Renewing India’s space vision: A necessity or luxury?

India is one of the very few developing countries that made an early investment into space technology and has sustained it over a period of five decades. The very nature of the beginning of the Indian space programme is fundamentally differs from some of its counterparts in outer space. The Indian government has typically taken a stand on utilisation of outer space for civilian benefits and development of a national space infrastructure that can independently serve the vision of facilitating the civilian benefit programmes. This particular stand has eventually created a vibrant space programme that has indigenously developed capabilities in space, launch and ground systems on the upstream and specific civilian programmes (resource monitoring, meteorology, disaster management, etc.) on the downstream. The success of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been unparalleled to some of its counterparts within the public sector in realising the national goals. With the decades of successful missions, the space budget in itself has seen compounding of investments by the government and to diversification of the programme into navigation, interplanetary exploration, and defence communications.

 

Space Entrepreneurship

The Indian space programme has revolved around the optimisation of cost, timeline and risk on returns from allocating of the resources from taxpayer money, which has led to the organisation of the Indian space programme to be based on one single organisation within the country creating institutions within the ecosystem to manage upstream and downstream activities together. This minimizes the risk in particular ways with the government driven ecosystem being able to absorb failures of particular missions (launch/spacecraft), but it also gives in little opportunity in scaling of upstream or downstream services to the market within and taking it to the international market. This is one of the primary reasons as to developed space faring nations investing into a strong structural foundation of scaling of upstream/downstream activities with the ability to reach markets beyond their border. This is also an excellent track to avoid circulation of taxpayer money within the country and in increasing the return on investment via added channels of commercial revenues in local and global markets whose foundations are initially built up over public money investment. Such an organisational structural foundation remains still missing within the Indian space programme.

The inherent challenges within the Indian space programme which now have contributions by 500 industries to the space programme is their heavily rely on orders within the country with only a handful of these industries being high up in the value chain and being able to deliver technology internationally. Some of the technologies may have spin-off or allied area supply opportunities (telecom, defence), however, the linearity for many of these vendors shall remain inherent to such an operational framework. With such an outlook, some of the key challenges to the current administrators of the space programme, bureaucrats and the political leadership are in commercialisation of the launch systems with the strong track record of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), scaling of downstream services in Geographical Information Systems (GIS), development of an industry ecosystem for the development of turn-key solutions in space among others. With the novel outlook of the space programme, with sizeable investments in development of next generation launchers, possible development of High Throughput Satellites (HTS), renewed efforts in space exploration, foundations getting laid for possible human space programme, the leadership within the space programme needs to renew the space vision in evolving an industry base which can lead the development of upstream and downstream activities on a turn-key basis for routine missions of remote sensing, telecommunications, navigation, launch of foreign satellites and development of commercial downstream applications in imagery, analytics, etc. Since each of these activities brings in different challenges, which are unique to their nature of activity, different models of engagement may need to be developed. However, there are several models across the globe for due consideration. These may range from several forms of Public Private Partnerships (PPP) to development of flagship programmes in technology transfer for turnkey solution development to local industry.

There is a need for renewing specific policies on industry engagement in the civilian programme, which can facilitate such a renewed effort. These may involve specific Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) development programmes with specific downstream application scaling effects, development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) for industries involved in Assembly, Integration and Testing (AIT) of launch vehicles and satellites among others. The Government of India has recently recognised space as a priority sector of its ‘Make in India’ campaign in attracting investments and facilitation of growth in key sectors of the country. Although the Government of India has recognised space as a priority sector in its ‘Make in India’ campaign, the impetus has been provided for the sector is rather vague and provides no particular vision except the current ISRO technology transfer and capabilities.[i]

 

Roadmap for Defence Space

The defence technology roadmap from the Department of Defence of the Government of India has published its space-based requirements in imaging, communication. These needs are currently serviced by using ISRO’s capacity and capability in building of space systems. The inherent question in the roadmap for the defence space in India is the need for consideration of graduating to a declared policy of active utilisation of space systems for national security. [ii]With the recent launch of a dedicated military communications satellite for the Indian navy built by ISRO, there is the further evidence of the growing need of the security forces showcased by the armed forces. The core issue remains in the Government of India taking a stance on either moving towards active usage of space for defence operations in imagery (IMAGINT), communications (ELINT, COMINT), navigation (NAVINT) among others and creating a transparent system of differentiating the civilian programme and the defence programme. Such a differentiation is already available within the country with the launch systems.The Government of India created separate programmes in solid rocket programme for missiles although the Satellite Launch Vehicle-3 (SLV) programme was operational via ISRO. This stand in differentiation of the development of launch systems and missile systems under civilian and defence programmes was inevitable due to the international implications of sanctions on the defence programme. One can argue that the same separation of space systems has not had enough consideration of policy makers due to the capacity of the satellites of dual use.

ISRO now has a fleet of satellite in ranging from passive remote sensing (high resolution PAN, multi/hyperspectral imaging, etc.) to active remote sensing (SAR), communications (INSAT series), Navigation (IRNSS) and other scientific missions. In the current model, there is the dual use of these satellites taken into effect for assistance to defence forces and operations. However, from a military operational perspective the effectiveness of such resource sharing has bearing on the responsiveness of the defence forces starting from the chain of command to acquiring data to dissemination of the data to the ground on one side, while several defence specific space operations such as ELINT, COMMINT, etc., gain no specific bearing with them not being under the mandate of the civilian space programme. The case for defence space command found some traction with the creation of the Integrated Space Cell by the Ministry of Defence in 2008.[iii] However, the lack of clarity on defence space vision and policies have had no further bearing on a fully functional defence space operations.

