Editorial Articles

Issue No 33, 13-19 November 2021

Global Space Race Where Does India Stand?

Rishikesh Kumar

Rwanda has filed with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) a proposal for a low earth orbit satellite constellation with 327320 satellites. Lying south of the equator in east-central Africa, Rwanda does not have a satellite industry, and it has built only two CubeSats to date. Then why did a small landlocked country seek ITU's permission to launch almost a third of a million satellites? Observers consider this as an attempt to establish that not all of Low Earth Orbit gets owned by America and allies. The U.N. body ITU plays a crucial role in allocating satellite orbits that are increasingly in demand from a large and growing number of services such as fixed, mobile, broadcasting, amateur, space research, and emergency telecommunications, meteorology, global positioning systems, environmental monitoring, and other communication services.

 Meanwhile, James Frederick Bridenstine, an American politician who served as the 13th Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), made an essential remark during the Senate Space and Science Subcommittee Hearing on 21 October. He said NASA has invited countries "that don't even have a space program to participate in Artemis in whatever small way they can participate." Artemis Program is a US-led international human spaceflight program under which NASA plans to return humans to the Moon, specifically the lunar south pole, by 2024. "Space is a tool of diplomacy for this country, and it's something that every country wants, and we can help provide it," Bridenstine said before the Senate. Besides Bridenstine, other speakers such as Patricia Sanders, head of NASA's Aerospace Safety and Advisory Panel, and Mike Gold, Executive Vice President for Civil Space and External Affairs Redwire Space, underscored the need for around $2 billion per year funding for projects in low earth orbit, such as the International Space Station (ISS), from the government. The ISS has been flying for more than 20 years and may stay operational into 2030 if Congress agrees to NASA's request to fund the station beyond the currently approved 2024. Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive vice president of Axiom Space, in response to a question on what happens if the ISS retires before a U.S. replacement is flying, notes that China already has a space station flying and American companies are "beginning to lose customers to China.'

The Chinese Space Station is in orbit, demonstrating significant progress and attracting international partners. The construction of the space station will be completed by the end of 2022. "Humanity is only at the beginning of understanding the immense economic, technological, and medicinal value of microgravity, and America is at risk of ceding these capabilities to our greatest competitor," Jim Bridenstine said on 21 October. The American concerns seem to be valid in the context of the number of launches China carried out this year. China recently completed its 39th space launch in 2021, tying with a historical record of 39 launches set in 2018 and 2020. The Chinese space station is likely to do "thousands of experiments" in microgravity and could accept request from countries unable to reach the international space station.

When world powers are accelerating their space ambitions, Space launches by Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has decreased dramatically. In 2021, ISRO carried out only two launches, while 2 in 2020 and 6 in 2019. The U.S. touched a maximum launch of 31 in 2018, while Russia had 29 launches in 2015. India's Economic Survey 2020- 21 data reveals China has outpaced all the countries in the world as it has been aggressively pushing its program to create newer technologies and diplomacy in the last few years.

Where does India stand?

China's space program began in 1956 with studies of placing a satellite into orbit, while India's program was initiated in the 1960s. Both the countries had started their program with an ambition to utilize the space for civilian purposes as it was application-driven, and policies of the two countries aimed toward helping their sizeable poor population. However, the gaps between the two countries widened in the late 1990s and early years of 21st century, with China increasing its expenditure on space, aiming to counter the U.S. in this arena. India’s Economic Survey 2020-21, presented before the Parliament in January this year, states that the U.S. spent ten times more than India in space technology, while China's expenditure was six times more. India's annual space expenditure is only around $1.8 billion, while China spent over $11 billion a year on its space program. The U.S. spent $19.5 billion on the space sector besides massive investment by private firms like Amazon and Elon Musk's SpaceX.

 To keep up with China in the space race, leaders of the Quad, comprising of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, agreed on 24 September 2021 that they would work on developing norms, guidelines, rules, and principles that would ensure the sustainable use of outer space.

 On 24 September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Joe Biden also agreed to finalize a "Space Situational Awareness Memorandum of Understanding by the end of 2021," facilitating data sharing and sharing of services to ensure long-term sustainability of outer space. Nevertheless, India has not made any announcement so far whether it will join the Artemis Accord of the U.S. or not. Artemis Accord, joined by 12 countries so far including Japan, Australia, UAE and the U.K., is an agreement for lunar exploration and beyond, with the participation of both international partners and commercial players.

