The proposed plans pledge support to private players, including start-ups, thus unleashing their potential to engage and prosper in the space exploration industry.
The Indian government's active intervention in the space industry is a testimony to the urgency with which India is ready to tackle challenges and transform the sector into an active global leader rather than a passive bystander. As articulated by the Finance Minister: “Indian Space Research Organisation has brought India a lot of pride. However, the private sector is also doing a lot of work in the sector. Lot of start-ups have spent time in developing space related technologies, unfortunately because of the Indian regulations, they are unable to use ISRO's available facilities for even testing their products.”
The current efforts by the government will, thus, focus on creating a competitive playing field where new players can receive support from ISRO and flourish. The proposed plans pledge unprecedented support to private sector industries including start-ups, thus unleashing their potential to engage and prosper in the space exploration industry.
This is of course an enticing prospect for commercial players seeking to fair share of the lucrative space manufacturing pie in terms of satellites, propellant technologies and other areas. With a remarkable talent pool and some great start-ups already operating outside the ISRO ecosystem, the entry of the private sector can bring several advantages in terms of cost and access to the industry.
“From a modest beginning in the 1960s, India's space programme has grown steadily, achieving significant milestones. These include fabrication of satellites, space-launch vehicles, and a range of associated capabilities,” said former Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood, who is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
“Today, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)'s annual budget has crossed 10,000 crore ($1.45 billion), growing steadily from 6,000 crore five years ago. However, demand for space-based services in India is far greater than what ISRO can supply. Private sector investment is critical, for which a suitable policy environment needs to be created. There is a growing realisation that national legislation is needed to ensure overall growth of the space sector,” he wrote in a column for The Hindu, articulating the need for legislation to facilitate ISRO's partnership with industries and entrepreneurs.
While ISRO has gradually been opening up to the Indian private space sector in the past few years, that has often happened because it ran out of in-house capacity to address India's growing requirements in the space industry. From its initial glory days of civilian applications for remote-sensing, meteorology and communication, India's space sector has hugely evolved to include broadband services, space exploration, space-based navigation, defence and security applications.
Which is why the private space community is really enthused about the possibilities and the way forward for the industry in the post-Covid era.
“The announcement by the Finance Minister to open up the space sector for private industry is a fabulous first step and very much in the right direction,” Awais Ahmed, the 22-year-old founder of space-tech startup Pixxel, told the Indian Express in an interview last week. “It now needs to be seen how the government goes about in implementing its will to create a level playing field. The indications from the press conference are very reassuring. Particular references to utilising ISRO's world-class infrastructure (testing and manufacturing facilities) for the private sector can go a long way in saving unnecessary costs and making the industry more competitive,” said Ahmed, who along with co-founder Kshitij Khandelwal are building a constellation of 21 nano-satellites to provide global and affordable satellite imagery.
“This will mean that a lot of space-grade material manufacturing processes that are not in the country right now such as multilayer thermal insulations, solar panels and batteries that were majorly procured from abroad will now see localisation due to the emergence of more domestic space firms. More significantly, the announcement on future projects for planetary exploration is very important towards building India's very own Maxars, SpaceXs and Rocket Labs. On the whole, it is a great first step that needs to be followed up by an independent regulatory authority executing on the vision and making sure these landmark announcements are realized,” Ahmed said. Pixxel is the only startup from Asia to be selected for the Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator in Los Angeles, and aims to launch their satellite by September/October 2020. While space start-ups such as Pixxel have found a tentative foothold in India, the government's space apparatus has also worked with some of them in the recent past, as well as engaging with bigger private players.
*Tomorrow: how space start- ups are lending their expertise.