The Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (IN-SPACe) was set up in 2020 as an independent body to oversee regulation of all space related activities in India, including the authorization of private rocket launches. The government’s decision to allow the private sector into India’s space sector was aimed at broad-basing innovation capabilities and speeding up India’s ability to compete in the global market for space technologies- a high-growth market that has historically been dominated by a small number of players from the US and Europe.
This decision seems to be paying off, because India’s private sector has already become quite active across the value chain in the space sector. Nearly 300 entities are already registered with IN-SPACe, of which 30% are startups. On 18th November 2022, Vikram-S, a small single-stage rocket developed by Hyderabad-based startup Skyroot Aerospace, was successfully flight tested. This marks the beginning of “Prarambh”, the company’s sub-orbital mission. By year-end, Chennai-based Agnikul Cosmos expects to launch its small rocket too. Pixxel, another space startup, has already launched Shakuntala, India’s first privately built earth imaging satellite and a second satellite Anand. A consortium of L&T and HAL has been awarded a contract to build five PSLVs. This is the first time anyone other than ISRO has been tasked with this key responsibility- an indication of the government’s rising confidence in our private sector. The success is testament to the robust space sector ecosystem being built as a result of close collaboration between ISRO, IN-SPACe, academic institutions, and the private sector (both startups and established companies).
Why the Private Sector is Important for India’s Space Economy?
The capability to launch small rockets is critical because smaller rockets can place their payloads in more precise orbits. Also, they can be produced in shorter timelines by using 3D printing technologies. Miniaturization of components means that required functional capabilities can be achieved through smaller satellites. All this means that satellites with specific functional capabilities can be quickly assembled and launched. Smaller rockets can be easily fueled by liquid propellants, which are inherently easier to manage; they are also less prone to vibrations, which can become a challenge for launch vehicles that carry sensitive payloads.
Given rising geopolitical uncertainties, there is now a higher risk of conflicts between countries arising at short notice. Increasingly, wars will be fought using cyberattacks and directed energy weapons to degrade the enemy’s vital assets such as communication satellites and missile defence batteries. Swarms of weaponized drones too will be deployed to target and destroy vital military installations in remote, hard-to-access areas. In such a scenario, it becomes critical that as a country we can launch new satellites and other space assets quickly to replace lost capacities or augment and complement new space-based capabilities that are needed.
ISRO has successfully designed, developed, and launched heavy, multi-stage rockets into space. These technologies/capabilities have helped place many satellites in orbit and in turn, these are playing a key role in India’s development. ISRO has also developed the SSLV (Small Satellite Launch Vehicle), but unfortunately, its technology demonstration mission failed earlier this year. It is this gap that the private sector can help plug at short notice.
Public-Private Cooperation is Vital to Power India’s Space Economy
As various countries seek to build/enhance their space-based defence capabilities, countries like India can benefit from commercial contracts to launch satellites/other payloads and conduct defence missions in space. With defence capabilities increasingly relying on assets deployed in space, the evolution of India’s private sector space capabilities will also boost our credibility as a builder of solutions and not just as a provider of reliable, cost-effective space launch services. While ISRO continues to build its reputation as a reliable partner, it needs to scale up its ability to launch satellites for its customers. In October 2022, ISRO successfully launched 36 satellites for UK-based OneWeb (partly owned by the Bharti group), marking the use of the LVM3 rocket; this was also one of ISRO’s largest commercial orders. More such opportunities can come ISRO’s way because satellite-based internet services are rapidly becoming cost-competitive and an easy way to deliver connectivity to far-flung areas where building fibre-based infrastructure is difficult due to terrain and weather conditions.
It is estimated that by 2025, India’s space business will grow to US$12.8 Billion from US$9.6 Billion in 2020 (source: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/how-indias-space-startups-are-aiming-high/articleshow/95637043.cms). ISRO is a shining example of a public sector entity that has consistently overcome huge odds (including sanctions from time to time) to indigenously develop world-class capabilities in frontier areas like space technologies. Its ability to do much more has arguably been limited by budgetary support. And although launches are the most visible part of a space economy, they are by no means the only facet: design, development, manufacturing, building technology demonstration prototypes etc. are all just as important. Now, with the innovative energies and other resources available to the country’s private sector, significant synergies can be unleashed through public-private partnerships in the space sector.
Image Credits: Photo by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/space-technology-research-science-41006/
With defence capabilities increasingly relying on assets deployed in space, the evolution of India’s private sector space capabilities will also boost our credibility as a builder of solutions and not just as a provider of reliable, cost-effective space launch services. While ISRO continues to build its reputation as a reliable partner, it needs to scale up its ability to launch satellites for its customers.