India and Outer Space: Issues & Challenges – Explained, pointwise

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The recent India-US joint statement issued in Washington highlighted plans to finalise a Space Situational Awareness Memorandum of Understanding that will help in sharing of data and services towards ensuring the long-term sustainability of outer space activities by the end of the year. When signed, the agreement with the US on SSA will be the first of its kind for India. Washington has agreements with more than two dozen countries on SSA.

Apart from that, the US and Indian delegations have also discussed a US initiative called the Artemis Accords — that seek to develop norms for activity in the Moon and other planetary objects. Though these collaborations improve India’s outer space capabilities, India is still not unleashed its full potential and lag behind many developed countries and China.

What is Space Situational Awareness (SSA)?

Space situational awareness (SSA) involves monitoring the movement of all objects — natural (meteors) and man-made (satellites) — and tracking space weather.

International cooperation on space situational awareness is similar to the agreements on maritime domain awareness — that facilitate sharing of information on a range of ocean metrics.

What is outer space?

Outer space, also simply called space, refers to the relatively empty regions of the universe outside the atmospheres of celestial bodies.

It is used to distinguish it from airspace (and terrestrial locations). Outer space begins about 100 km above the Earth (Kármán line), where the shell of air around our planet disappears. With no air to scatter sunlight and produce a blue sky, space appears as a black blanket dotted with stars.

Contrary to the popular understanding, outer space is not completely empty (i.e. a perfect vacuum) but contains a low density of particles, predominantly hydrogen and helium gases, as well as electromagnetic radiation, dust and cosmic rays.

The rationale behind India’s interest in outer space

Delhi’s new strategic interest in outer space is based on a recognition of the following parameters:

First is the centrality of emerging technologies in shaping the 21st-century global order.

The second is about the urgency of writing new rules for the road to peace and stability in outer space.

Third, in the future, outer space is going to be a location for lucrative business opportunities like space tourism, energy etc.

Fourth, space will gradually evolve into a critical factor in shaping the military balance of power on the earth. Hence, there is growing competition among states. For example, many countries including India have developed anti-Satellite(ASAT) missiles.

Read more: Successful anti­-satellite missile test puts India in an elite club

Fifth, the dramatic expansion of Chinese space capabilities: At present, China is investing heavily in space infrastructure designed to secure both economic and military advantages. This has given a new urgency for outer space cooperation. Democratic powers are looking to come together to secure their national interests as well as promote sustainable order in the skies above.

The new emphasis on space cooperation is also a part of a much larger technology agenda outlined by India and its Quad partners.

What is the present scenario of the global space industry?

The size of the global space economy has grown rapidly. It is estimated to be around $450 billion and is expected to grow to $1.4 trillion by the end of this decade.

Though India launched its space programme in the 1960s and has built impressive capabilities against great odds over the decades, it still remains a laggard in realising its full potential. At present, India has barely a 2% share of the $440 billion global industry.

New opportunities are emerging from innovative uses of space-based earth observation to manufacturing specialised products in gravity-free environments, space tourism, and possible mining of the Moon and other celestial bodies.

What are the challenges to India’s progress in outer space?

i). India’s space programme remains primarily a governmental enterprise. The rest of the world has moved to letting the private sector run even larger parts of the space programme. India is not an exception to state monopolies in the space sector in the 20th century.

The sophisticated nature of technologies involved, the military implications, and the international prestige associated with them meant that the state-led the space sector around the world.

Although the government did announce some reforms in encouraging private sector activity in 2020, the Department of Space and its agencies continue to exercise paternalistic control.

ii). There is also a lack of data around this rising sector. There is no way of gauging how many jobs are being created in the country in this field, the sector’s contribution to GDP, number of engineers employed, exports to other countries, amount of taxpayer money within the system, or even evidence that these things are improving, which will help with the policymaking.

iii). Lack of institutional support: Facilitated by a conducive ecosystem, the developed economies like US, China and Russia use the private sector for complex operations beyond manufacturing support, such as sending crew and supplies to the International Space Station. For instance, NASA awards a part of its annual budget to invest in and work with private players.

iv). There is no specific comprehensive legislation that governs the current ecosystem, and private players are hard-pressed for governmental funding as well as conducive policy options in the country.

v). Lack of expertise: Experts highlight that the Department of Space doesn’t have people specialising in space policy who can assist in the framing of space legislations in India. Even if private players can fly, they will have to be monitored centrally, as it’s done everywhere else. So these policy suggestions need to be assessed within the government by those who understand the funding, the sector and the industry. The department is not equipped to do that right now.

What is the way forward?

First, India needs space legislation that will provide a sustainable framework for space commerce, even though critics say a space bill under consideration by the government does not go far enough.

Second, encourage the involvement of the private sector. For instance, Three important private organisations (Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX) made huge investments in space projects and providing innovative ways to explore outer space.

Read more: Space tourism spinoffs

Third, India needs to come up with a sensible regulatory framework to catch up with the rapidly changing commercial dynamic in outer space.

Fourth, As commercial and military activity in outer space grows, the 20th-century agreements like the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty (1979) need reinforcement and renewal.


Though India has taken several steps, the scale of the challenges and opportunities in outer space demand more urgent and sweeping reform. This can only be mandated by the highest political level. Back in 2015, PM’s speech on the Indian Ocean focused national attention on maritime affairs. India could do with a similar intervention on outer space today.

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