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India’s opportunities in space commercialization

JUN 3

Mains   > Science and Technology   >   Space technology   >   Space organisations & missions

IN NEWS:

  • NASA opened a new era of human space travel as SpaceX, a private company, for the first time launched astronauts into orbit.

RELATED ISSUE:

  • Commercialization of space

HISTORY OF INDIA’S SPACE INDUSTRY:

  • India's space journey began after Dr. Vikram Sarabhai formed Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) in 1962 and set up the ‘Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station’ (TERLS) in Thiruvananthapuram for upper atmospheric research.
  • In 1969, INCOSPAR was renamed as Indian Space Research organisation (ISRO), with a vision to "harness space technology for national development while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration".
  • In 1971, Satish Dhawan Space Centre was formed at Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh.
  • In 1975, ISRO launched its first indigenously built satellite ‘Aryabhata’ using rocket from the Soviet Union. Later on, in 1980, ISRO launched ‘Rohini’ through its Indigenously-made launch vehicle SLV-3.
  • In 1984, Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian cosmonaut to travel to space.
  • 1990s saw the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) hitting success repeatedly and becoming the workhorse of ISRO. The rocket also earned foreign exchange by launching foreign satellites.
  • In the 2000s, with the successful launch of heavy rocket Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), India began sending heavier satellites into orbit.
  • In 2008, India launched its first moon mission Chandrayaan 1, followed by its first mars mission Mangalyaan and independent regional navigation satellite system IRNSS (NavIC) in 2013.
  • In 2016, India successfully tested its reusable launch vehicle and scramjet engine technology demonstrator, followed by a partially successful Chandrayaan 2 mission in 2019.
  • ISRO is now moving forward with the development of heavy lift launchers, human spaceflight projects, reusable launch vehicles, semi-cryogenic engines and development and use of composite materials for space applications.

WHY ENCOURAGE COMMERCIALIZATION:

  • Reduce cost: The involvement of private entities will help bring down the cost of space technologies and missions. For e.g.: The launch cost for the Ariane V rocket (owned by the European space agency) is around USD240 million, while the same for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is only USD60 million. 
  • Improve competitiveness: In some areas, space-based systems are losing out to aero or terrestrial services because of the need for massive investments and the inability to upgrade in the future. Google’s ‘Project Loon’, Facebook’s Aquilla project and the rising use of drones for surveillance are indications of satellite technology losing its edge. Hence, competing industries are essential to reduce cost and keep the sector competitive.  
  • Encourage innovation: All major space sector companies are large, government funded and with little or no competition. So, there is little motivation for innovation – neither technical or managerial – resulting in low levels of innovation and high levels of production costs.
  • Development of industry: The involvement of private entities, especially small and medium industries, will trigger entrepreneurship and the development of an array of industries focused on developing cutting edge technologies to cater for space indutries.  
  • Social benefits: Commercialising will lead to the expansion of space-based technologies into the unserved and underserved areas. This may be in the form of faster communication technologies, telemedicine facilities, digital education etc. Also, once private players take the lead in space sciences, government can divert funds intended for space science into other areas such as health and education.  
  • Economic benefits: Besides commercial launches, space industry offers new areas of investment in the form of Space tourism, resource extraction etc. For eg: In asteroid mining, there is a huge potential to generate economic returns through extracting resources from a typical Near-Earth Asteroid, making it a lucrative business for private investors and business professionals to pursue.

                             

  • Strategic benefits: Space is slowly yet steadily becoming the next front in warfare. For eg: USA has decided to develop its own space force. Also, space technologies are becoming a fundamental part of defence technologies, in the form of quantum-encrypted communication and advanced air defence systems. Hence, having a strong presence in space will be strategically vital for countries in the coming years.

