Leading the new space race

This is India’s moment, in its Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, to leapfrog in space technology and applications and aspire for global leadership in the space economy

Leading the new space race

By Talleen Kumar,

The inauguration of the headquarters of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe) at Bopal in Ahmedabad by the prime minister on June 10, 2022 is a momentous milestone in India’s journey from the Information Age to the Space Age, set in motion by the recent reforms initiated in the space sector. While IN-SPACe will act as a single-window nodal agency for promoting, permitting and overseeing space activities by the non-government/private entities (NGPEs), the New Space India Limited (NSIL) will act as the aggregator of user requirements and obtain commitments for operational launch vehicles, commercial launches, satellites and services for implementation on commercial considerations. ISRO will continue to carry out R&D and capacity building in the space domain through the development of new technologies and capabilities. These measures have opened the doors for enhanced participation of the private sector and start-ups and have put India on the path to create a robust, innovative, and globally competitive space ecosystem.

There is no doubt that the world has benefited greatly from space science and technology since 1957, when Sputnik was launched. Today, diverse aspects of our everyday life have been impacted by space technology and its applications. This is evident from more than 2000 spin-offs documented by NASA in the fields of computer technology, environment and agriculture, health and medicine, public safety, transportation, recreation, consumer goods, and industrial productivity. Some notable examples include memory foam; aerogel insulation; ultraviolet-resistant sunglasses; improved cloud computing; finding Individuals as part of disaster and emergency response (FINDER); medical devices that keeps patients alive while they wait for a heart transplant; critical insights into bone health that led to improved osteoporosis drugs; the technology underpinning CAT Scans and MRI machinery; advanced digital imaging; and translucent polycrystalline alumina, which is now used in invisible dental braces. Here is a powerful fact for those who wonder if the money spent on space might be better spent here on Earth: for each dollar invested in the Apollo programme of the 1960s, between $7 and $14 and was returned to the U.S. economy, according to a NASA report.

The contribution of India’s space programme to societal benefits, pride, prestige, regional leadership, and the country’s fight against hunger, poverty, and illiteracy is widely known. It has also helped fashion a national security space architecture. The strengths of India’s space programme, consolidated over the last six decades, differentiate it from others in three ways. Firstly, it is indigenous. Secondly, India is a global leader in IT and ITeS. Historically, the space industry has been a key starting point for technology creation. Today, the space sector is experiencing a huge degree of innovation, driven largely by ‘spin-in’ benefits from IT and other sectors. India’s strength in IT and ITeS will provide added impetus to this “spin-in” effect. Thirdly, India has a rapidly growing start-up ecosystem, which has seen 44 unicorns in the year 2021 with $38 billion in funding. This will accelerate the growth of a competitive, rapidly growing space start-up ecosystem and create jobs. India’s share is currently about 2% of the $447 billion global space economy, which has an infinite growth trajectory, thanks to rapid innovation, new technology, and influx of data from satellites in space. In-Space represents the next evolution of this frontier. With the reforms in place, the country is poised to capture a larger share of the global space economy, estimated to be $1 trillion by 2040. As space technology and business models evolve, the following six levers will be the key enablers in this journey:

One is the access to and use of non-strategic satellite data by the private entities and start-ups for societal and commercial applications in the form of dedicated national data and analytics portals like Bhuvan. Raw data can be curated, pre-processed, and made into datasets suitable for applications and direct use by the private sector and start-ups as also the various ministries and departments of the central and state governments for planning, monitoring, and decision-making in real-time, particularly in the areas of agriculture, health and medicine, education, sustainable development, environment, forest and climate change, blue economy, disaster management, advanced infrastructure monitoring (bridge displacements and road surface deformations) and resource management.

Two, leveraging the low earth orbit (LEO) low latency mega-constellations to supplement terrestrial 5G infrastructure. These advancements, made possible by reusable launch vehicles, miniaturisation of satellite technology and a dramatic reduction in launch costs from $10,000 per Kg to about $1,700 per Kg, will drive digital equity and inclusion by providing internet access to the unserved or under-served remote and isolated geographic areas on one hand while providing seamless broadband with increased bandwidth for internet of things, transportation and mobility, manufacturing, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and video, on the other.

Three, the creation of a sustainable pipeline of projects across a range of technology maturity levels through appropriate models of public private partnerships. The rapidly growing space economy will need the support of space infrastructure, which will go beyond fundamental launch and deployment services and expand into in-orbit services. By building digital infrastructure as a public good and allowing the private sector to innovate on the user interface, India registered 48 billion transactions in 2021 and is ranked first in digital payments transactions globally. In a short time of six years, UPI is registering transaction volumes of more than `8-10 lakh crore every month. Similarly, in the space sector, the government should continuously answer the challenges with respect to space infrastructure, which can catalyse the private sector and start-ups into making usable products that are intuitive and resonate with the common citizens. Special Purpose Vehicles owned and controlled by NSIL can first be created and de-risked for investment by the private sector by obtaining and housing all the required clearances and approvals in the SPVs through comprehensive project development. The SPVs can then be bid out transparently for investment by the private sector.

Four, the establishment of dedicated incubation centres for space tech start-ups to better support entrepreneurship and commercialisation of research and development, particularly in the areas of downstream business and application development.

Five, space situational awareness and management of space debris at a time when the number of satellites in orbit could triple in the next five years. With the deployment of mega-satellite constellations (Starlink, OneWeb, Kuiper etc.), orbital density is on the increase, and accumulating space debris, and rising levels of debris density are a matter of concern.

Six, the growth of the shared and virtualised space economy where Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Ground Station as a Service (GaaS), cloud services and Software as a Service (SaaS) will be game changers. This will provide the new space entrants flexibility, scalability, and speed to market with lower capital expenditure.

This is India’s moment, in its Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, to leapfrog in space technology and applications and aspire for global leadership in the space economy in the new age of space exploration.

(The author is Member (finance), Space Commission, Atomic Energy Commission and Earth Commission. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.)

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