The buzz in India’s Space sector seems to be driven Start ups, Corporates and big business dreams. The Modi Government’s plans to open up the sector to private players has started attracting considerable interest.
*. Three consortia led by HAL-L&T, BEL-Adani Group-BEML and BHEL have reportedly shown interest to build the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).
* The promising start ups like Bellatrix Aerospace, Skyroot Aerospace, Dhruva, Pixxel, Agnikul etc., have all unveiled ambitious plans.
* Mr Pawan Kumar Goenka, the Industry veteran from Mahindra Group has been made Chairman of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre(IN-SPACe) to promote private sector participation.
Why this spurt of interest?
What are the key reasons for the growing interest of the private sector? Among the several are three main factors: the huge market, budgetary constraints for the Department of Space (DoS) and third the joint ventures that are possible to accelerate technology developments and commercialisation.
If we look at the global scenario, except for China, which is pursuing an ambitious space programme with full government support, the US and other countries like France, Japan, Russia, Italy etc have a dominant presence of private industry. The commercial space market is estimated to be about $350 billion, with India’s share accounting for a meagre 3-4 percent.
Another big boost to space has come from billionaires like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Elon Musk of Tesla and Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic pumping in big bucks to both realise their personal space dreams and build opportunities for space tourism and inter planetary explorations in the future.
The NASA has outsourced several major projects to Space X of Elon Musk. This includes the trips to the International Space Station (ISS) to meet the demands. Accordingly, Space X transported some of the US cosmonauts and replenished supplies. Similarly, the NASA is also looking at a big partnership in its 2024 return trip to the Moon and later to the Mars with industry.
ISRO & Private Partnerships
Traditionally, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), has been enjoying a healthy partnership with the public, private and academia in its projects. But, with space turning very competitive and investment intensive, the cash-strapped Union government has decided to allow private sector to participate in a big way.
Over the decades, companies like L&T, Tatas, Godrej, Mahindras, Walchandnagar, HAL, Ananth Technologies, MTAR, Raghuvamshi, GMR Aero, Astra Microwave etc have been playing a key role in development of components and systems.
In a bold move, the DoS has decided to outsource its launchers -PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle), the GSLV-MK III ( Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) and also the SSLV (Small Satellite Launch Vehicle) totally from the private sector.
The PSLV has been the ‘Workhorse’ of India’s space launch programme for over two and half decades. The GSLV is the future and is critical in the country’s long term ambitions. While the PSLV launched smaller satellites into the lower earth orbit, the GSLV is capable of putting heavier and commercially more lucrative satellites into the Geostationary Orbit.
With the union Govt not increasing budgets, the ISRO has no option but to rope in private industry with bigger roles. Luckily, the partnership between industry and space departments has been quite smooth so far. The Pandemic too has impacted the ISRO’s pace. Further, it’s recent setbacks on Chandrayaan 2 and the GSLV launch of the EoS have not come at a good time.
Armed with the reforms brought in by the Govt to allow private players, the ISRO’s commercial arm–New Space India Limited (NSIL) has reached out to industry partners recently inviting bids to build the satellite launchers. The first initiative is to get 5-6 numbers of the PSLV. Incidentally, the existing PSLV built with ISRO expertise has done nearly 50 launches, putting over 300 satellites, including the record 104 in 2017.
Enter Adani, L&T etc
According to information, the NSIL has received three bids — HAL-L&T, BEL-Adani-BEML consortia and the BHEL, in response to the request for proposal (RFP) floated by it for end-to-end production of PSLV. Once, the process is completed and the deal finalised the agency will go in for the GSLV MK III.
Interestingly, the Adani Group, which has emerged as the top corporate to enter aviation, ports and very recently media business has been in the aerospace sector for a few years now. Adani Elbit Advanced Systems India Ltd, a joint venture between Adani Defence & Aerospace and Elbit Systems, Israel set up the first private UAV manufacturing complex at Adani Aerospace Park in Hyderabad to indigenise unmanned aerial platforms.
The only Hermes 900 production facility outside Israel was inaugurated in December 2018, it has started exporting Hermes 900 Unmanned Aerial Platform to international customers. According to Mr P A Praveen, Director, Aerospace & Defence, who drives the Aerospace sector from the Telangana State Govt, “the Aerospace Park has attracted both big players and small units with the incentives providing the right trigger”.
As per DoS plans, at a later stage, perhaps in mid 2022, the SSLV project would be taken up. SSLV is a three-stage all solid vehicle and has a capability to launch up to 500 kg satellite mass into 500 km low earth orbit (LEO) and 300 kg to Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO).
The Industrialisation of space activities is gaining momentum in India. About 40 space startups and industries are in consultation with ISRO for support related to various domains of space activity such as development of satellites, launch vehicles, develop applications and provide space-based services.
At a recent event, the ISRO Chairman, K Sivan said the Foreign Direct Investment policy in the space sector is also getting revised. It will open up huge avenues for foreign companies to invest in the country.
Start Ups & Space:
In early September, the DoS entered into a Framework MoU with two spacetech startups — Skyroot Aerospace and Agnikul Cosmos — for access to ISRO facilities and expertise towards the development and testing of subsystems/systems of space launch vehicles.
The Hyderabad-based, Skyroot Aerospace, which is building Vikram the Launch vehicle to put micro satellites into space has become the first start up to sign a Framework MoU with the ISRO on September 11. It will enable access to ISRO facilities and expertise towards the development and testing of subsystems/systems of Space Launch Vehicles.
Founded by three former ISRO employees, Pawan Kumar Chandana, Naga Bharath Daka and Vasudevan Gnanagandhi, Skyroot is financially backed by Mukesh Bansal and Ankit Nagori, co-founders of the Curefit health and fitness company. It has developed a family of Vikram boosters designed to be assembled and launched within 24 to 72 hours with minimal infrastructure.
Skyroot has also joined hands with Dhruva Space, another Hyderabad-based startup founded by Sanjay Nekkanti in November 2012. The objective is to work on joint space missions. Dhruv works on small satellites for the government, commercial, and academic markets. It is working with ISRO and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Somasekhar Mulugu, former Associate Editor & Chief of Bureau of The Hindu BusinessLine, is a well-known political, business and science writer and analyst based in Hyderabad