For close to six decades, it was the government – namely, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), and the Department of Space – that charted the country’s path in this sector. But ask its space mavens and they’d tell you that India is today ready to take the leap to the next level. That’s thanks to the realisation that the journey forward could not be completed without wider participation, and the resultant decision, taken in the middle of 2020, to open up the space sector to private players.
And now, with scores of homegrown firms in tow, India is looking to up its share of the $400 million global space market from the current 2-3% to double digits. The pivot did not come overnight. Isro chairman S Somanath explains it using the example of the domestic semiconductor chip industry. “Who do we blame today? We’ll be blamed in the future for the actions we didn’t take,” he says, pointing to India’s lack of expertise in making microchips. But space is different, he argues. “As there were men and women to envision, support and create it, we can talk about opening up the sector and expanding space enterprise,” he says.
With a view to unleashing domestic capabilities, the Centre set up IN-SPACe (Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre) while the Union Cabinet cleared the new Space Policy this April. But credit must also go to industry for seizing the moment. While Isro for decades has had a large vendor base, startups are now changing the space landscape in India and have shown potential to make waves globally along with a host of other non-governmental entities (NGEs).
Till June, IN-SPACe – the agency responsible for authorising and promoting private firms and entities in the space sector – had more than 1,550 NGE registrations, including 493 startups and more than 300 other units with many hundreds more seeking to join the domestic space bandwagon.
A key development in this area was the contract bagged by the HAL-L&T consortium to manufacture five PSLV rockets, the formal contract – worth around Rs 860 crore – for which was signed in September last year. Already, there are propitious signs. As Somanath told TOI: “As per the contract, they (HAL-L&T) were to supply the first PSLV in 24 months. But we are now confident of that happening ahead of schedule. The first rocket may fly as early as in March 2024. ”
Days ahead of the Chandrayaan-3 launch came another major development: IN-SPACe announced on June 11 that it was ready to share the technology for SSLV rockets with private players. IN-SPACe chairman Pawan Goenka said the first-of-its-kind transfer of technology (ToT) was “a significant milestone for the Indian space sector”. “Unlike PSLV, where a manufacturing contract was awarded to a consortium, in the case of SSLV, the launch vehicle is being entirely offered to private industry,” he said. The recipient of the ToT would be able to grow the small satellite segment in a big way, paving the way for India to become the global hub for such launches.
Although it’s hard to ignore the excitement and glamour of rocket launches, not everything that’s key to space missions is related to rockets. From ToT deals to new patents in critical technologies, Indian startups are involved in various projects, not to mention indigenous product development and innovative solutions using space data.
Companies like Bellatrix and Pixxel had signed MoUs with Isro in 2021 while also working closely with IN-SPACe.
In the last few months, several tests have been completed that validated key technologies built by Indian firms. Some have even begun operations. “Daring plans of resilient NGEs and startups exemplify the aspirations of the vibrant and thriving Indian space sector. The quest for innovation by brilliant minds adds value to space activities. The synergy between the stakeholders fosters technological advancements and a myriad of opportunities,” Somanath told the G20 Space Economy Leaders Meeting in Bengaluru on July 6.
A look at space moves being made by some Indian startups
The Hyderabad-based startup became the ﬁrst in India to launch a rocket — Vikram-S, a small, single-stage launch vehicle — and is gearing up for the launch of a larger variant, Vikram-1. “We’ve completed the manufacturing of our stage-1 casing. We are aiming to get the vehicle launchready by the end of this year,” said Naga Bharath Daka, co-founder and COO of the company that has so far raised $68 million in funding.
This Chennai startup is working on the complex cryogenic technology (pictured are its 3D printed rocket and cryogenic pump) for its launch vehicle. It has already set up India’s ﬁrst launchpad and control centre designed and operated by a private player — the Agnikul launchpad and Agnikul mission control centre. Its CEO Srinath Ravichandran said they have raised $35 million and “are working on one or two last sets of tests before we get into the ﬁnal mission readiness reviews”. Ravichandran is conﬁdent about accomplishing the launch this year, “maybe in the next couple of months”.
This Bengaluru-based startup has opened a new facility to expedite the prototyping and rollout of new models. It will supplement its testing lab that was incubated at IISc. It is gearing up to build a $76-million R&D centre and manufacturing factory for space taxis (orbital transfer vehicles or OTVs) and propulsion systems for rockets and satellites near the Kempegowda International Airport (KIA). It has already launched one satellite and has more in the pipeline and has raised around $11 million so far.
Also based in Bengaluru, it is a space situational awareness (SSA) ﬁrm that is building a Space-Mission Assurance Platform (Space-MAP) — or a Google Maps for space — and has raised $12.6 million so far. It has already launched satellites (photo right) to understand space weather and is getting ready for launching the ﬁrst of its SSA satellites, which “should happen this year”, said its CEO Anirudh Sharma.