The year 2017 established ISRO’s dominance in low-cost launch markets. Recently, India achieved a significant feat of launching 104 satellites in one go from its Satish Dhawan Space Centre located at Sriharikota. The event marked the thirty eighth consecutively successful mission of ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The total number of customer satellites from abroad launched by India’s workhorse launch vehicle PSLV has reached 180.
Earlier in 2014, ISRO made headyway Mars exploration and grabbed global headlines for Mangalyaan — the project was executed on a shoestring budget and jockeyed India in #4 position on the world map. Most importantly, Mangalyaan was executed right in its very maiden attempt. That’s not all, ISRO executed the project at a $74 million; about one-tenth the cost of US space agency NASA’s Mars mission.
ISRO has been laying its own legitimate claim, in the gradually expanding arena of space economy. India has launched way more than 100 satellites, where a majority of them belongs to other countries. ISRO had created a record for itself in 2016. The firm launched 20 satellites in a low earth orbit (LEO). Such multi-satellite aggregations significantly bring down the cost of putting a satellite in orbit, which holds significance for ISRO.
Stumbling blocks — what’s holding back India from dominating low payload launch market
Despite ISRO’s achievements, the organization only holds a miniscule share of the $200 billion satellite market. This could be a direct consequence of several factors. For instance, the organization has a capacity constraint. At times, available capacity becomes more valuable than considering cheaper rates. ISRO has recently overcome this challenge with the remarkable launch of 104 satellites.
This is not the only impediment, the firm is technologically limited to launching small and medium sized satellites. The PSLV rocket can carry a maximum payload of 3,250 kg to LEO, which is miniscule comparison to Space X’s Falcon 9, that can carry more than 20,000 kgs. The higher payload market currently lies beyond the reach of PSLV, and India as such.
However, the most staggering challenge comes in the form of launch technology disruption, which is mostly driven from the Silicon Valley in California. To stay ahead of the race, India has to realize the need for switching from traditional way of going about the space endeavors. The global competition will push India to undertake more projects in the satellite launching landscape, besides furnishing a template for the country’s pioneering organization to follow.
India gains velocity in the launching space
ISRO provides the most cost-effective option for countries looking to deploy their small and medium satellites in orbit, and India can be glad about the fact that the market for smaller satellites is on the rise. The smaller Cubesats accounted for nearly two-thirds of all satellite launches, back in 2014.
The country can truly achieve much more by simply filling its capacity and capability gaps. Through GSLV Mk-III, ISRO plans to push heavier payloads into space. The vehicle can carry up to 8,000 kg to LEOs. This projects are driven towards helping the country enter a larger market. The organization is also focusing on cost disruptions, by bringing back rockets for usage in future launches. ISRO had also successfully tested a demonstrator reusable launch vehicle that came back to land in the Bay of Bengal, in May 2016.
To truly be an integral part of the global space boom, India needs to expand beyond its existing capabilities. When hundreds of Indian entrepreneurs and companies begin contributing to products and services in the global space market, the country will truly be leading the space.
Emergence of a new private ecosystem in space
A four-stage rocket launch can be considered analogous to setting up a new private ecosystem in space. However, this depends on a sequence of steps, which can be laid out as follows:
- Need for a guaranteed downstream market that integrates, consumes, and pays for products or services.
- Setting a layer of manufacturing and service infrastructure that can contribute to these demands.
- Triggering innovation that discovers a bigger value for the downstream consumers.
- The final thrust comes in the form of entrepreneurs and investors who take risks, deploy capital, and organize innovators into creating things that pay off. The same thrust would place the Indian space and satellite launching industry in orbit.
The road ahead
India has used the cost card in the international market for quite some time now. This is what propelled the wave of IT outsourcing market in India. This had also left a significant impact on the world economy. However, The IT wave had significantly pulled up the quality of life for a section of India.
The dynamics change significantly when we compare this wave with the growth in commercial space market. However, some of the same strengths that enabled India to succeed in the IT revolution, will also allow the country to successfully participate in this new boom. Engineering talent, higher education, and years of government investments in building capabilities are some of the common attributes and strengths India can imbibe to lead the landscape.
This market furnishes lucrative options and scope for India. ISRO earned Rs 1,860 crore in revenues through its commercial arm, Antrix, in the last fiscal year alone. This is pretty stunning, as the country only shares a miniscule share of the satellite launch market. However, India reflects the capability to easily expand this market. To achieve this, the country has to rely on its strong base of space-science research. Moreover, growth in consumer market will fuel investments toward meeting the demand for satellite services.