long, and are often utilized as a low-cost way of testing preliminary technologies and running experiments. The satellites are small enough that they can often squeeze onto launches as secondary payloads, allowing for cheaper rides into orbit.