The government on Wednesday approved the creation of a new organisation to ensure greater private participation in India’s space activities, a decision which it described as “historic”, and which Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman K Sivan said was part of an important set of reforms to open up the space sector and make space-based applications and services more widely accessible to everyone.
The new Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), which is expected to be functional within six months, will assess the needs and demands of private players, including educational and research institutions, and, explore ways to accommodate these requirements in consultation with ISRO. Existing ISRO infrastructure, both ground- and space-based, scientific and technical resources, and even data are planned to be made accessible to interested parties to enable them to carry out their space-related activities.
Why private participants
It is not that there is no private industry involvement in India’s space sector. In fact, a large part of manufacturing and fabrication of rockets and satellites now happens in the private sector. There is an increasing participation of research institutions as well. But as Sivan told this newspaper on Thursday, Indian industry had a barely three per cent share in a rapidly growing global space economy which was already worth at least $360 billion. Only two per cent of this market was for rocket and satellite launch services, which require fairly large infrastructure and heavy investment. The remaining 95 per cent related to satellite-based services, and ground-based systems.
Indian industry, however, is unable to compete, because till now its role has been mainly that of suppliers of components and sub-systems. Indian industries do not have the resources or the technology to undertake independent space projects of the kind that US companies such as SpaceX have been doing, or provide space-based services.
Additionally, the demand for space-based applications and services is growing even within India, and ISRO is unable to cater to this. The need for satellite data, imageries and space technology now cuts across sectors, from weather to agriculture to transport to urban development, and more. As Sivan told this newspaper, ISRO would have to be expanded 10 times the current level to meet all the demand that is arising.
At the same time, there were several Indian companies waiting for make use of these opportunities. Sivan said there were a few companies that were in the process of developing their own launch vehicles, the rockets like ISRO’s PSLV that carry the satellites and other payloads into space, and ISRO would like to help them do that. Right now, all launches from India happen on ISRO rockets, the different versions of PSLV and GSLV. Sivan said ISRO was ready to provide all its facilities to private players whose projects had been approved by IN-SPACe. Private companies, if they wanted, could even build their own launchpad within the Sriharikota launch station, and ISRO would provide the necessary land for that, he said.
IN-SPACe is supposed to be a facilitator, and also a regulator. It will act as an interface between ISRO and private parties, and assess how best to utilise India’s space resources and increase space-based activities.
How ISRO gains
There are two main reasons why enhanced private involvement in the space sector seems important. One is commercial, and the other strategic. Of course, there is need for greater dissemination of space technologies, better utilisation of space resources, and increased requirement of space-based services. And ISRO seems unable to satisfy this need on its own.
The private industry will also free up ISRO to concentrate on science, research and development, interplanetary exploration and strategic launches. Right now, too much of ISRO’s resources is consumed by routine activities that delay its more strategic objectives. There is no reason why ISRO alone should be launching weather or communication satellites. The world over, an increasing number of private players are taking over this activity for commercial benefits. ISRO, like NASA, is essentially a scientific organisation whose main objective is exploration of space and carrying out scientific missions. There are a number of ambitious space missions lined up in the coming years, including a mission to observe the Sun, a mission to the Moon, a human spaceflight, and then, possibly, a human landing on the Moon.
And it is not that private players will wean away the revenues that ISRO gets through commercial launches. As Sivan said, the space-based economy is expected to “explode” in the next few years, even in India, and there would be more than enough for all. In addition, ISRO can earn some money by making its facilities and data available to private players.
IN-SPACe is the second space organisation created by the government in the last two years. In the 2019 Budget, the government had announced the setting up of a New Space India Limited (NSIL), a public sector company that would serve as a marketing arm of ISRO. Its main purpose is to market the technologies developed by ISRO and bring it more clients that need space-based services.
That role, incidentally, was already being performed by Antrix Corporation, another PSU working under the Department of Space, and which still exists. It is still not very clear why there was a need for another organisation with overlapping function.
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On Wednesday, however, the government said it was redefining the role of NSIL so that it would have a demand-driven approach rather than the current supply-driven strategy. Essentially, what that means is that instead of just marketing what ISRO has to offer, NSIL would listen to the needs of the clients and ask ISRO to fulfil those. This change in NSIL’s role, Sivan said, was also part of the reforms that have been initiated in the space sector.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 26, 2020 under the title ‘In space, growing private role’.
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