The government has recently approved the creation of a new organisation to ensure greater private participation in India’s space activities. It is part of  important set of reforms to open up the space sector and make space-based applications and services more widely accessible to everyone.

The new Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) will assess the needs and demands of private players, including educational and research institutions, and, explore ways to accommodate these requirements in consultation with ISRO. Existing ISRO infrastructure, both ground- and space-based, scientific and technical resources, and even data are planned to be made accessible to interested parties to enable them to carry out their space-related activities.

Why Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) has been created?

It is not that there is no private industry involvement in India’s space sector. In fact, a large part of manufacturing and fabrication of rockets and satellites now happens in the private sector. There is an increasing participation of research institutions as well. But Indian industry had a barely three per cent share in a rapidly growing global space economy which was already worth at least $360 billion. Only two per cent of this market was for rocket and satellite launch services, which require fairly large infrastructure and heavy investment. The remaining 95 per cent related to satellite-based services, and ground-based systems.

Indian industry, however, is unable to compete, because till now its role has been mainly that of suppliers of components and sub-systems. Indian industries do not have the resources or the technology to undertake independent space projects of the kind that US companies such as SpaceX have been doing, or provide space-based services.

Additionally, the demand for space-based applications and services is growing even within India, and ISRO is unable to cater to this. The need for satellite data, imageries and space technology now cuts across sectors, from weather to agriculture to transport to urban development, and more. ISRO would have to be expanded 10 times the current level to meet all the demand that is arising.

At the same time, there were several Indian companies waiting for make use of these opportunities. There were a few companies that were in the process of developing their own launch vehicles, the rockets like ISRO’s PSLV that carry the satellites and other payloads into space, and ISRO would like to help them do that.

Right now, all launches from India happen on ISRO rockets, the different versions of PSLV and GSLV.  ISRO is ready to provide all its facilities to private players whose projects had been approved by IN-SPACe. Private companies, if they wanted, could even build their own launchpad within the Sriharikota launch station, and ISRO would provide the necessary land for that.

IN-SPACe is supposed to be a facilitator, and also a regulator. It will act as an interface between ISRO and private parties, and assess how best to utilise India’s space resources and increase space-based activities.

Need for enhanced private involvement in the space sector

There are two main reasons why enhanced private involvement in the space sector seems important. One is commercial, and the other strategic. Of course, there is need for greater dissemination of space technologies, better utilisation of space resources, and increased requirement of space-based services. And ISRO seems unable to satisfy this need on its own.

Benefits for ISRO

The private industry will  free up ISRO to concentrate on science, research and development, interplanetary exploration and strategic launches. Right now, too much of ISRO’s resources is consumed by routine activities that delay its more strategic objectives. There is no reason why ISRO alone should be launching weather or communication satellites. The world over, an increasing number of private players are taking over this activity for commercial benefits. ISRO, like NASA, is essentially a scientific organisation whose main objective is exploration of space and carrying out scientific missions. There are a number of ambitious space missions lined up in the coming years, including a mission to observe the Sun, a mission to the Moon, a human spaceflight, and then, possibly, a human landing on the Moon.

And it is not that private players will wean away the revenues that ISRO gets through commercial launches. The space-based economy is expected to “explode” in the next few years, even in India, and there would be more than enough for all. In addition, ISRO can earn some money by making its facilities and data available to private players.

Beyond IN-SPACe

IN-SPACe is the second space organisation created by the government in the last two years. In the 2019 Budget, the government had announced the setting up of a New Space India Limited (NSIL), a public sector company that would serve as a marketing arm of ISRO. Its main purpose is to market the technologies developed by ISRO and bring it more clients that need space-based services. That role, incidentally, was already being performed by Antrix Corporation, another PSU working under the Department of Space, and which still exists.