S Somanath: ‘Private players in space sector can boost defence, manufacturing’

Minister of State for the Department of Space (DOS) Dr Jitendra Singh informed the Lok Sabha in the last Parliament session that the government was looking at opening the space sector to foreign direct investment.

Dr Singh had added that the Department of Space was in the process of revising existing policies to facilitate private sector participation in the space sector. S Somanath, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman and Secretary, Department of Space, speaks to Esha Roy on plans that are afoot. Excerpts:

* Why are the DOS and ISRO looking at bringing in reforms?

ISRO is centrally funded and our annual budget is between Rs 14-15,000 crore and most of this is used in building rockets and satellites. This is a drop in the ocean. The size of the space economy in India is small. To increase the scale of the sector, it is imperative for private players to enter the market. We are creating a new policy now that ends ISRO’s monopoly of the space sector in India. We will be sharing knowledge and technology, such as manufacturing rockets and satellites, to all those who want to. There have always been private players in the sector, but this has been entirely in manufacture of parts and sub-systems. We want to provide a fillip to industry to be able to manufacture rockets and satellites. The United States, Europe, Russia — all have space industries with big players like Boeing, SpaceX, Air Bus, Virgin Galactic, etc. There is no such ecosystem in India. This can in turn really boost defence systems and manufacturing. We have already begun the process and BHEL will form a consortium of various companies to manufacture a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV rocket) and ISRO will fund the first vehicle, which will be for training purposes.

* Why would the private sector want to enter the space market?

The biggest advantage of entering the market is the production and launching of satellites, which is a huge benefit for communications. If a private company owns and launches its own satellite then they can use this data for mapping, weather forecast, industrial surveys, water and energy mapping, road and building construction, agriculture — the possibilities are endless. For communications, this will mean Direct Transmission, and the dependence on cell phone towers will be eliminated entirely. Even remote terrestrial areas, which are difficult to cover, will be connected — whether it’s the polar regions or even under the water in submarines — everyone will be able to seamlessly connect. ISRO looks at national concerns, but private players are user demand aggregators. ISRO has developed capabilities and handed over the technology in the past as well – weather forecasting to IMD, forest fire monitoring to the forest departments, tsunami warning system to the department of oceans. We will now assist private concerns, of course for a charge. But our geo-spatial archival data we are making free, for anyone who has the technological capability to take it.

* There are a number of start-ups that have already registered for this purpose. Are they looking specifically at consumer services?

There are around 50 start-ups that have already registered and begun work. They cover a gamut of activities – from services to building rockets and satellites. An IIT-Madras incubated start-up Agnikul is making rocket engines as is Hyderabad-based Skyroot, which is also making launch vehicles. ISRO will conduct test missions for them this year. Bangalore-based Bellatrix Aerospace is making its own rockets as well as satellite engines. Dijantra Space is making spacecraft parts and separation mechanisms. Then there are many others that are working in the field of satellite imaging, and other services.

In the coming years, we expect a lot of small satellites to be launched, in India and across the world.

* Are you also opening up India for foreign launches?

Foreign rockets have so far not come to India to launch. This is a revenue source that we cannot ignore. Rocket launches are controlled under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR is a multilateral export control regime, and an understanding among 35 member states that seek to limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology). We want our launch sites to be used by foreign concerns, subject to regulation of course. We created IN-SPACe, an independent nodal agency under the Department of Space, for allowing space activities and usage of DOS-owned facilities, which will regulate, facilitate and monitor such activities. IN-SPACe will also assist start-ups. Once the foreign concerns start launching in India – this will boost the domestic industry, especially in manufacturing and infrastructure development. The ancillary benefit is that it will generate jobs.

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