It’s win-win as India expands ‘space’ to accommodate private sector

M. Ramesh | | Updated on: Jun 25, 2020
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On Wednesday, Srinath Ravichandran heaved a cathartic sigh of relief that helped loosen the knot in his stomach. The CEO & co-founder of Chennai-based start-up Agnikul Cosmos had everything going right, at least directionally. The rocket his company is developing is evolving well, and only in March had the company raised ₹23 crore from pi Ventures.

But the knot in the stomach was about where Agnikul launch its rockets from. India’s space agency, ISRO, is the only one in the country which has (two) launch pads; unless ISRO agreed, Agnikul’s smart, 3D-printed rocket would only be an artefact.


Not that ISRO minded. Agnikul Cosmos has received considerable hand-holding by ISRO and its mentor is Padma Bhushan BV Perumal, a former ISRO Director. But ISRO couldn’t let the likes of Agnikul use its launch pads unless the Centre allowed it. In the meantime, the space agency’s two launch pads continued to be grossly under-utilised, standing jobless most of the time.

On Wednesday, the Union Cabinet cleared a space policy — “far reaching reforms”, the government calls it — which are “aimed at boosting private sector participation in the entire range of space activities.” That was when Ravichandran heaved that sigh of relief. The decks are cleared for Agnikul to use the Sriharikota space launch station of ISRO. The pressure is now on Agnikul to come up with its rocket.

The new space policy allows the private sector to make use of the various assets and technical capabilities of ISRO — for a fee, of course, which will go to NewSpace India Ltd, a PSU formed last year “to commercially exploit the products and services emanating from the Indian space programme.”

Multiple uses

‘Space’ has expanded massively in the last few years. Earlier, space was either for scientific research or you sent up a few satellites to bounce back communications signals to the earth or check the weather. Today, satellites are put to a variety of uses. Some of them are meant to aid agriculture by telling farmers about soil, water or even the health of their crop.

There is a company in Japan (Astro Live Experiences) which intends to send satellites to create meteor showers over cities, for celebration. There is another in the US (Celestis), whose satellites carry the remains of the dead either deep into space or around the earth, so as to give ‘them’ a feel of space that they couldn’t get when they were alive. Satellites are being built for synthesising proteins in space and to store data. And there are satellites meant to take pictures — today, for instance, experts are poring over dozens of satellite imagery to check on what is happening on the India-China border.

Some estimate that in the next five years about 5,000 satellites will be asking to be launched into space and some 130 rocket companies are building themselves up to launch the satellites.

Private sector involvement

Although ISRO has started its own ‘small satellite launch vehicles’, but there is scope and need to involve the private sector more. Up till now, companies like L&T, Godrej and Walchandnagar, have been restricted to making components for rockets.

Chaitanya Giri, a space scientist who is currently the Gateway House Fellow of Space and Ocean Studies Program, sees India’s space splitting into three distinct activities — classified work for defence (last year a Defence Space Agency was formed), space research work led by ISRO and commercial space activities by the private sector (the third could also join hands with the first).

“It is a magnificent opportunity for the private industry,” Giri told BusinessLine today, adding that the space reform now puts the onus on the private sector to come up with innovations and funding.

In the emerging structure, ISRO could focus on just research — doing the likes of Mangalyaan and Gaganyaan — leaving the rest to others, says Giri.

Vishesh Rajaram, Managing Partner at venture fund Speciale Invest, which has incidentally funded Agnikul Cosmos, believes that the potential for private sector and start-up participation is “limitless” because “we have seen founders looking to build solutions across the spectrum — engines, space propulsion, communication, space junk, etc.”

The government has created an Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), to “hand-hold, promote and guide the private industries in space activities through encouraging policies and a friendly regulatory environment.”

Ravichandran believes that “the presence of some authorisation protocol would provide clarity and provide answers to questions that are otherwise not very explicit.”

Big bucks business

In his recent paper on space, Giri notes that the global space business was worth $350 billion in 2018, expected to rise to $3.3 trillion by 2040. However, the value of India’s sales of space products and services is about $1 billion. This, he says, is because the 50-year-old ISRO was reluctant for the better part of its existence to look at space exploration, considering it to be “fantastic pursuit”.

The hope is that the space reforms announced yesterday would correct the situation. Earlier, there were just a few space-faring nations, but today countries like Luxembourg (for asteroid mining), UAE (building a Martian city by 2071) and New Zealand (satellite launching) are leading a new wave of space wannabes. China, of course, has giga-plans — it wants to mine $10 trillion worth of minerals from outside the earth.

If the entire sector was left only to ISRO, whose record in creation of intellectual property is poor, India would be left behind. There is no option but to get more people involved, including those in the universities.

The new space policy is expected to pave the way for it.

Published on June 25, 2020

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