Role of private sector in space: India’s rocket dreams ready for a lift-off

Source: The post is based on the article “INDIA’S ROCKET DREAMS READY FOR A LIFT-OFF” published in the Livemint on 18th January 2023.

Syllabus: GS 3 – Achievements of Indians in science & technology.

Relevance: About the role of the private sector in space.

News: Barring ISRO, no other organization was building satellites (or rockets) in India in 2008. The role of private players has increased manifold since then.

Though India has a long way to go to catch up with the likes of the US, Russia and China, it is an endeavour well begun.

How has the role of the private sector in space increased since then?

-Chennai’s SRM University has built the SRMSat. It was designed to address pollution by monitoring carbon dioxide and water vapour in the atmosphere.

Dhruva Space: The company launched Thybolt-1 and Thybolt-2. Now many foreign entities are in talks with Dhruva Space to build and launch their satellites. It is a part of India’s space odyssey 2.0.

Agnikul Cosmos: It works to capture a small satellite launch market. It is developing rockets fuelled by its patented semi-cryogenic engines and 3-D prints the rockets.

Digantara: The company wants to address the problem of space debris and has developed an in-orbit device that will track it. It also plans to launch a constellation of 40 satellites to gather data on space junk in low-earth orbit (LEO).

Pixxel: The company wants to build a constellation of 24 hyper spectral micro satellites (launched three demo satellites in 2022), which will act as an “MRI scanner” of Earth.

They will monitor deforestation, track air and water pollution, check forest biodiversity, as well as coastal and marine health apart from changes in the urban landscape.

Skyroot Aerospace: Recently, it launched Vikram-S, India’s first private rocket, from Isro’s launch facility at Sriharikota.

Airtel-backed OneWeb is in the process of launching 648 small satellites in LEO mode to provide its high-speed satellite internet service.

Read more: Year-End Review -2022: Department of Space
What led to an increased role of the private sector in space?

Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe): It is the regulatory entity facilitating the private sector’s participation in the space industry.

Ever since its operationalization, over 100 companies have come up in this sector and in 2022 they raised as much as $110 million, which is more than what private space players had raised cumulatively till 2021.

The success of SpaceX: With its Starlink satellites, SpaceX demonstrated the profit for private players.

Advantages of smaller satellites: Smaller satellites use industry-grade rather than space-grade components. Further, these smaller satellites are parked closer to earth, where radiation is lower and has a shorter lifespan. Moreover, while an INSAT class satellite will cost at least ₹400 crores, smaller satellites can be built for just ₹10 crores.

Above all, they do not need large launch vehicles such as the PSLV or GSLV, which cost ₹300 crore and ₹450 crores, respectively.

Note: According to European Space Agency data, anywhere between 70,000 to 100,000 satellites will be launched in the next 15 years and over 80% will be small satellites weighing less than 500 kg. 

What are the limiting factors in increasing the role of the private sector in space?

Funding: India’s space budget of $1.7 billion (in 2022) was minuscule compared to the US’s $30 billion and China’s $14 billion (which includes $1 billion from its private players).

Space assets: While the US had 1,650 space assets and China had 450, India’s, at last count, had less than 100.

Long neglect of the commercial space market: India’s share in the $440 billion global space market is just 2%. The government wants to increase this share to 10% through the private sector, which will be able to attract large-scale private capital.

What will be the role of ISRO if the role of the private sector in space is the future?

a) The private sector will rely on ISRO for infrastructure—be it launch facilities, tracking systems, technology transfers and capacity building, b) ISRO will focus on scientific missions such as focussing on deep-space missions, and putting an Indian in space through its Gaganyaan mission. There by passing on the commercial business to the private sector.

Note: ISRO has set up NewSpace India Ltd (NSIL) to handle the commercial end of the business. 

At present, India needs a space policy, which can be clear and liberal on private players.


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