The Indian space programme accomplished a landmark on Friday when Vikram S rocket lifted off from ISRO’s launch pad, generating huge excitement among space buffs. The launch made headlines because the rocket was privately made and it was a watershed event in India’s efforts to create a commercial space industry. The event marked the Indian private sector’s foray into the lucrative space launch market. The success of the venture could open doors for many others.
Realising the lack of private players in the sector and the country’s dependence on foreign players, the government in June 2020 approved the participation of private players in all sectors of space activity. Earlier, private sector was allowed only as vendors or suppliers. The government’s bet has started to pay off with the country’s space regulator receiving close to 40 proposals from private sector and academia for activities ranging from manufacturing launch vehicles to earth observation applications, according to the Economic Survey 2021-22.
Sensing the potential of the space industry, Sunil Bharti Mittal put his wealth and credibility behind broadband from space. The Tata Group has also revived their telecom ambitions by getting into satellite communication. Not just this, global tech giants have also come forward to help India chart its new space journey with the likes of Amazon Web Services (AWS) being interested in helping with data storage and cutting-edge solutions.
Vikram S: Powered by Indian start-ups
To say Friday was a historic day for Indian start-ups would be no exaggeration. Apart from entering history books as the first private rocket company from India to launch into space, the Hyderabad-based Skyroot Aerospace also showed that start-ups can be relied upon for future technologies and applications for space. Skyroot is now gearing up for the launch of their Vikram I orbital rocket which will deploy satellites into space next year.
Chennai-based start-up Agnikul Cosmos is also preparing to test launch its Agnibaan rocket from Sriharikota in December. That the government has confidence in the Indian start-ups and is willing to promote them is evident from the fact that nearly 100 start-ups have registered with the ISRO and are collaborating with it in various areas of the space programme. The government estimates that more than 20,000 small satellites will be launched in the next decade.
Giving start-ups a chance is also beneficial to the government as it can save on costs. The Indian government has been pushing to develop a private space industry to complement its state-run space programme known for its affordable launches and missions. Skyroot, which was started by Pawan Chandana and Bharath Daka, has set a target of cutting development costs by up to 90% versus existing platforms to launch small satellites. The company hopes to achieve that cost saving by using rockets that can be assembled in less than 72 hours with composite materials.
India has the world’s fifth-largest fleet of space companies with a total tally of over 350 private firms in the space sector. This is behind the US, UK, Canada and Germany. However, India ranks dismally on the global space economy at merely 3% which the government aims to rectify soon. The government, in fact, intends to more than triple this number by 2030. The government has also instituted the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre, a unit under ISRO with an aim to enable private companies to become independent players.
While companies such as Skyroot and Agnikul promise cost-efficiency as well as innovation, developing an ecosystem for private players will not be possible without ISRO’s generous help. This is not to say that ISRO has been withholding its resources. In fact, for this mission too, ISRO provided its expertise as well as its facilities to test Skyroot’s technologies. The role played by ISRO as a facilitator is a big shift which may be crucial to the success of future endeavours of private players.
India has been reluctant to allow private players in the space sector in the past. However, a big nudge for the country must have been the success of private sector across the world which brought enormous benefits. Also, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and high-profile initiatives have brought to light the growing importance of private actors in the space industry.
Other than government support, the burgeoning space sector also needs massive investments and capital. For this, the private space sector needs help to raise funds for future requirements. Potential investors must also consider funding space programmes to help this sector realise its full potential. In 2022, funding to private players in the space sector has jumped by a whopping 61.5% and soared to $108.52 million compared with $67.2 million in 2021.
The Indian space agency may also look at borrowing a leaf out of its US counterpart NASA’s playbook. NASA reserves a part of its budget for private rocket enterprises. In the US, private rocket ventures have had a head start over their counterparts in other nations. The foreign players will watch the collaboration between India’s premier space research institution and private players closely as it will be pivotal to the future of Indian projects in space.