Chennai: What would have been an insipid first half of the calendar year 2020 for the Indian space agency turned a bit interesting towards the end, with the government announcing its decision to open up the sector to private participation.
At the start of 2020, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman and Secretary Department of Space K. Sivan said that the space agency was planning to have 25 launches — including Aditya-L1 satellite, Geo Imaging Satellite (GISAT-1), realisation of Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) or small rocket (carrying capacity 500 kg), navigation satellite with indigenous atomic clocks and Indian Data Relay Satellite System (IDRSS), and GSAT-20 satellite with electric propulsion.
Sivan also said India will embark on its third moon mission ‘Chandrayaan-3’ and attempt to land a lander on the lunar surface sometime in 2020-21.
All was going well for ISRO after the crashlanding of India’s moon lander Vikram on the lunar surface in 2019.
The year began well ISRO with the launch of the 3,357 kg communication satellite GSAT-30 by the European space agency Arianespace rocket Ariane 5 on January 17.
The ISRO also showcased its robot/half-humanoid — Vyommitra – which was part of its human space mission programme ‘Gaganyaan’.
The first setback of the year for ISRO came on March 4, when it had to call off the launch of GISAT-1, a day before its actual launch, owing to technical reasons.
The ISRO did not share any detail about the technical reasons, or the glitch, and its rectification since then. It is also not known when the satellite with a very good camera would be launched.
Then came the Covid-19 lockdown within and outside India that had its cascading impact on ISRO’s core plans like the realisation of SSLV, launch of GISAT-1, delay in the first test-flight of the rocket as part of Gaganyaan mission.
“During the lockdown, industries that were supplying components were not working. Our own officials were not able to attend office. Further travel to Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh for satellite launch by the officials were not possible due to the lockdown,” Sivan told IANS.
It is also not known when ISRO will be able to restart its satellite launch operations.
With coronavirus infection spreading fast in the county, ISRO also started work on developing a low-cost ventilator and sanitiser.
Meanwhile, two positive developments happened for ISRO — securing an Indian patent for its liquid cooling and heating garment (LCHG) suitable for space applications and for its method of manufacturing highland lunar soil simulant or simply lunar/moon soil.
On May 16, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that Indian private sector will be a co-traveller in India’s space-sector journey and a level-playing field will be provided for them in satellites, launches, and space-based services.
She also said that a predictable policy and regulatory environment will be provided to private players.
The future projects for planetary exploration, outer space travel and others are to be opened up for the private sector, adding there will be a liberal geo-spatial data policy for providing remote-sensing data to tech-entrepreneurs subject to various checks.
Welcoming the announcement, sectoral experts suggested various models for restructuring of ISRO and also urged the government to set up an independent regulator and also enact necessary legislation.
On June 24, the Union Cabinet decided to set up Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), making ISRO to focus on research and development (R&D) of new technologies, exploration missions, and human spaceflight programme.
Singh said the Union Cabinet led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to set up IN-SPACe to provide a level playing field for private companies to use Indian space infrastructure.
He also said the New Space India Limited (NSIL) will endeavour to re-orient space activities from a ‘supply driven’ model to ‘demand driven’ model, thereby ensuring optimum utilisation of the country’s space assets.
Former ISRO Chairman Madhavan Nair said there should be a national space law to define responsibilities and liabilities.
Pointing out the role envisaged for IN-SPACe and the demand for a sectoral regulator, when queried whether the proposed body could be converted into the space sector regulator, Sivan told IANS: “IN-SPACe could be turned into a regulatory body when the necessary laws and regulations are in place.”
“We are on the job of getting ready the Space Activities Bill. It will define the space activities, liabilities and other aspects,” he added.
As part of the reform process, new navigation policy is also being proposed. Suitable changes in the remote sensing data policy as well as SATCOM policy are on the anvil to align them to an open and inclusive space sector, said Sivan.
“The best is to establish an independent regulator — Space Regulatory Authority of India (SRAI) — which will create a level-playing field for many of the emerging players,” Narayan Prasad, Chief Operating Officer, satsearch, told IANS.
Establishing an independent regulator could allow a systematic review and reforms on a continuous basis rather than one-off announcements, Prasad said.
As per current scheme of things, IN-SPACe will have its own directorates for technical, legal, safety and security, monitoring as well as activities promotion for assessing the private sector’s needs and coordination of the activities.
IN-SPACe would have a board and representatives from industry, academia and the government, Sivan said.
“Initially, IN-SPACe will be manned by people from the existing space setup. Later, people from outside will be taken in. It will have its funds from the budgetary allocations for the DoS. The new body may not need big financial allocations,” Sivan remarked.
Stressing that the ISRO’s importance will not diminish with the entry of IN-SPACe, Sivan said all the existing centres – manufacturing, services, rocket launch centres – would continue to be with the ISRO.
“The ISRO will be involved in research and development in advanced technologies, human space missions. It will also share its technological expertise with the private parties. The proposed new body will not disturb the existing ones. It will be another autonomous body,” Sivan said.
Industry officials are hoping to see further steps being taken by the government regarding the space sector during the second half of 2020.
But as regards the satellite launches – domestic as well as foreign for a fee – by ISRO during the year depends on the spread or control of coronavirus and the resultant lockdown.