 "Given the high costs of space exploration, there should be cooperation between various space agencies. India has had a good relationship with NASA and Russia's Glavkosmos and took both these agencies' help when needed. India should continue with this policy and should not treat space collaboration as a zero-sum game and should continue collaborations with both these agencies for its needs to use Space for Development and Exploration of Space for the common interest of humanity. Collaboration with one should not be seen as hostility to the other. India must worry about its interests and requirements," opines Professor Mayank Vahiya, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

"The issue is about managing planetary resources. Moon, Mars, etc., are a common heritage to mankind (CHM). We first need to have clarity on this issue before joining any such project, whether the Artemis Accord or China-led group. India should push for establishing a transparent and legally binding mechanism with CHM-focus," Ajey Lele, another space expert, believes.

Reforms Undertaken by India

The global space economy is currently valued at about $360 billion. ISRO's document suggests that India accounts for only about 2% of the space economy while the U.S. captures 40% of the total market share and the U.K. 7%. ISRO aims to increase its market share to 9% by 2030 with the strong participation of private players in the backdrop of progressive reforms.

 "Companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Arianespace have revolutionized the space sector by reducing costs and turnaround time, with innovation and advanced technology. In India, however, players within the private space industry have been limited to being vendors or suppliers to the government's space program," a document published by the ISRO in October 2021 reads.

 Aiming to attract more private players in the space sector, the Indian government has created the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (INSPACe) as a single-window, independent nodal agency. The government mandates the INSPACe to promote and enhance the role of private industry players in the space sector through handholding, support, and by providing them with a level playing field. It will also authorize the use of ISRO facilities by private companies, developing Indian satellite systems, and launching rockets/ vehicles developed by the private sector.

On 11 October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Indian Space Association (ISpA)- the premier industry association of space and satellite companies. ISpA will build global linkages for the Indian space industry to bring critical technology and investments into the country to create more high-skill jobs. The organisation is represented by Bharti Airtel, Larson & Toubro, Nelco (Tata Group), OneWeb, Mapmyindia, Walchandnagar Industries, and Alpha Design Technologies.

These private firms expect support from stable regulatory and policy environment and an exercise has already been initiated by the Department of Space to create new business-friendly policy frameworks in areas like remote-sensing, satellite communication, and launch policies.

 The government has authorised public sector company New Space India Ltd (NSIL) to act as the exclusive publicsector aggregator for both demand and supply of space assets/ services on a commercial basis, including imaging and communication transponders, launch services, etc. In its role as a demand aggregator, NSIL will acquire satellites, launch vehicles, and other assets developed by ISRO or the private industry. In its role as a supply aggregator, NSIL will commercialize assets and services like transponder capacity, imaging services, launch capacity, etc., on ISRO-developed satellites and launch vehicles.

 ISRO has also been identifying the science and exploration missions where the only the private sector can participate. Experts believe that this step will provide a sense of security to the private sector while making investment decisions in the space sector. The government will also provide some funding support if the private sector invests in selected areas.

 The government has already decided that technologies related to platforms such as Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) will be transferred to the private sector shortly. The government has categorically divided the role of the private and public sector with public sector laboratories in the space sector that will focus on research and development. At the same time, manufacturing and commercial activities will be done by business entities across both the public and private sectors. It will provide significant support to the Indian armed forces as the demand for specific space military assets has been increasing by the day in the backdrop of growing hostilities along the borders.

Following the reforms, several Indian space sector startups have raised venture capital for their planned projects. More than 40 space sector startups and small firms are currently involved in the Indian space segment.

With the lineup of ambitious space missions like Gaganyaan for 2022, Shukrayaan (Venus Mission) for 2025, and possibly an Indian Space Station, the private sector may play a significant role in distributing the burden of ISRO in the near future.

The Space Diplomacy

On 24 September, the Indian Space Research Organisation signed an implementing arrangement to develop a small satellite for Bhutan. ISRO had already placed GSAT-9, also dubbed the South Asia Satellite, in orbit in May 2017, providing space-enabled services to other South Asian countries. Besides assisting Asian neighbours through its remote sensing satellites, India has a program called UNAATI-UNispace Nano- satellite Assembly & Training– which offers twomonth training on Nano-Satellite building to international participants. Till now, ISRO has trained 59 officials of 33 countries in two batches under this programme.

ISRO has space cooperative documents at country and space agency levels with 59 countries and five multilateral bodies until June 2021. However, in the changed circumstances when serious concerns are being raised about overcrowding of lower earth orbit, and debris of older satellites, experts have advised India to play a more active role in formulating space regulations.

 India must vigorously join the effort to ensure that space is used for the betterment of mankind as a whole and must continue to ensure that the interests of less advanced nations are not compromised when planetary exploration becomes possible. India must stand firm in ensuring that the rich and powerful do not share the resources amongst themselves. Space resources must be used for the well-being of all humanity. India must take this moral stand and ensure that all laws are consistent with this objective.

(The author is a Delhi-based journalist covering defense, strategic, and economic affairs. He can be reached at rishikeshjourno @gmail.com)

 Views expressed are personal

Image Courtesy: ISRO