India’s Space Program in 2023: Taking Stock

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India’s Space Program in 2023: Taking Stock

2023 witnessed some rather game-changing updates to India’s space vision.

India’s Space Program in 2023: Taking Stock
Credit: Depositphotos

India’s space program has dominated the news cycle since its Chandrayaan 3 lunar landing on the Southern hemisphere of the Moon on August 23, 2023. The ability to build an end-to-end space logistics capability, with a low-key budget of $75 million — that included the rocket launch, propulsion system, lunar lander and rover — caught the imagination of the world, specifically emerging nations in space, looking to build their own space programs in a sustainable manner. 

Since then, India has announced its Chandrayaan 4 mission, which aims to land on the far side of the Moon and bring back lunar samples. India’s Aditya 1 mission, aimed at understanding the Sun’s corona is on its way to park on the halo orbit, at Earth-Sun Lagrange point 1. India announced an official space policy in 2023, identifying the key institutions that will regulate its private space sector and made its position on the utilization and ownership of space resources clear. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has submitted a proposal to rename the IAF as the “Indian Air and Space Forces,” highlighting a shift in strategic thinking within India about the importance of space for national security purposes. This effort is part of Space Vision 2047, the centennial year celebration of India’s independence (1947) from British colonial rule.

This article offers an analysis across four different factors that highlight the current and future focus of India’s space program. These include policy and institutions — both civil and military — space capabilities and missions, international partnerships, and the future space policy vision. 

Policy and Institutions, Civil and Military

In 2023, India announced its official space policy. As per that space policy document, the focus of India’s space program is to develop and support its commercial space sector. Toward this end, India has clarified that the Department of Space, under the Prime Minister’s Office, is the main policymaking and implementation body, while the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is going to focus on research and development. The New Space India Ltd (NSIL), established in 2019, is responsible for “commercialising space technologies and platforms created through public expenditure.” The Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Center (IN-SPACe) will function as the single-window authorization center for both public and private sector space activities. 

India has taken several key decisions in regard to its national security space sector. In 2019, India set up the Defense Space Agency (India’s version of a space force) and the Defense Space Research Organization. This year, the IAF submitted a proposal to rename itself as the Air and Space Forces, aiming to develop not only space-based precision, navigation, timing (PNT) and intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) but also capacities for space traffic management, space situational awareness, and space weather prediction. In this, IAF is seeking collaboration with ISRO, the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), IN-SPACe, and India’s private space sector. 

This move is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of “MissionDefSpace” in October 2022, which called for private sector space companies to apply for 75 defense space challenges for indigenous development. In a Defense Space Symposium organized by the Indian Space Association in April 2023, India’s Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) General Anil Chauhan stated that “the very nature of warfare is on the cusp of major transformation and what is being witnessed is militarization of space and steady progress towards weaponisation… the aim for all of us should be towards developing dual-use platforms with special focus towards incorporating cutting-edge technology and we must expand our NAVIC constellation, provide agile space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and ensure secure satellite-assisted communications.” The IAF issued its Air Force Doctrine in 2023, in which it identified space as vital for both tactics and strategy, tactics being ISR, PNT, military communication, nuclear command and control, missile tracking, electronic warfare, battle management and training, to strategic guidance informed by deterrence, compellence, offense and defense. 

Space Capabilities and Missions

India is building toward reusable space capabilities. In April 2023, ISRO successfully tested a Reusable Launch Vehicle Autonomous Landing Mission (RLV LEX). This can be described as the Indian version of a space plane. ISRO aims to utilize this reusable technology with ISRO’s fleet of rocket launchers, thus meeting India’s 2025 goal of accomplishing reusable launch. India is working on a Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD). ISRO states “the winged RLV-TD has been configured to act as a flying test bed to evaluate various technologies, namely, hypersonic flight, autonomous landing and powered cruise flight. In [the] future, this vehicle will be scaled up to become the first stage of India’s reusable two stage orbital launch vehicle.”

The Indian Prime Minister’s Office released a space roadmap announcing the Chandrayaan 4 mission in 2024, a space station by 2028, and a manned mission to the Moon by 2040. India’s space station will be at an altitude of 120 kms to 140 kms in Low Earth Orbit. India’s lunar program now includes a technology build-up phase between 2023-2028, a lunar reach-out phase (2028-2040), and a lunar base envisioned between 2040-2047. ISRO is working on the research design of a radioisotope heater (RHUs) that will help manage the major temperature variations on the Moon as part of Chandrayaan 4. The Chandrayaan 5, 6, and 7 missions will be within the lunar reach-out phase. From Chandrayaan 6 onward, India will start to build lunar habitats, followed by Chandrayaan 7 aimed at lunar infrastructure building. 

As per ISRO Chairperson, S. Somanath, “2040 is 17 years away and that’s a good time to develop technologies to send humans to the Moon. Our work on the proposed space station too is progressing aggressively and we should be able to have the first unit ready by 2028.” 

