India Shoots the Moon in its Space Sector

Sky’s the limit in a fast-growing industry that so far has seen considerable success

By Neeta Lal

This year promises to be a busy one for the Indian Space Research Organization. More than 25 programs are lined up for 2020, including the launch of Aditya L1, a spacecraft mission to study the Sun as well as the Chandrayaan 3 moon mission and Gaganyaan, the country’s first manned space mission.

The space agency’s 2020 roadmap also includes a variety of other satellites, relay systems, navigation devices and other projects.

Last month, the agency launched the successful 50th mission of its workhorse, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The satellite will be used in applications such as agriculture, forestry and disaster management support. It also carried nine international customer satellites – six from the US and one each from Israel, Italy and Japan.

These launches, while burnishing India’s reputation as a thrifty satellite producer and launcher, have also helped cement its place in the burgeoning space market. The country has emerged as one of the most successful nations to have developed the capacity to deliver payloads to space or to develop satellites for services and interplanetary missions. The developments are also debunking popular perceptions that space is a playground only for cash-rich Western nations.

The agency has planned 15,000 launches in conjunction with its revamped arm New Space India Limited. A big part of these ventures involves the launch of smaller but more frequent satellites.

In keeping with its flourishing business and successful launches, ISRO is also expanding its infrastructure. A new launch pad is set to come up soon in Tuticorin in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The country’s second spaceport will provide an important advantage to the upcoming Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, a smaller counterpart of the polar satellite launch vehicle that the organization uses to launch lighter satellites.

The organization’s budget is also expected to be bumped up by 35 percent, which will bolster its own capabilities while facilitating the growth of private players. ISRO has sought an allocation of US$1.2 billion in the budget for 2020-21.

There is no denying that national prestige is at stake in India’s space programs under the nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But there are some strategic and mercenary calculations at work as well.

Space is poised to become a thriving business internationally, and both companies and countries are investing in the technological capability to leverage this development. Last year private investment in space-related technology surged to US$3.25 billion globally, according to the London-based Seraphim Capital – a 29 percent increase on the previous year.

Correspondingly, in India as well, the government-run space agency isn’t the only one looking to edge into the commercial satellite space. More and more companies are becoming involved, a trend expected to grow, say analysts. Companies like Agnikul, Cosmos, Skyroot, and Bellatrix are already attempting to build small rockets. Solar Industries India has invested 175 million rupees in Sky Root — a start-up working to build small rockets. Walchandnagar Industries, Godrej Space and L&T and other companies are already working with ISRO to manufacture rocket sub-systems.

The Indian space sector is also witnessing the birth of start-ups like Astrome, Exseed Space and Pixxel. Traditionally, such companies would have played second fiddle to the ISRO by bringing up the rear in its supply chain. No longer. These new players are in the forefront, building independent products and services. This transition, say analysts, is a sign of a maturing space power.

While these developments bode well for the Indian space sector, the country needs to further facilitate its growth via enabling legislation, basically, a legal framework to regulate industry activity so that entrepreneurs too can easily do business in space. In 2017, India’s Department of Space in fact put forth draft legislation to create such a framework to encourage the participation of Indian industry, including start-ups, oversee their performance, and facilitate growth.

But the bill has not yet seen the light of day. Analysts argue that in its current form the legislation leaves crucial facets uncovered that will likely hobble rather than empower space activity.

For one, according to an essay by Narayan Prasad, a space industry expert and founder of NewSpace India, a networking community for space-related developments, the draft focuses heavily on the need to have a licensing regime to govern the activities of emerging space-sector companies in the space sector while offering no operational clarity for business.

Also, the draft bill says the government will “put in place a mechanism,” but doesn’t make it clear what timelines, processes or institutions will be involved. Besides, under the bill’s directives, companies planning to independently pursue space activities will need to apply for a government license.

“In a mature space power like the US,” Prasad wrote, “companies do not go to NASA to get approvals for their activities. The US government has deputed independent agencies for the job — such as the Federal Communications Commission to coordinate the use of space frequencies, the Federal Aviation Administration to coordinate space launches and rocketry-related tests, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to license those who want to provide imagery-related services, and the United States Department of Commerce to regulates any export-related issues.”

India, it appears, needs to take a leaf out of the US approach on the legislative front at a time when the industry’s expansion is at stake.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based Editor & senior journalist