NEW DELHI — In India’s space center on the barrier island of Sriharikota, the white-jacketed scientists held their breaths.
The country’s trusty red-and-white satellite launch vehicle had lifted off moments before and blasted into orbit.
The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle C-37 was about to perform a delicate maneuver — carefully sending 104 satellites into the heavens in pairs, the highest number ever attempted in one mission. One Indian space analyst on television likened the complicated maneuver to dropping children at different bus stops.
About 10 a.m. Wednesday, the announcement came: All the satellites had been successfully launched. The scientists breathed a collective sigh of relief, and backslapping and applause ensued.
“This is a great moment for each and every one of us. Today we have created history,” project manager B. Jayakumar said afterward. The total number of satellites far outstripped the previous record — 37 simultaneously sent into space by Russia in 2014.
Wednesday’s launch was another success for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which is rapidly gaining a reputation globally for its effective yet low-cost missions.
India had already sent up dozens of satellites, including 20 in one launch last year.
In 2014, India became the first Asian nation to send a probe into orbit around Mars, a $74 million effort that, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted at the time, cost less than what it took to make the Hollywood space movie “Gravity.”
The fierce national pride that resulted after that success sent the Mars probe rocketing onto the face of the country’s new 2,000 rupee ($30) currency note in November.
Now India is showcasing its competitiveness in the $300 billion global space market, said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
The 104 satellites launched Wednesday — for interests in India, the United States, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates — are considered small, micro and nano-size spacecraft, much easier to load onto a rocket in large numbers.
ISRO’s commercial arm, Antrix, has charged about $3 million to send a satellite into space in recent years, far less than private companies. The ability to reuse components and some government subsidies contribute to these savings, Rajagopalan said.
The complex, 90-minute mission “shows that India’s space program has come a long way and gained a lot more sophistication in terms of launch capabilities,” she said.
India increased the budget of its space program by more than 20 percent this year in an effort to mount a second Mars mission in the coming years, as well as an orbiter mission to Venus that may be undertaken in collaboration with NASA.
As the scientists in India watched anxiously on Wednesday, a group of environmentally focused techies gathered around big screens at their San Francisco headquarters with equal excitement, recording the liftoff on their smartphones.
The U.S. Earth-imaging company now known as Planet owns 88 of the satellites sent into orbit Wednesday, and its flock of tiny craft called “Doves” will join 12 satellites already in orbit in an ambitious project to “image all of Earth’s landmass every day,” the company said in a post-launch report.