India is also developing a human-rated launch vehicle for its Gaganyaan human spaceflight mission. This will include building capacities like life support, bioastronautics, crew training and human rating and certification. ISRO’s Somanath said on December 13, 2023 that India will be developing its own environmental control and life support system (ECLSS). India has announced a second Mars Mission (2030) to study the Mars atmosphere. This mission will carry a Mars orbit dust experiment (MODEX), a radio occultation (RO) experiment, an energetic ion spectrometer (EIS) and a Langmuir probe and electric field experiment (LPEX). In 2031, India plans to launch the Sukhrayaan 1 mission to Venus. 

International Partnerships

2023 signaled strategic shifts in India’s international partnerships. India made a clear signal of its strategic intent when it joined the U.S.-initiated Artemis Accords. India remains the only Artemis signatory with a lunar landing capacity to date. In June 2023, the U.S. and India signed a joint statement that highlighted, in part, increasing space cooperation between the two. This included training Indian astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, a joint effort with the International Space Station (2024), and the establishment of a closer relationship between the U.S. and India in regard to commercial space. In a joint statement in September 2023, on the sideline of the G-20 summit in New Delhi, the U.S. and India agreed to establish a working group for commercial space collaboration, develop a strategic framework for human spaceflight and advance planetary defense. 

While committing to the Artemis Accords in June, Modi advanced the idea of a BRICS satellite constellation and a BRICS space exploration consortium at the Johannesburg summit in August 2023. As part of the Johannesburg summit declaration, BRICS nations stated that “we reassert our support for ensuring the long-term sustainability of outer space activities and prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) and of its weaponization, including through negotiations to adopt a relevant legally binding multilateral instrument. We recognise the value of the updated Draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) submitted to the Conference on Disarmament in 2014.” 

In regard to international consensus on the U.K.-initiated United Nations General Assembly Resolution 75/36, “Reducing Space Threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours” India stated that “while we share with the United Kingdom and other sponsors, the objective of reducing space threats, we believe that the resolution does not address the key issue of preventing arms race in outer space through a universally acceptable and multilaterally negotiated legally binding instrument on PAROS…Furthermore, the resolution introduces a number of subjective elements, including responsible and irresponsible behavior, characterization and interpretation of behavior as well as perception of threats…We believe that this resolution diverts from the objective of preventing an arms race in outer space, which continues to be a priority for the international community. We have voted against some operative paragraphs for the same reason.”

2023 witnessed India hosting the G-20 summit in New Delhi; a Space Economy Leaders Meeting was held on the sidelines. Following the summit, Indian Minister for Science and Technology Jitendra Singh stated that from a current Indian space economy of $8 billion, India is estimated to contribute $40 billion by 2040. Singh specified that “There were only four space startups in the country in 2014 whereas in 2023, there are more than 150 startups.” India views commercial space as a major part of its diplomatic space outreach. 

Future Vision for Space

2023 witnessed some rather game-changing updates to India’s space vision. As per the Prime Minister’s Office guidance on space visions, under which falls India’s space policymaking body, the Department of Space, India issued a timeline for its future space vision. This Space Vision 2047 Roadmap includes flexible COMSATS (2025), quantum and optical communications (2030), a human spaceflight program (2030), a reusable heavy launcher (2030), a two-stage to orbit (TSTO) fully reusable vehicle (2035-2040), space based strategic deterrence (2040), a manned mission to the Moon (2040), interplanetary networks (2047), and space mining (2047). 

This was a major departure from 2017 when none of these future space missions or visions were present in the space ecosystem. India has also presented an economic roadmap between 2025 and 2047 that is looking to advance space tourism, global space data solutions, and crafting India into a global space manufacturing hub. ISRO’s Somanath reiterated this space road map at an IAF event in June, elaborating that “We have to look at space as a strategic asset of the nation. And we should create that capability, to sustain it, build it in an ‘atma nirbhar’ (self-reliant) way. It is very important. And we have created a roadmap of how to build it.”

India’s strategic clarity in regard to its long-term space strategy is a new development. Back in March 2022, I argued that China had an advantage over India because unlike India, it had a long-term space strategy in place. With India’s 2023 space policy and its space 2047 roadmap, New Delhi has started to catch up. 

In some ways, India’s 2047 space roadmap is similar to China’s space roadmap to 2049. Some challenges however remain ahead for India. India has not announced a super heavy lift rocket in the class of a Space X’s Starship or China’s Long March 9. India does not possess the capacity today for human spaceflight or constructing and maintaining large platforms in space. Neither does India possess the mature reusable space plane capability China recently demonstrated. India also does not have a national-level space-based solar power program. 

All this implies that India has more catching up to do. However, space power projection is about relative power and capability. We witnessed during this decade how China has caught up with the U.S. in space. Given China’s economic problems, India might be just constituted right, to include its demographic dividend by the 2040s and talent pool, to catch up quickly. The future will tell who emerges as the lead space power by the 2040s. The country with the long-term policy focus, funding, education, training and vision will have the strategic advantage.