The private sector thrust to India’s global space leadership

Skyroot Aerospace successfully launched India’s first private rocket, the Vikram-S, from the ISRO spaceport in Sriharikota in November 2022.

The private sector thrust to India’s global space leadership

By Pawan Kumar Chandana

Indian private space is bustling, and going by the signs, it can only intensify.

November 18 2022 could have been just another ordinary day, but it was not. India successfully launched its first private rocket to space; a feat illustrated by its maiden success against a string of global space launch failures in recent news, whichturns the spotlight on to the achievements of the nascent Indian private space, just into its fifth year since inception.

It all started in 2020, the year when the space sector was opened up for private participation. It set several things right, especially in terms of laying a clear vision for the future. One that features India among the top five spacefaring nations of the world. Today, India speaks of leadership in low-cost space launches, quantum leap in micro-satellites and small-lift launch vehicles, and its aspiration to be a global leader by 2030. The fillip that the policy level reforms the year 2020 started in the private aerospace industry was immense. And we now see a new mission quickly taking shape.

Skyroot Aerospace successfully launched India’s first private rocket, the Vikram-S, from the ISRO spaceport in Sriharikota in November 2022. And then, ISRO’s PSLV-C54 successfully placed Anand, the hyper spectral satellite of Pixxel, and Thybolt-1 and Thybolt-2, two radio communication nanosatellites of Dhruva Space in low-earth orbit in the same month. It is also believed that the more than 100M USD that has flowed in as capital into the private space sector of India in 2022, is set to triple in 2023. The zero-failure track of private space so far, speaks of the strides in capability-building, policy-formulation and capital-raising that can take the industry way ahead in 2023 and forward.

Today, space has become a top-of-mind action item and key consideration for various states in India, just like what the automobile and the IT sectors have seen in the previous decades. The private space sector has demonstrated its potential, and the mood is upbeat. Its base is expanding, with hundreds of startups entering the sector. That was not how things were just a few years back.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), established 54 years ago, has led the Indian space sector boldly and has proved its mettle over the decades, pivoting India’s pride among the spacefaring nations of the world, and keeping the emotions of around 1.42 billion Indians buoyant. But despite being one among a few spacefaring nations in the world, India accounts for only about 2% of the space economy, even as it accounts for close to a fifth of the world population.

With such a huge population backing, ready to consume downstream space services, and with a large economy teeming with businesses of all sizes, the opportunities for space are endless, and too big to be fulfilled by just one entity, even with the renowned capabilities and potential of ISRO.

On the other hand, India’s private space companies had limited role as vendors and suppliers to government till recently, even as the private sector has gained prominence as equitable developmental partners in many spacefaring countries. What the policy paradigm of 2020 attempted was to empower private entities within the Indian space sector to establish themselves as independent players capable of end-to-end space activities. And now we see fruition. In the next few years, the country could see this change contributing 5X growth in India’s share of the global space market.

While 2023 has opened up on an exciting note, it is not a bed of roses. The space sector value chain still cuts across the world, and the availability of components and services are still at a premium, vying to get back to pre-Covid normalcies. It never was easy business anyways. Look at the recent space launch failures by space companies like ABL Space Systems and Virgin Orbit. With a million reasons why a mission could fail, it is always good to be on top of what goes into it.

And to be on top of the game, there has to be intense capability and capacity building. Capacity building in the private space can help create a thriving ecosystem which can catapult India to a much higher orbit at a time when global geopolitical dynamics present opportunities. One such opportunity led to the first commercial launch of 36 OneWeb satellites by ISRO using its largest-ever launch vehicle LVM3, demonstrating to the world the commercial heavy-lift launch capability of India and opening up India’s prospects in a global market traditionally dominated by the US, Europe and Russia. It is significant especially as along with the northern hemisphere space farers, these days the southern hemisphere also becomes abuzz with countries like Australia giving funding boost to its private space industry by allocating 65M AUD in 2022. With new countries joining the fray, the global space industry is in a state of flux, and new patterns are bound to emerge. This is where India can find opportunity to define the new normal.

The Indian private space industry seems cut out for the job of backing the government vision. The capabilities being built by the private space sector bodes well with the leadership India holds as an economical player among spacefaring countries globally. And this will underpin the momentum that the sector will achieve in 2023 and much more over the decade.

Just look at what is in store for the private sector. There are over a hundred startups building space products and services which would help the domain grow exponentially in the near future. In 2023, Agnikul Cosmos plans to launch its first rocket and Bellatrix Aerospace its Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV) a.k.a ‘Space Taxi’ for satellites. And so are multiple private satellite companies. A few notable startups like Digantara, Galaxeye, Manastu Space, SatSure etc, have been quite busy with their projects covering a range of products and services from space situation awareness, unique satellite data sets, green propulsion, to satellite based decision analytics using AI and machine learning.

But ultimately, the real differentiator for the success of the private space industry lies in what it brings to the common man, which India has in hordes. For a nation where almost half the population lies outside broadband coverage, where almost 65% of population is based in rural areas, where, as per 2011 census, more than 54% of the population is engaged in agriculture and allied activities, where micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) sector continue to be a huge contributor to the economy making up about 30% of the country’s GDP, it is a big responsibility.

Space would have contributed every precious metal known to man, which would have come in via asteroids to earth. But the sublimity of space is accentuated only when it assists humans bridge the social, economic, scientific and entrepreneurial disparities and help promote collaboration and progress. As space launch services become affordable, on-demand, reliable and at-scale, economies are passed on to the downstream service players and then to the end-users.

That’s when government programs like Digital India could empower many more rural households by bringing them within broadband coverage. It can enable more rural farmers to access affordable technology support that helps them predict weather patterns more accurately, adopt more sustainable irrigation practices, and reduce wastage of resources. As rural education comes within the fold of digital classrooms, tele-medicine services transform rural healthcare services, and online marketplaces become accessible and affordable for rural and small-scale sellers, we will experience greater impetus in the balanced progress of the nation.

It is envisaged that in the next 5 to 10 years, the fall in space launch and satellite costs due primarily to innovation and competition will enable close to 50% of the world’s population get access to strong and reliable internet connectivity through space technologies provided by upcoming satellite constellations like Starlink and OneWeb.  This would also facilitate the earth to be monitored every moment using satellite remote sensing technologies, providing large amount of data that can make our lives better. Innovation in space technologies will soon enable human expansion to space and the prospects of utilization of vast resources in space will fuel the expansion of our civilization out onto the cosmos.

If it was steel that has built modern civilization, it will be space that will build the future of civilization. It’s definitely exciting times ahead, and soon. But for now, it is time to pay ode to the Indian private space sector for what it has achieved for the country in a short span, and much more that they would achieve in 2023 and beyond.

Author is CEO and Co-Founder of Skyroot Aerospace.

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First published on: 24-01-2023 at 14:01 IST