Breaching the space frontier

To ISRO goes the credit for having built a space programme from the ground up, with a strong launch segment that has put over 300 satellites into orbit for foreign entities, not to mention a large fleet of domestic satellites and numerous exploratory missions

Bhavdeep KangUpdated: Friday, November 25, 2022, 05:55 AM IST
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India’s space sector is an exciting frontier for entrepreneurs and investors. The recent launch of the privately-designed and built Vikram-S rocket is a new landmark in India’s journey towards a larger share of the global space economy. It has raised the country’s space profile and focused attention on the national space policy.

As of now, India has over a hundred space startups, all engaged in different verticals of the new space economy: satellite internet, earth observation, satellite launch vehicles, space tourism and planetary exploration. For example, Astrogate Labs is looking at high-speed communications, Pixxel at hyperspectral imaging, Valles Marineris at (among other things) space tourism and Agnikul Cosmos at launch vehicles.

The vigorous participation of the private sector promises to raise the country’s meagre share in the global space economy, currently just 2% of approximately USD 450 billion. Hence, the importance of Skyroot Aerospace’s success with Vikram-S. Earlier this year, Bengaluru-based startup Pixxel launched its hyperspectral imaging satellite on a SpaceX rocket. Dhruva Space, which created waves at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai last year, is set to launch two low earth orbital satellites shortly. Agnikul Cosmos has announced that it will follow suit with a rocket off a mobile launch pad in 2023.

In a way, it all began with the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, which invited private players to design and land a rover on the Moon. One of the teams that made the final cut was TeamIndus, put together by a Bengaluru startup, Axiom Research Labs. The competition was eventually cancelled as no team met the deadline, but it piqued interest in the space sector. Thereafter, a number of space entrepreneurs like Dhruva, Bellatrix, Skyroot, Agnikul, Pixxel and so on were able to attract investors (to the tune of USD 240 million, according to some estimates).

The government began to look seriously at private sector participation in the space sector, by leveraging space resources. To ISRO goes the credit for having built a space programme from the ground up, with a strong launch segment that has put over 300 satellites into orbit for foreign entities, not to mention a large fleet of domestic satellites and numerous exploratory missions. It has the lowest cost of development and launches of any space agency in the world. A limited budget and repeated sanctions against technology transfers compelled ISRO to develop its own!

Then, in 2020, came INSPACe (Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre), which serves as a link between ISRO and private players with the objective of optimizing utilisation of India’s space resources. (For example, Dhruva was among the first to sign an MoU with INSPACe for testing satellites and components.) The Indian Space Association (ISpA) was set up in 2021, as an industry body aiming at strengthening the entire space ecosystem.

Space defence is another area where civilians could potentially contribute. It is of vital strategic interest, given the exponential growth of China’s capabilities in this field. In 2019, India set up the Defence Space Agency (DSA) and the Defence Space Research Organisation (DSRO). This followed Mission Shakti – the successful deployment of India’s anti-satellite weapon (ASAT). Only five nations have so far demonstrated ASAT capabilities.

The national space policy is of prime importance with respect to expansion of the space sector, as it will spell out the role of private players. Space regulation is a touchy area, particularly with regard to foreign investment, space communications, technology transfer and remote sensing. A Space Activities Bill was mooted in 2017, as a “national space legislation for supporting the overall growth of the space activities in India (and to) ...encourage enhanced participation of non-governmental/private sector agencies”.

The 2017 iteration of the Bill attracted criticism because it had tough penal provisions. Clause 12(1) demanded that a licensee ‘indemnify the Central Government against any claims brought against the Government in respect of any damage or loss arising out of a commercial space activity’. Other clauses prescribed imprisonment of up to three years for various offences under the Act.

Pointing out these clauses would serve as major disincentives for private entities, the industry lobbied for a more benign legislation, one which would also take into account the high cost of insurance in the space sector. The draft Indian Space Policy 2022 was seen as a vast improvement.

An enabling policy in place can leverage India’s manifold advantages – skilled manpower, a manufacturing base and high demand. To achieve the target of a USD 50 billion slice of the space economy, India’s space goals and the role of the private sector need to be clearly laid out.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author

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