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Editorial Articles


Volume-8, 4-10 July 2020

Opening Up the Space Sector

Dr. B R Guruprasad

The Union Cabinet on June 24 approved significant reforms in the country's space sector.  This is in line with the long-term vision of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to transform India and make the country self-reliant and technologically advanced 'Atmanirbhar Bhaarat', which he spelt out during his address to the nation on May 12, 2020. These reforms will boost private sector participation in the country's space programme. It will receive new energy and dynamism to help the country leapfrog to the next stages of space activities. It is hoped that these reforms will make spacebased applications and services more widely accessible to everyone in the country.

Historic Decision

The first indication of this historic initiative on structural reforms had actually come more than a month earlier on May 16 when the Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that eight key sectors of the economy including coal production and exploration, defence production, space and atomic energy would see an increased participation from private entities.

The Finance Minister said, the Indian private sector would be a co-traveller in India's space journey.  As per the new government initiative, the private sector would be allowed to use Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) facilities and other assets to improve their capacities.

More importantly, the Minister had assured that the government would provide a predictable policy and regulatory environment to private players.  It was also disclosed that future projects for planetary exploration and outer space travel would be opened up for private entities. Till now, ISRO, which is a government organisation, has exclusively led, planned and conducted the country's activities concerning space exploration and satellite launches.

This important initiative of the government to bring in structural reforms is revolutionary indeed and it principally aims to significantly enhance private sector participation in the entire range of the country's space activities. This decision would not only result in an accelerated growth of space sector but will enable Indian Industry to become an important player in the global space economy as well. It emphasised that this decision would open up an opportunity for large-scale employment in the technology sector besides making India a Global technology powerhouse.

In the past, space sector has played a major catalytic role in the country's technological advancement, at the same time facilitating the expansion of our Industrial base. It is hoped that the proposed reforms would further enhance the socio-economic use of space assets like satellites and activities like satellite building and the utilisation of satellites for such important tasks like communications, earth observation and navigation.

IN-SPACe: The Facilitator

Dr. Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office heading the Department of Space functions, announced on June 24 that for effectively implementing these reforms, the government has recently created Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (IN-SPACe) to provide 'a level field' for private companies to use Indian space infrastructure. The government wants to give a level playing field to all private players.  Dr Singh also added that another important function of IN-SPACe is to hand-hold, promote and guide private industries in space activities through encouraging policies and a friendly regulatory environment.

 

As the facilitating entity, INSPACe will work on the mechanism for ISRO's engagement with private industries to meet their demands in the country's space programme. It will also assess the needs and demands of private players besides exploring ways to accommodate these requirements in consultation with ISRO. This autonomous body will also broadly lay the road for private companies to take up research and development of space missions including rockets and satellites.

 

As part of the reforms, existing ground- and space-based infrastructure of ISRO, its scientific and technical resources and data are planned to be made accessible to interested parties to enable them to carry out their space-related activities. Thus, provision of Government's careful support and guidance to industries during this crucial period of change looks secure.

 

A day after the cabinet approval of structural reforms, Dr K Sivan, Chairman of ISRO, welcomed the Government's decision and felt that it would put India in a new league.  Dr Sivan added that Department of Space would promote private sector space activities to enable it to provide end- to- end space services, including building and launching of rockets and satellites as well as providing space-based services on a commercial basis.

 

The Rationale

Dr Sivan said, India is amongst a handful of countries with advanced space technology. Space sector could play a significant role in boosting industrial base of India. The government had decided to implement reforms to leverage ISRO's achievement by opening space sector for private enterprises.  As part of longer socio-economic reforms, space reforms would improve access to space-based services for India's development. He underscored the importance of these far-reaching reforms and said they would put India in a league of few space faring countries with efficient promotional and authorisation mechanism for private sector space activities.

 

Additionally, the demand for space-based applications and services was growing with in India, and ISRO was unable to cater to this. The need for satellite data, imageries and space technology is felt essential in various domains, from agriculture to weather forecasting to transport to urban development. This raising demand required immense expansion of ISRO.

 

There are a few companies in the process of developing their own launch vehicles that carry the satellites and other payloads into space that ISRO would like to help. Right now, all launches from India happen on ISRO launch vehicles like PSLV and GSLV. ISRO was ready to provide its facilities to private players whose projects had been approved by IN-SPACe.

 

Thus, IN-SPACe will function as a facilitator and also a regulator. It will act as an interface between ISRO and private parties, and will assess as how best to utilise India's space resources and increase space-based activities.  There are sound commercial reasons for providing importance to the private involvement in the space sector.

 

The ISRO chairman also said space-based economy would significantly expand in the coming years globally as well as in India thereby benefitting private players as well as ISRO. Besides, ISRO would get revenues by making its facilities and data available to private industry.

 

Another reason is that the private industry will also free up ISRO to concentrate on science, research and development, interplanetary exploration and strategic launches. As of now, much of ISRO's resources are utilised for routine activities and this is said to delay its more strategic objectives. Thus, there is no reason as to why ISRO alone should conduct routine launch of operational satellites like communication, weather and navigation satellites, the Government feels.

