IADB: Exactly a year back speaking at an International Space Conference on ‘Ushering the New Era for Indian Space Sector’, David Ziegler, Vice President, Worldwide Aerospace & Defense at Dassault Systems said that the Indian government and ISRO are on their way to set “Space Industry Renaissance”. He also predicted that the convergence of academia, research, and industry will accelerate technological development.
Speaking at the same conference Dr. K Sivan, ISRO Chairman said that the domestic and international space requirements have increased multifold, and thus private sectors must come forward to contribute. One year later though the process of robust reform has started, a lot needs to be done quickly to fulfil the prophecy of this ‘Renaissance’.
Today, the Indian Space Programme has reached a stage where it is standing at a crossroad and is overlooking a prospect of exponential growth. Indian private industry, especially the MSMEs will have a very crucial and central role in this transformation.
India’s space programme is more than five decades old, and the country today has come to be acknowledged as an established ‘Space Power’. India began its space journey in 1963 with humble beginnings, graduating in the 1980s to develop its renowned IRS (Indian Remote Sensing) and INSAT (Indian National Satellite System) satellites series.
Today its Space programme has matured considerably to even undertake interplanetary missions. Some of ISRO’s launch systems have earned the reputation of being amongst the most reliable and cost-effective solutions in the world and have attracted international customers.
In the initial years the Indian programme was focused on societal applications. However, dynamics of regional security has ensured concurrent focus towards use of this domain for enhancement of national security.
In today’s world, a nation’s development is contingent on the sustainable development of its various industries, with the private sector playing a major role. This holds true for the Space Industry too. Although several private sector companies have engaged with ISRO as suppliers and component manufacturers for many years now, they have never been given opportunity for end-to-end manufacturing of space systems. To address these issues few fresh initiatives have been taken by the Govt.
In June last year the Govt for the first time allowed participation of private companies in all domains of space activities from manufacture of satellites to its launch and managing the ground-based services.
The urgent need of a regulatory law was also felt, and the government has already initiated step towards providing this essential support by announcing the draft Space Activities Bill in 2017, which is currently under review. The bill aims to promote and regulate the space activities of India and aims to encourage private-sector participation under the guidance of the Department of Space (DoS).
The Govt also established a Public Sector Enterprise named New Space India Limited (NSIL) under the DoS in 2019. With the formation of New Space, many start-ups who are looking to exploit the opportunities in the growing global and Indian space markets have emerged within the Indian space ecosystem. NSIL is also trying to encourage the participation of private players in the various initiatives of ISRO. In the first dedicated mission of NSIL the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket of ISRO launched Brazil’s Amazonia-1 (an earth observation satellite) along with 18 other satellites.
The Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (INSPACe) was also established for incubating technology into private firms. The number of start-ups that came up in the space sector are now over 40 as per data of January 2021. Some of these companies have already tested their own engines and are in advanced stages of development of launch vehicles. The DoS is also working on SEED (Space Enterprise encouragement and development), a formal system to support start-ups and Micro, small and medium industries (MSMEs) in innovation, research & product development.
The Indian Space sector offers a few distinctive advantages like the potential of launching space vehicles at a much lower cost. It is now a well-known fact that the Mars Orbiter Mission was many times cheaper compared to other countries. Also having so far launched over 300 foreign satellites belonging to almost three dozen countries using its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, India has developed a trust in its space potential, globally.
As per Satellite Industry Association Report of 2020, the global space economy is currently valued at over US$ 360 billion. In comparison the Indian space economy is valued at US$ 7 billion which is a miniscule percentage considering the potential of India in this segment and signifies untapped potential that needs immediate harnessing. The Indian private industry including start-ups in the domain of space and satellite projects can very effectively complement the efforts of the government in this effort.
However, quite a few challenges stare at the prospects of India. The funds allocated for the sector are very less in comparison to major space powers. Absence of a clear legislative framework is another concern. As mentioned earlier though the draft Space Activities bill was introduced some time back in 2017, it hasn’t been passed yet, thus, leading to lack of robust mechanism of dispute settlement. This discourages private investment in the sector.
India can ill afford to delay the logical conclusion of the reform process that the Govt has started. Immediate focus should be given to set up an independent tribunal to adjudicate disputes among private space entities. Also, the passage of the Space Activities Bill should be an immediate national priority. This will give private players greater clarity and protection.
NSIL should also expand its scope beyond marketing ISRO’s technologies. It should find newer business opportunities within the country and globally to help expand the sector. While doing so it should encourage and aid start-ups of this sector to penetrate rural India and encourage youth to take up careers in space applications and sciences. Also, visibility of future projects of ISRO in a longer time frame will be essential for private players to plan their investments in Research and Development.
The Govt must allocate more funds in this sector with an eye on the untapped potential that could lead to huge returns of its investment. Private players should be encouraged to collaborate with established global players for whom India is a lucrative market. Also, management of big constellations of satellites should be a priority area looking at the potential of a future conflict that might arise to control the space assets.
The Indian journey so far in the field of Space technology has been inspirational. From a very modest beginning under the guidance of some world-renowned scientists who are leaders in this field. The time now is ripe to reap the dividend of all the hard work and go to the next level of growth. Policy reforms that have been initiated will need some more push for quick implementation so that the large private industry of the country can be pulled in to achieve the desired end state.