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PSLV
An Indian PSLV on the pad before its February 28 launch carrying a Brazilian satellite and 18 secondary payloads. (credit: ISRO)

India’s foray into the commercial space market


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On Sunday, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) successfully placed Brazil’s Amazônia-1 satellite, weighing 637 kilograms, into its desired orbit. This is the first Earth observation satellite developed entirely by Brazil. The PSLV also carried 18 secondary payloads placed a different orbit, including two from India. Satish Dhawan Sat (SD SAT) was developed by Space Kidz India to study space weather and radiation, while UNITYsat was the combination of three satellites by students from engineering and technology institutes. (A third Indian satellite, SinduNetra, was launched through a separate commercial arrangement, along with the SAI-1 NanoConnect-2 and 12 SpaceBEE satellites from the US on the rocket.)

Unfortunately, after all these years privatization has not happened in a big way, no technology transfer has happened with the private entites, and it looks unlikely that in near future any Indian private company will be undertaking commercial launches.

This mission was the first dedicated PSLV mission for ISRO’s commercial arm, NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), under a commercial arrangement with US-based Spaceflight Inc. NSIL was established in March 2019 to commercially exploit the products and services derived from the Indian space program and is a commercial arm of ISRO. This is the second commercial arm of ISRO, the first being the Antrix Corporation Limited, which was established in 1992.

The PSLV-C51 mission could be evaluated at three levels for its relevance. The first is in the context of commercial significance. The second is its relevance for India’s bilateral and multilateral arrangements in the space domain. The third is to view it amid the backdrop of the broader geoeconomics and geopolitics of space.

ISRO launched its first foreign satellite in 1999. As of Sunday’s launch, ISRO has launched a total of 342 satellites for foreign customers. Most of the commercial launches undertaken by ISRO so far have been for small satellites, typically those in the nanosatellite category. For ISRO’s commercial launches, in many cases the main payload was an Indian satellite and satellites launched for private customers were “piggybacks,” essentially using excess capacity of the launch vehicle.

The following table gives the details of exclusive missions undertaken for foreign customers:

Date Vehicle Mission Payload Country
23 Apr 2007 PSLV C8 352kg Italy
21 Jan 2008 PSLV C10 295 kg Israel
30 Jun 2014 PSLV C23 765 kg France, Germany, Canada, Singapore
10 July 2015 PSLV C28 1439 kg United Kingdom
16 Dec 2015 PSLV C29 622 kg Singapore
16 Sep 2018 PSLV C42 889 kg United Kingdom
28 Feb 2021 PSLV C51 < 637 kg Brazil, India, USA

This table indicates shows that only seven missions have launched specifically for commercial reasons and only to low Earth orbit, with moderate payloads. It is fully understandable that ISRO has priorities for its launches and only after the nation’s basic needs for satellite launches gets fulfilled can offer a launch for commercial reasons. Unfortunately, after all these years privatization has not happened in a big way, no technology transfer has happened with the private entites, and it looks unlikely that in near future any Indian private company will be undertaking commercial launches. There have been some talks about commercialization of PSLV over last few years, but little is known about those plans.

BRICS states together can capture a major chunk of global space market if they decide to work together.

Recently, ISRO has formulated guidelines for offering its satellite images to Indian private firms for mapping services. Also, they are making available their testing facilities for Indian startups, which is a welcome change. The Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), developed for launching small satellites (up to 500 kilograms) to LEO, has been delayed, perhaps because of the COVID-19 crisis. The first SSLV launch could happen in the next few months. But if ISRO has to evolve in the satellite launch market, then they really need to leapfrog.

ISRO’s launch of Brazil’s Amazônia-1 satellite is the result of an agreement signed by India and Brazil in 2014 at the sixth BRICS Summit, which also included an agreement about setting up a Brazilian earth station to receive data from the Indian satellites. BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) is a multilateral arrangement of five major emerging economies. Since 2009, the governments of the BRICS states have met annually at formal summits and space has been an important element for discussion. India has space collaborations with some of the BRICS states at the bilateral level.

The Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) was provided tracking support for Indian satellites for some time now, using ground stations located at Alcântara and Cuiabá in Brazil) and tracking support for India’s forthcoming Moon and human space missions—Chandrayaan-3 and Gaganyaan—would also be provided by them. Space Cooperation between India and Brazil goes back to the early 2000s. Brazil has been receiving data from ISRO’s Resourcesat-1 and 2 satellites since October 2009. Since 1988, Brazil has a China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) program under which six satellites have been launched so far, and Amazônia-1 data would plug in to this system as well. All this is happening to help the Brazilian government monitor the Amazon rainforest and changes in the environment.

It is important to note that among the BRICS countries, there are three spacefaring states—China, India, and Russia—and all of them have done major missions, including those to the Moon and Mars, successfully. They have been in the business of space for many decades and have achieved some major successes. They have some major proposals for the future too. Brazil’s interests in space domain are also well-known. Broadly, this group includes major space players in the world. BRICS has already started establishing a group of Earth remote sensing satellites for environmental monitoring, fighting climate change, and management of resources. Some members of this group already have well-established space industrial infrastructure. BRICS states together can capture a major chunk of global space market if they decide to work together.

At an individual level, there is much to learn for countries like India and Brazil from the rest of the world. There are reports indicating that Amazônia-1 dates all the way back to the early 1990s. The project suffered several delays for various reasons. In September and October of 2012, a structural model of the Amazônia-1 is known to have undergone a series of vibration tests, but still it took almost a decade’s time for the satellite to reach space. Covid-19 could be one reason, but various space projects by the member states of BRICS. Except China, are suffering delays.

Countries like India has expertise and infrastructure when it comes to space industry and space economics, but is on the periphery of this movement today. To emerge as a major player in the global space market, India needs to think big.

This third decade of the 21st century is highlighting a different dimension of space. Some states in the Middle East have started investing in space economy as a future alternative to the oil economy. The United Arab Emirates’ Mars satellite, Hope, reached the orbit of Mars successfully on February 9, the first mission to Mars from the Arab region. Space is an important element of Abu Dhabi’s diversification strategy from an oil economy to one based on innovation and technology.

Turkey recently announced a very ambitious space agenda. The country’s government proposes to undertake a soft landing on the Moon in 2028. This is expected to cost more than more than $1 billion. Turkey is proposing to build a rocket launch site in Somalia, it being close to the Equator. Somalia was once considered as an option even by France some decades back. Is Turkey taking a risk with Somalia, which is embroiled in armed conflict for many years, as a location for launch site or does it have assurances from some major powers involved with African states?

It is noteworthy that smaller nations with very limited knowledge, technology, and industrial base in the space domain are having such major aspirations. They have already identified the space sector as an important one that can shape the future global economy. Nations like China are planning to develop an Earth-Moon space economic zone. Countries like India has expertise and infrastructure when it comes to space industry and space economics, but is on the periphery of this movement today. To emerge as a major player in the global space market, India needs to think big.


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