 

Globally, an increasing number of private players are taking over this activity for commercial benefits. ISRO is principally a scientific organisation whose main objective is exploration of space. In this regard, a number of promising space missions are in various stages of progress, including Aditya Mission to observe the Sun, Chandrayaan 3 Mission to the Moon, Indian human spaceflight programme Gaganyaan.

 

India as a Space power

India is considered as a major space faring nation today along with the United States of America, Russia, China, Japan and Europe.  During its six decade long space endeavour, India has acquired the end- toend capability to design, develop, build, test, and more importantly launch satellites as well as to manage them in orbit and utilise them for various essential tasks.  Today, indigenously built and launched satellites are an integral part of our national infrastructure. 

 

 

Besides, over the past two decades, the country has provided many space-based services globally.  These include launch of satellites, building of satellites for international customers, leasing of communication transponders and provision of remote sensing satellite data.  In this regard, the successful launch of 101 customer satellites and three of its own satellites (totalling a whopping 104 satellites) in a single launch of its workhorse launch vehicle PSLV in February 2017 enabled India to achieve worldwide fame. 

 

Globally, private companies providing a variety of services like satellite building and launching have played a major role in the space programmes of the United States, Europe and Japan.  The recent successful launch of Crew Dragon spacecraft with two NASA astronauts on May 31, 2020 (as per Indian Standard Time) signified the beginning of a new era in space exploration since the Crew Dragon capsule was both built and launched by the private American company Space X.  This was the first time such a development had occurred in the domain of human spaceflight and underscored the enhanced role of private sector in the American space programme.

 

Today, leading space-faring nations such as the US, European Space Agency and Japan have been encouraging private companies to play an enhanced role in their space programmes. But, the Indian space programme has till now kept its principal activities within ISRO while the manufacture of components, parts and subsystems for rockets and satellites is outsourced to private companies.

 

Contribution of Industry

Nevertheless, involvement of industry, both in public as wells private sector was consciously encouraged in the Indian space programme right from the beginning and several hundred domestic industrial houses large, medium and small - have made notable contributions to our space programme.  It is interesting to note that material for Rohini sounding rocket casing and propellants were sourced from the nascent Indian industry during the late 1960s itself.  Later, as the experimental era of the Indian space programme began in the 1970s, Indian industry began supplying components and parts to the Indian experimental launch vehicle and satellite programmes. 

 

Then, during the 1980s, the contribution of Indian industry took a great leap when ISRO, in partnership mainly with Midhani and Rourkela Steel Plant as well as Larsen and Tubro and Walchandnagar industries, successfully realised the 'Maraging steel'(a special steel alloy) casing for the first stage of India's maiden operational launch vehicle PSLV.  Similarly, Godrej and Boyce as well as MTAR significantly contributed to the liquid second stage of India's workhorse launch vehicle PSLV. 

 

Besides, the Indian industry has made significant contributions to satellite integration and testing as well as for the essential ground infrastructure for satellite launch as well as satellite and planetary spacecraft tracking.  With time, the participation of domestic industry in the Indian space programme has progressively been enhanced. Today, a large part of manufacturing and fabrication of Indian rockets and satellites now occurs in the private sector. The role of research institutions of the country in the Indian space programme is also important in the past and is on the increase.

 

Redefining the role of NSIL

In March 2019, the Government created 'New Space India Limited (NSIL)' to commercially exploit the products and services emanating from the country's space programme.   Thus, NSIL came up as an assisting body to ISRO to facilitate private participation in its programmes. As part of the recent reforms, the government intends to direct NSIL, a Public Sector Enterprise, to endeavour to re-orient space activities from a 'supply driven' model to a 'demand driven' model.  It signifies that NSIL would now give importance to the needs of clients and concentrates on fulfilling those through ISRO rather than marketing ISRO's offer, as it did in the past. In the government's opinion, this would ensure optimum utilization of the country's space assets.

 

ISRO chairman Dr Sivan said, 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 and the remaining 95 per cent related to satellite-based services, and ground-based systems.

 

Resolute action to further exploit space capabilities in this context, by instituting major reforms without much delay to reorganise the country's space sector, the government has begun adapting to the unfolding changes in the global space business.  By giving up its dominant role in the space sector, the government has quickly moved towards the new model of India's space activity after being aware of the role of private sector today and efforts of other space faring nations. This would facilitate a regulatory environment that encourages a more dynamic role for the private sector and promotes innovation. With the timely implementation of the recently announced reforms in the country's space sector in earnest, there can be optimism on private players getting equal opportunity and entering the domain of space with new energy and dynamism to undertake various challenging space endeavours.  This will certainly help the country to vault to the next stage of space activities and scale much greater heights in the realm of space.

 

(The author is a Science Writer and Broadcaster)

Views expressed are personal Image Courtesy : Google