From just one in 2012 to over 100 in 2022, there has been a 100-fold increase in the number of private players in the country’s space tech sector in just a decade. Increasing demand, concerted government push, investor interest, along with a heritage of technological know-how, are leading to a rising interest in the industry, which till a few years ago was purely a government-run show.
“For a long time, India’s space industry was government-run; now, we observe the Government of India empowering privatisation of the sector,” said Sanjay Nekkanti, CEO, Dhruva Space, a space tech startup headquartered in Hyderabad specialising in small satellites. Nekkanti believes there are three factors contributing to the growth in participation of private firms in the space sector — policy, access to capital and growth in the general ecosystem to serve markets outside of India. “All this is fuelled by the tremendous growth of requirements for satellites globally. A key to commercial success in the space industry is the flight heritage of the systems. It helps that India is known for its thriving IT industry and its space programme. The current government has been very forthcoming in bringing about an interesting revolution where private players experience a level playing field in trying to support not just local requirements, but global demand as well,” he said. Dhruva Space’s two amateur radio communication nanosatellites were part of Isro’s PSLV C54 launch on Saturday.
A driving factor for Pawan Kumar Chandana and Naga Bharath Daka, co-founders of Skyroot Aerospace, the Hyderabad-headquartered space tech platform that recently created history by launching India’s first privately developed rocket, was strong market demand emerging from launching tens of thousands of commercial small satellites. “Over the years, we have seen satellites are getting smaller, with satellite operators increasingly requiring greater control over launch schedules at affordable costs that small launch vehicles can deliver,” they said.
The Skyroot rocket that reached a 89.5 km altitude in last week’s test launch used carbon-fibre components and 3D-printed parts, including the thrusters. That boosted efficiency by 30%, the company was quoted as saying by Reuters, cutting weight and procurement costs. Chandana and Daka claim the per-kilogram launch cost for a satellite can be brought down to nearly $10, from thousands of dollars currently, a stretch target that could upend the economics of space commerce and one that draws inspiration from their idol, Elon Musk, Reuters reported.
Awais Ahmed, CEO and founder of Pixxel, another Indian space tech startup that is building a constellation advanced earth imaging hyperspectral satellites to provide global, real-time and affordable satellite imagery, attributed the growth of private space players to “opening up of the space sector to private organisations by the government, availability of funding globally for space tech companies and global space company success stories”. Pixxel’s third hyperspectral satellite, Anand, was also launched through Isro’s PSLV rocket on Saturday.
As of 2020, India’s space sector was valued at $7 billion or 2% of the global space economy, valued at more than $370 billion, as per a report published by PwC India in 2020. The government opened the domestic space sector in June 2020 to the private sector with a target of growing India’s space economy to more than $50 billion over the next five to six years.
“We expect to see significant participation from the private sector, both in the sector’s upstream (launch services, satellite manufacturing, and satellite operations) and downstream segments (enterprises building communication and imaging-based products out of satellite data). In this regard, the government has been very supportive. It is great to see that the policies are being rolled out and institutional arrangements are set up rapidly,” said Skyroot Aerospace co-founder Daka, adding that initially, Indian players would be catering to predominantly international markets. “As costs of accessing space and associated solutions are reduced over time, we expect domestic demand to rise rapidly as new innovative solutions in areas of satellite broadband internet, internet of things, telecom backhauling, optical imagery, hyperspectral imagery, radar imagery, etc, are explored by downstream enterprises,” added Daka.
Inspiration from global players has been plenty. Elon Musk-founded Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX has already launched 52 rockets so far this year, surpassing its growing single-year record, the last of which was 31 set in 2021. As per reports, 12 more launches are planned before we say goodbye to this year. Apart from SpaceX, four other US rocket builders have successfully reached orbit in recent times. They are Rocket Lab, Richard Branson-owned Virgin Group’s Virgin Orbit, Astra, and the newest entrant Firefly, which is already taking orders of roughly $15 million per launch for its 95-foot-tall Alpha rocket, offering governments and satellite companies a medium-sized ride to space.
Several private Russian companies are also making attempts to produce ultra-light cargo rockets. These include Success Rockets (its first orbital test flights and commercial launches are planned for 2024) and S7 Space (as per reports, the company is currently searching for partners).
China is also emerging as a major player when it comes to the private space sector involved in rockets. Galactic Energy, a private rocket maker based in Beijing, carried out its fourth flight mission of its CERES 1 rocket earlier this month to deploy five Earth-observation satellites into orbit. There are several other private rocket companies in China but only Galactic Energy and i-Space, another Beijing-based start-up that launched two satellites into space in 2019, have succeeded in orbital missions.