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Space as a service: Over 100 Indian firms now eyeing space-related activities: ISRO chairman

12 Nov , 2022   By : Monika Singh

Space as a service: Over 100 Indian firms now eyeing space-related activities: ISRO chairman

India’s tryst with its cosmic neighbourhood has always had spin-offs well beyond those for the national space agency- the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). This month, nine years ago, when ISRO launched its first rocket toward Mars at a fraction of cost than was possible globally, dozens of its local component suppliers rejoiced seeing their contributions propel India to new possibilities in its space programme. Now, on November 15th at 11.30 am, weather Gods permitting, India will witness its first privately developed launch vehicle takeoff and this is to be by a Hyderabad-based space tech startup Skyroot Aerospace.

Financial Express Online spoke to ISRO chairman S Somanath on the significance of the first endeavour by a private sector company in rocket services and the bigger picture of the changing landscape and how the government’s plans to open up space activities directly for the private sector were panning out and what to expect.

“Today, over 100 Indian private sector companies have evinced interest in space-related activities with bulk of them working on either applications or in technology development,” says S Somanath, who has had a busy innings since he took charge in January this year. An expert in the area of system engineering of launch vehicles with notable contributions in PSLV and GSLV Mk-III, he says, of the remaining 100, three are into launch vehicles (read: Skyroot, Agnikul and Bellatrix) and about 10 into satellites.

While there is lot of glamour and media coverage devoted to rocket launches, he reminds that if this is to be sustained, it is crucial that we retain the focus on what triggers the demand for launch vehicles and satellites.

“After all, the end goal of every endeavour is to provide a service. This could be for medicine, for agriculture or say for navigation and therefore it is important that there is expansion in various space-related applications using satellites which can act as the driver for people to take up satellite launching.

Upbeat with the response from the private sector after the government’s decision to open up this arena for direct involvement of the private sector, he says, “what we are seeing today is a great deal of enthusiasm which we hope, will in future, translate into a large volume of work.”

It is the downstream processes or applications that will eventually play a critical role and these, he says, could include work in areas such as image processing, business intelligence, communication support, navigation data and providing some application services. All of these across sectors – agriculture, weather forecasting, insurance, vehicle tracking, fire detection or say analytics. It the expansion in these areas that will increase the demand for satellites and in turn leading to more business for launch vehicles. It is a virtuous chain of events which will get triggered.

“Downstream work is less intensive in terms of cost and time whereas launch vehicle is highly intensive in terms of both cost and time so we have expand the downstream work so that the demand for upstream activities increase,” he says.

On its part, the government was clear with the policy which, he says, “we are only executing. It is driven with a goal to enable non-governmental entities and the private sector to come into space-related activities. This was being done earlier too by the private sector but they were facing some challenges and wherever support is required, we are trying to help address be it by way of our consultancy or facilities backed by set of policies that will help in this.”

Much of this, he says, emanates from the understanding that the space sector can really grow if there is good private sector participation. The rocket launch on the 15th is in this scheme of things one small step in that direction but hugely significant from the point that it has all been done by a private sector start up backed completely by its own resources and knowledge with off course guidance by people at ISRO and with appropriate authorisations wherever required.

On some of the newer technologies like 3D printing being used by some of the private sector players, he says, 3-D printing is an emerging technology in space and now world over 3-D printed rocket engines are being designed and manufactured, albeit still on a small scale.

“Even we at ISRO are using 3-D printing though we do not talk a lot about it or go around advertising it. This helps makes engines in a much faster manner than the time taken to make regular engines.” He also refers to efforts by an Indian company in this (read: Chennai-headquartered spacetech start-up AgniKul Cosmos which has successfully tested its rocket engine developed using 3-D printing).

Also, in the downstream applications arena, there are several companies. For instance, in image processing there are companies like Bengaluru-based SatSure Analytics or location-based service provider Mapmyindia.

In terms of ISRO’s own initiatives, projects and path-breaking initiatives like for instance the runway landing of an India-made space shuttle which takes ISRO into the realms of reusable launch vehicles arena, Somanath says, “it is not a new project and we have been trying do this for sometime now but could not because of climate and weather conditions and we are now trying to schedule it by this year-end.”

As far as the newer areas and focus for ISRO, he says it is looking at “newer areas of research and development and as a national space agency looking at what the nation’s demands are in terms of both civilian and other strategic services and the new technologies that we, as a nation, need to bring forth be it quantum technologies, surveillance requirements, encrypted medication systems, navigation services and other areas.” Apparently, enough and more reasons to keep tracking this space.

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