On February 15, 2017, the world watched in awe as the Indian Space Research Organization successfully blasted off a record-breaking 104 nano-satellites, along with a 714-kg satellite for earth observation, into orbit from a single rocket. The entire operation took around 30 minutes.
Of the more than 100 smaller satellites, weighing under 10 kg each, three were Indian-owned, 96 were from U.S. companies, and the rest belonged to Israel, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the UAE. The milestone launch, from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in south India’s Sriharikota, overtook the 2014 Russian record of launching 37 satellites in a single burst. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the accomplishment on Twitter as an “exceptional achievement.”
This wasn’t ISRO’s first brush with fame. In 2014, the state-run organization’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) waltzed seamlessly into orbit around the Red Planet. India was the fourth to achieve this complex feat after the United States, Russia, and the European Space Agency. But what made ISRO’s accomplishment unique was that it was the only organization to do so on its first attempt and that too within a budget of $73 million. Modi quipped that MOM cost less to make than the Hollywood movie Gravity.
Both launches, while burnishing India’s reputation as a thrifty satellite producer and launcher, have also helped cement its place in the burgeoning private space market. The country has emerged as one of the most successful nations to have developed the capacity to deliver payloads to space or to develop satellites for services and interplanetary missions. These developments are also helping change popular perceptions that space is a playground only for cash-rich Western nations.
Experts say with the global space market poised to grow exponentially on the back of surging demand for telecommunication services, India’s primacy in the field of space exploration and space-based services will skyrocket further. A 2015 report by the Space Foundation estimates the global space economy to be worth $323 billion with demand for small, inexpensive satellites, like the ones ISRO fired off in February, especially expected to boom.
Buoyed by its string of recent successes, the Indian government has been augmenting ISRO’s budget year on year. Even so, the organization’s current annual budget of $1 billion is just 5 percent of NASA’s $17.6 billion. However, the government has actively floated several big-ticket initiatives, such as “Make in India” and “Digital India,” in which the space industry has a key role to play. Further, to boost ISRO’s launch capacity at Sriharikota and tap its commercial potential to the fullest, a second vehicle assembly building is being constructed by the end of 2017.
ISRO’s growing responsibilities include a welter of commercial and R&D projects, apart from a packed launch calendar for its reliable polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) rocket, the one that fired off those 104 nano-satellites into orbit. From the launch of two PSLVs in 2008, ISRO unleashed six in 2016. The organization is targeting about 20 launches a year by 2020. Sending an orbiter to Venus to study the planet’s hot and cloudy atmosphere is also on its radar. Another key mission in the works is Aditya-1 (Aditya being the Hindu sun god). This will be the first Indian space mission to study the sun, and also the first Indian mission to be placed at Lagrangian point L1 — far away from the Earth to facilitate continuous solar observations.
ISRO is also preparing to launch two lunar missions in the next few months. The Chandrayaan-2 mission, an advanced version of its previous 2008 mission to the moon, will conduct deeper lunar surface probes. Another mission is part of a global lunar competition.
ISRO now has its eyes set on interstellar missions (travelling between stars or planetary systems). The organization became part of a global project to bring star travel closer to reality when its PSLV C38 rocket launched six prototypes of tiny interstellar spacecraft, or sprites, into low-earth orbit on June 23 this year. One of these six stamp-sized sprites, which weigh just 4 grams each, has managed to establish contact with ground stations, becoming the smallest spacecraft ever to do so. Hailed as a giant step in space technology, the development will set the template for future interstellar missions, experts say.
Scientists attribute much of ISRO’s success and prolific output to the way the organization is run. Tight cost-control driven by the organization’s ability to do everything in-house – including building rockets, satellites, propulsion systems, and sensors – has helped. “The Mars mission, for instance, took just three years from conception to final launch. Cheaper Indian labor — scientists, engineers, technicians, support staff — as compared to those in the U.S. or Europe is another plus,” says Dr. Vinod Pai, a senior scientist, formerly with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.
Pai adds that though globally, there are a number of rocket options for sending commercial satellites into space, ISRO is now recognized as a reliable source by many countries to outsource their launches to. “The country is also augmenting its capacity and capabilities of using space technology products and services not only to support commercial space activities and for agricultural purposes but also to pursue diplomatic and security objectives,” he explains.
According to published reports on the international satellite market, ISRO’s average annual revenue over the last three years is approximately $200 billion, which includes the launch services market, satellite manufacturing, ground equipment, and satellite services. The organization is also providing satellite launch capacity on a commercial basis through Antrix Corporation Limited. During 2015-16, Antrix earned a revenue of approximately $40 million through commercial launch services, which is a piffling 0.6 percent of the global launch services market.
This has led analysts to comment that ISRO is not fully leveraging its capacities and talents to earn fatter profits, which can help expand its operations and further power its rise. “Its remarkable success notwithstanding, India needs to up its game to claim a larger share of the space economy pie. So far the country has earned only modest sums through its commercial launch services and not quite fully tapped into its full potential. This needs to change,” opines Jagdish Khetrapal, an associate scientist at Reliance Energy, one of the country’s largest private sector players in energy.
Khetrapal adds that the Indian government also needs to optimally use its scientific and technological prowess to nurture home-grown enterprises, helping them expand their range of products and services for the domestic market as well as increase their participation in the $300 billion global space industry.
Though private companies like Team Indus, Earth2Orbit, Astrome Technologies, Bellatrix Aerospace, and SatSure are doing good work in space-based services, the government needs to put in place a long-term plan to make India’s current international position unassailable among the global pantheon of space giants.
Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based editor and senior journalist.