 

A Renewed Space Vision

Some of the critical areas for consideration for a case to renew the space vision include

  • Launch Systems: The encouragement to PPP models and greater participation of the industry may lead to India possibly capturing a larger portion of the international space launch market using its successful PSLV. At the same time, this shall allow ISRO to focus its efforts completely on the development and operationalization of its GSLV and other advanced launch vehicles.
  • Spacecraft Manufacturing: The development of spacecraft on a turnkey solution basis can open up the indigenous defence market with the ability of Indian entrepreneurs tapping into it. This shall also allow ISRO to focus on development of advanced missions based on complex payload characteristics. This shall also create enough room ISRO to have a smooth transition into aspects of scientific interplanetary exploration, human spaceflight among others. This also entails opportunities for Indian industry to utilise the low capital and operational environment in being globally competitive for development of satellites for the international market.
  • Spacecraft Operations: The case for an industry base for spacecraft operations becomes relevant once the spacecraft manufacturing and operationalization of the spacecraft on a turnkey basis becomes completely industry driven. This is also a case for outsourcing of spacecraft operations of non-Indian satellites over the Indian subcontinent region.
  • Geospatial Information Systems (GIS): Although the Indian industry has grown multiple folds in the IT sector and has gained international traction within the IT services sector, the advancement of GIS usage within India has been extremely limited. There seems to be a mismatch between creating a scaling effect of using upstream resources on the downstream. A study conducted by the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) on the GI usage and policies indicate some of the systemic issues.[iv] Further, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) audit of ISRO’s National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) indicates the lacking in downstream commercialisation of data by ISRO’s commercial wing Antrix Corporation.[v]
  • Commercial Space Missions: With the convergence of several technologies and the success of the Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) components, there are several cases of commercial space missions currently being pursued by various enterprises for space based data analytics and products (e.g. SkyBox Imaging, Planet Labs, Spire). An overall renewal of space vision shall potentially create an environment for such enterprising and novel services shall be made possible which otherwise cannot be fully pursued under a civilian services driven programme.
  • Establishment of a National Space Act: The Indian space programme currently operates using loosely defined space policies under several heads of services such as SatCom Policy, Remote Sensing Data Policy. A comprehensive national space legislation that shall create transparent regimes of liability, procedural aspects of engagement in activities in outer space that are market driven which may involve several issues of allocation of frequencies for satellite operations, data policies, IPR for private industry built industries need comprehensive inclusion in aiding the development of an investment and risk taking ecosystem for entrepreneurs.

 

Conclusion

The answer to the question of renewing India’s space vision is a necessity or luxury lies in the dynamics of the strategies that the present Government of India wants to pitch in the international community and transparency in ISRO’s own roadmap of allowing space for the Indian industry from graduating to providing turn-key solutions in space, launch systems and in facilitating scaling of downstream applications. Since the success of the space programme is acknowledged internationally, there is an immense opportunity for the Government to piggyback some of its comprehensive foreign policy, diplomacy drives attaching a pivot to the space programme. There is already evidence of such a push with the agreements made with several countries in the last 10 months and in steps such as inclusion of the foreign secretary in the space commission. Trust, opportunity, transparency and encouragement seem to be the key bringing about systemic changes within the space ecosystem. There is a need for leading Indian think tanks and institutions of repute to undertake systematic studies on connecting economics, policies and technology fronts within the space sector and set forward possible recommendations for implementation by the Department of Space. Renewal of India’s space vision lies in the ability of the strategy/decision makers to move the boundaries of engagement internally, internationally and in further consolidation of the local ecosystem, in efforts of creating hopes for establishment of a strong India Inc. brand in space industry globally.

 

References

[i] Make In India, Space, [www.makeinindia.com/sector/space/].

[ii] Ministry of Defence, Technology Perspective And Capability Roadmap, [http://mod.gov.in/writereaddata/TPCR13.pdf].

[iii] Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Synergies in Space: The Case for an Indian Aerospace Command, Issue Brief 59, October 2013, [http://www.observerindia.com/cms/export/orfonline/modules/issuebrief/attachments/issuebrief59_1381300223723.pdf]

[iv] Mukund Rao & K R Sridhara Murthi, Perspectives For a National GI Policy (including a national GI Policy draft), National Institute of Advanced Studies, September 2012 [http://eprints.nias.res.in:8081/339/].

[v] R. Ramachandran, Sensing Deficiency, Frontline, Volume 28 – Issue 10, pp.07-20, May, 2011 [http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2810/stories/20110520281011500.htm].

 

Author Profiles

Narayan Prasad is the co-founder of Dhruva Space; a Bengaluru based new space company established in 2012 with a vision to lead the turnkey satellite development industry in India.  He is an EGIDE scholar, Erasmus Mundus SpaceMaster graduate currently analysing technology, economic and policy models of India for a NewSpace revolution.

Prateep Basu is an Analyst at Northern Sky Research with previous positions at Indian Space Research Organisation, Antrix Corporation. He is an International Space University and Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology graduate who is working extensively on development of globally scalable space enterprise SME models out of India.

 

Notice

This article was prepared authors in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employers.