With the successful launch of six Singaporean satellites from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota on Wednesday evening, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and its commercial arm, Antrix Corporation, have made another move to gain a share in the global launch market.
The space agency has had a string of satellite launches for international customers in recent years but it is yet to become a formidable player in the global space market, which is worth over $ 200 billion and is growing steadily. While launch industry is worth about $ 5 billion, the biggest chunk of the market is for satellite services at $ 122 billion, according to estimates released by the Satellite Industry Association earlier this year.
In the past 15 years, ISRO has launched 57 foreign satellites from 20 countries – including the latest launch of six satellites from Singapore firm, ST Electronics (Satcom and Sensor Systems) – of various types and sizes, ranging from nano satellites weighing just a few kilos to heavier remote sensing satellites weighing a few hundred kilos. The latest commercial launch included the 400 kg TeLEOS-1 as primary payload and five smaller satellites as co-passengers. In September, four American, one Canadian and one Indonesian satellite were launched along with India’s Astrosat as the primary passenger.
ISRO launches PSLV – C29. Image courtesy: Official ISRO websiteISRO launches PSLV – C29.
In all these launches, ISRO has used various versions of its workforce rocket, Polar Satellite Launch vehicle (PSLV). It is the ideal system for placing satellites in Low Earth Orbits and can also take up to 1,750 kg of payload to Sun-Synchronous Polar Orbits of 600 km altitude. The space agency successfully used this rocket to execute two of its most prestigious scientific missions – Chandrayaan-1 and Mars Orbiter Mission. In 2008 it created a record for most number of satellites placed in orbit in one launch by launching 10 satellites into various Low Earth Orbits. The missions to the moon and the red planet proved to be a demonstration of robustness and cost-effectiveness of PSLV and a sort of marketing flyer for Antrix.
Having mastered the rocket for various complex as well as commercial missions, ISRO and Antrix are now in a position to seek foreign customers more aggressively. The agency now has two launching pads operational in Sriharikota which have a busy schedule. The second launch pad was much needed as only one could not meet domestic as well as foreign requirements.
It is because of the second launch pad that ISRO could pull of three flights of PSLV with commercial satellites this year. Yet this is a small number compared to competing space agencies in America, China and Russia which have 20 or more launches a year. Clearly, there is a capacity limitation on the number of PSLV rockets the space agency can get ready every year, while simultaneously working on other projects including the next generation GSLV rocket. If more commercial launches have to take place, this capacity will have to be augmented with increased participation from the private sector.
The market for launching satellite is huge. As many as 140 satellites with launch mass over 50 kg will be launched on average each year up to 2024 by governments and commercial companies, according to market research firm Euroconsult. In the commercial space sector, the market research firm has projected a total of 550 satellites to be launched over the decade by 40 companies. With about 20 foreign satellites launched in 2015, ISRO appears to have begun to carve a slice of this growing market. The number of satellites to be launched would jump significantly if two mega-constellation projects for small communications satellites are included in the forecast.
The launch business is only part of the global space business. The revenue from design, development and fabrication for 1,400 satellites over the next decade is projected to be $255 billion. Antrix is still to explore this market in a major way.
The Indian space programme has largely been focused on development and utilisation of space science and technology for self-reliance. The policy framework allows industry participation in the national space programme in the form of higher levels of aggregates in system and stage level supply from the, use of ISRO facilities by industry, technology transfer to industry and technical consultancy services of ISRO expertise. Antrix is engaged in extending outreach of space assets, products and services to global markets, dissemination of remote sensing data through international ground stations on commercial basis, leasing of transponders to private users, launching of foreign satellites, ground support for foreign satellites as well as design and development of communication satellite for international customers.
Converting capability into hard business is going to be a challenge for ISRO and Antrix. The policy framework will have to be broadened to promote private investment and participation in space sector. A few startups have come up in Bangalore and are hoping to leverage on new opportunities in this sector, but only mega investments will be able to turn Bangalore into an aerospace hub in the real sense.