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India’s First Private Rocket Enters a Government-Dominated Field

Context

  • The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) recently launched Vikram-S, India’s first privately developed rocket, from its spaceport in Sriharikota.
  • It is also a significant step forward for India, which aspires to be a leading space power, as this launch marked the start of private launch activity in the Indian space programme, which had previously been government-controlled and funded.

Relevance

GS Paper 3: Science and technology,Indigenization of Technology and Developing New Technology, Awareness in the fields of Space

Mains Question

To reap the greatest benefits, it is necessary to increase private participation and nudge India toward a scientific pursuit of space exploration motivated by economic goals. Discuss. (250 words)


Concerning recent developments

  • Mission Prarambh: ISRO will launch Vikram-S, India’s first privately manufactured launch vehicle developed by Hyderabad-based Skyroot Aerospace, on this mission.
  • Vikram-S Bio: It is a single-stage, solid-fuelled suborbital rocket named after Vikram Sarabhai, India’s space programme’s father.
    • In a sub-orbital flight, the vehicle travels at a slower velocity than the orbital velocity, which means it is fast enough to reach outer space but not fast enough to maintain an orbit around the Earth.
    • The engine of the launch vehicle, Kalam-80, is named after former President A P J Abdul Kalam.
    • It will carry three customer payloads, two Indian and one foreign, including a FunSat by SpaceKidz India, parts of which were developed by school students.
    • The Vikram-S is a Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) that will carry payloads weighing between 290 and 560 kg into sun-synchronous polar orbits. The PSLV, India’s workhorse, can carry up to 1,750 kg to such an orbit.
    • It was created over the course of two years by incorporating advanced technologies such as carbon composite structures and 3D-printed components.
    • In a six-minute mission with three payloads weighing a total of 83kg, it reached a peak altitude of 89.5km, exceeding the target altitude of 80km.
  • Skyroot Aerospace Information: It is based in Hyderabad and was founded by former ISRO engineers. It was the first company to sign an agreement to launch rockets with the country’s space programme.
  • Skyroot is also planning to launch at least two rockets per month by the end of 2025, as well as develop reusable booster stages for its ‘Vikram’ rocket series.
    • A rocket’s reusable booster stage is the engine that propels it to ‘escape velocity,’ after which the booster separates from the main rocket, re-enters Earth, and uses small motors to land.
    • The engine or booster can thus be reused for future missions, saving a rocket launch services company money. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the only company to have accomplished this feat.
  • IN-SPACE: The Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACE) has been functioning as a single-window, autonomous nodal agency of the Department of Space (DOS) to boost India’s private space sector economy.

The launch’s significance

  • Improve global image: It will instil confidence in India’s space sector among global investors and clients, as only a few companies in the world have managed to travel 80 kilometres into space on their first attempt.
  • Demonstration of technology: The Vikram-S, Kalam-80, and 3D printed parts (thrusters) will be used to test and certify technology in the Vikram series space launch vehicles.
  • Enhancement of the PPP model: The public-private partnership model in the space sector could see ISRO licence specific missions to homegrown space firms. The model would be similar to that used in the United States, where NASA regularly grants projects to private space firms.
  • Will inspire future private sector missions: For example, Agnikul Cosmos, whose semi-cryogenic Agnilet engine was recently tested at ISRO’s vertical testing facility in Thumba, Thiruvananthapuram, will benefit from Vikram-success.

The significance of private industry in space

  • Increase demand: ISRO’s annual budget has surpassed Rs 10,000 crores and is growing. However, India’s demand for space-based services far outstrips what ISRO can provide. As a result, private investments can fill this void.
  • Capture global market: The government intends to rapidly increase India’s share of the global commercial space sector from 2% to 8% in the coming years. It can only be done by enlisting the help of private-sector companies.
  • Will bring in physical-financial-human resources: ISRO has a limited pool of resources such as land, labour, and capital, among other things. The participation of the private sector will generate a new pool of resources and talent.
    • Private sector participation could capitalise on the country’s talent (demographic dividend), significantly improving India’s space efforts.
    • It will also contribute more funds and experience to space exploration initiatives.
  • Share cost factor risk: Each launch carries a number of risks. The private sector can contribute, and failure costs can be allocated.
  • Innovation: The commercialization of innovations by the private sector will result in the development of critical superior technologies.
    • It will allow for the incorporation of a plethora of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, into space exploration efforts.
    • The private sector can use the knowledge gained from space activities to expand the use of technology in other fields.
  • Cost-effectiveness: By replicating and adapting existing technology, India creates a cost-effective model. This can be aided by critical private-sector innovations.
  • Collaboration: ISRO has a close relationship with the industry, particularly with PSUs such as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and private sector firms such as Godrej & Boyce, Larsen & Toubro, and others, which can be strengthened by bringing in more private firms.
    • For example, a large number of private companies, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Airbus, and Space X, were recently involved in the US Artemis project to return to the Moon.
  • Developing alternative assets: India can classify numerous satellites and spacecraft assets shared by ISRO and industry to ensure continuity even if an attack disables one or more of our satellites.
    • For example, while the US is vulnerable in space due to its reliance on thousands of satellites, it is also best positioned to deal with a potential attack on its space assets due to its ability to transition to alternative assets.

Private Participation Concerns

  • National security: In the hands of the private sector, ISRO’s sensitive data poses a risk of data exploitation or misapplication, raising security concerns.
    • It may also result in private parties profiteering from the disclosure of sensitive information to foreign governments and corporations.
  • Cartelization: Allowing the private sector to pursue space projects or launch any satellite for profit, according to some defence analysts, may result in lobbying and unfair means.

Goals of India’s space programme

  • To leverage outer space to accelerate national development.
  • To achieve a strategic edge in terms of military dimensions and global competition.
  • In terms of business and economy, outer space cannot be limited to narrowly defined concepts of “development” and “national prestige.”

The way forward

  • Separate organisation: India should create a separate organisation to level the playing field between government and private space firms.
  • New space law: India should pass a new space law in order to increase its share of the global space economy to 10% within a decade. This will necessitate a novel collaboration between ISRO, the established commercial sector, and New Space entrepreneurs.
  • Boosting the startup ecosystem: As a result, the government should provide an enabling policy environment for Indian space startups to fully contribute to the Indian space effort.

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December 2022
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