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Commercialization of the Indian Small Satellite Industry

In 2017, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) substantiated India’s place in the global satellite industry further by placing 104 satellites (including 103 nanosatellites) in the Earth’s’ orbit, in a single launch. This is a record number of satellites launched simultaneously, surpassing the preceding record of 37 satellites launched simultaneously by Russia in 2014.

For the ISRO, 2018 marked India’s 100th launch in the sky with the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C40 rocket. Moreover, with 32 launch missions planned for the calendar year 2019, the Indian space agency continues to mesmerize the world with its achievements in the global space industry.

These and related developments take the Indian space market into NewSpace, a word coined to refer to the commercialization of space industry driven by technological innovations and business opportunities. Initiatives such as the 2017 Space Activities Bill (currently in the parliament that opens opportunities for non-governmental/private sector in the Indian space industry), Make in India, Start-up-India, and the public-private collaborative approach of ISRO, has helped Indian space industry move towards commercialization. For example, in July 2018, the U.R. Rao Satellite Center (URSC) signed a three-year contract with Bharat Electronics, Tata Advanced Systems, and Alpha Design Technologies (along with its six consortium members) for manufacturing satellites.

Government Policies

Apart from the government policies and support, the commercialization of the Indian space industry is also driven by reduced satellite costs and rocket development costs — a consequence of ongoing technological advancements in the manufacturing process, material characteristics and miniaturization in electric and electronic components. This results in reduced operating cost and optimizes the Return on Investment (ROI). These factors make sense for business-wise for emerging companies who have the objective to capitalize on space utilization and uncover new opportunities. Currently, this new wave of companies is heralding around small satellites specifically, due to capabilities of small satellites to cater to wide applications such as communication, remote sensing, and technological demonstration.

Escalating demands for these applications in India is giving a boost to the small satellite market, especially for start-ups. The most notable Indian start-ups in small satellite development are Exseed Space and Astrome Technologies. Exseed Space was founded in May 2017 and launched a nano-satellite named ExseedSAT 1 in December 2018 to provide vital communication for radio amateurs. Astrome Technologies was founded in 2015 and is planning to launch a constellation of 200 mini satellites weighing 175kg each by 2021. The satellite constellation by Astrome Technologies will provide high-speed internet with 100 gigabytes per second capacity, with their patented millimeter (MM) wave technology.

Apart from these developments, commercial companies are also emerging in component manufacturing for small satellites. Bellatrix Aerospace, a start-up founded in 2016, is one such example. The company is focusing on the development of advanced electric propulsion thrusters that can be used in small satellites. Additionally, Exseed Space is looking at developing small satellite platforms wherein the primary focus will remain on assembly, integration, testing, and operation of satellites.

The success of these companies to establish their hold in the Indian space arena will enhance the trust of investors to venture in the Indian space industry and will also lead the government to formulate policies supporting the start-ups, in sync with a vision parallel to ISRO. Moreover, the competitive market created by these entrepreneurs will consequently result in the space development programs to be innovative, productive, and efficient, while also saving the operating cost for the Indian space agency.

Paradigm Shift

The paradigm shift in rising small satellite mega constellations is also creating a lucrative opportunity for the companies in the satellite launch service business. For example, Bellatrix Aerospace, a startup currently involved in development of electric propulsion system, is also aiming to develop orbital launch vehicles for satellites. Also, ANTRIX Corporation, a commercial arm of ISRO is already developing the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) dedicated to launch satellites weighing upto 700 Kilograms (kg). The SSLV can be manufactured in 72 hours and will be providing launch service at $20k to $30k per kg launch. Additionally, ISRO is developing a reusable launch vehicle, which is India’s first winged-body spacecraft and will enable low cost access to space.

The Indian space market exhibits significant growth opportunities for entrepreneurs in the current scenario. In order to retain the entrepreneur movement in the space industry, government and private investors need to play a critical role. The ISRO, for instance, is headed toward innovative pursuits by setting up business incubators, in order to act as a knowledge transfer company and further help the startups to grow under the supervision of ISRO.

However, to attain the benefits of the commercialization, a holistic approach boosted by favorable government policies, encouraging Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), developing investors’ confidence, and technological innovations, will be required. These initiatives will carry the capacity-building process forward in the Indian space market, and help gain international opportunities for startups taking the legacy of ISRO further. VS