INDIA’S INVOLVEMENT IN SPACE COMMERCE:

  • ISRO has become one of the six large space agencies in the world, maintaining a fleet of communication satellites (INSAT) and remote sensing (IRS) satellites.
  • Antrix Corporation Limited (ACL) was established in 1992 as a Marketing arm of ISRO for promotion and commercial exploitation of space products, technical consultancy services and transfer of technologies developed by ISRO.
  • New Space India Limited (NSIL) was set up in 2019 to scale up industry participation in Indian space programmes.
  • Over the years, ISRO has also built a strong association with the industry, particularly with Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Mishra Dhatu Nigam Limited and Bharat Electronics Limited and large private sector entities like Larsen and Toubro and Godrej.
  • As part of the AatmaNirbhar Bharat Special Economic Package, the government has recently decided to enhance private partnership in the space sector. It aims to encourage private investments in space technology development, exploration and capacity building. They will also be allowed to use ISRO facilities and other relevant assets to improve their capacities.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR INDIA IN SPACE COMMERCE:

  • Reliable history: ISRO has established itself as formidable figure in the international space forum, operating one of the most reliable and cost-effective launch platforms in the world. Hence, it can act as a foundation upon which India can explore its opportunities in commercialising space.
  • Indigenous capabilities: India has a reliable cadre of launch vehicles, ranging from the small satellite launch vehicle (SSLV) to the heavy duty GSLVs. It has also expanded researches into reusable launch vehicles and crew modules, which are vital for future interplanetary missions. 
  • Affordable technology: Indian space technology is one of the cheapest, yet most reliable technologies in the world. Thus, it offers an attractive market for customers, especially small nations, industries and universities.
  • Favourable demography: With the median age of 27 and around 900 million working-age population, India is a young and aspirational economy. The country has a strong population of technical educated English-speaking youth, who can potentially become the workforce for space-based industries across the world.  
  • Favourable government policies: The government has been following favourable investment policies, by progressively opened up sectors for foreign investment, easing up resolution process and codifying the multitude of labour, industrial laws.  

CHALLENGES FOR INDIA IN SPACE COMMERCIALIZATION:

  • Access to capital: There are but only few institutions in India capable of long-term capital lending, which is crucial for an industry to develop. Also, existing regulations such as the Remote Sensing Data Policy do not emphasis on attracting foreign investments into the sector.
  • Legislative barriers: Historically, space technology applications were viewed primarily for societal development and not for addressing strategic or security objectives. Hence, there is a tight government control over all space related areas. Also, there is no comprehensive or specific law regarding space exploration in India. This will be challenging for the new players. For e.g.: Until recently, due to regulations, private entities are unable to use ISRO’s available facilities for even testing their products.
  • Information barrier: The amount of information on space technologies available in the public sphere is still limited. Also, space related research and development is largely centred around the ISRO and not in the public domain.  Balancing between sharing knowledge and National security will be a challenge ahead of commercialisation.
  • Technological barriers: Many of the developments, such as manned missions and reusable vehicles, are still in the development phase. Also, India lacks Heavy-lift launch vehicles (Vehicles with payload capacity of 20-50 tonnes) vital for the launch of next generation heavy satellites and interplanetary missions.   

                                       

  • Lack of self-sustaining market: Commercial space sector is still a nascent field and the only dominant customer is the government. Hence, government involvement will continue to be a crucial factor for the success of the commercial exploits.
  • Post-COVID economic slowdown: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the world has gone into an economic slowdown. This inhibits investments into relatively new sectors such as commercial space industries.  

WAY FORWARD:

  • Today, the value of the global space industry is estimated to be $350 billion and is likely to exceed $550 billion by 2025. Despite ISRO’s impressive capabilities, India’s share is estimated at $7 billion.
  • Also, demand for space-based services in India is far greater than what ISRO can supply. Hence, Private sector investment is critical, for which a suitable policy environment needs to be created. These policies should have a vision to develop an ecosystem that will encourage and enable SMEs as well as entrepreneurs to take the next leap forward in the country to develop end-to-end products and services that are globally scalable.
  • The Government should break away and do only those things that industry cannot do. With the Ministry of Defence now setting up a Defence Space Agency and a Defence Space Research Organisation, ISRO should actively embrace an exclusively civilian identity.
  • To bring the ideas behind AatmaNirbhar Bharat to reality requires a major overhaul of government led Space activities. A space law for India has been long overdue. Such a law is needed to encourage a vibrant space industry within the country and facilitate India’s growing share in the global space economy.

PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q. ‘The time has come to view space exploration as an economy-boosting enterprise’. In this light, examine the prospects and challenges in commercialization of space activities in India?


Related Topics

WHY EXPLORE MARS?
FEB   19
Hayabusa 2 probe
DEC   1