Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of Rs 20 lakh crore economic package, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in a press briefing on May 16 that future projects for planetary exploration and outer space travel will be open for private sector. She said, “India already has the benefit of an extraordinary institution like ISRO, but now lots of private players are also coming in with innovative space technology. We will allow private players to benefit from ISRO’s assets and give them a level-playing field to boost India’s space sector further”.
She added that startups and private firms can use indigenous geospatial data using strict guidelines instead of seeking it from abroad. Government will provide a predictable policy and regulatory environment to private players.
With success of ASAT and Gaganyaan manned mission on course, India’s space program has been growing in accordance with the country’s requirements. Our space program aims to ensure India is in synch with developments in the world including developing advanced technologies that benefit mankind and the society. ISRO has ensured its space assets benefit the public, which is the strength of India’s space program.
India has so far had 73 mission launch vehicles and has launched 104 satellites of its own since the beginning of its mission, out of which 48 are still active. ISRO is also earning revenue for the country through its space missions. Union Minister Jitendra Singh told Rajya Sabha in December 2019 that ISRO has earned over Rs 1,245 crore by launching satellites for 26 different nations in the last five years.
In addition, ISRO helped collect Rs 91.63 crore in India’s FOREX earnings in FY 2018-19. ISRO’s launch income in FY19 was Rs 324.19 crore whereas it earned Rs 232.56 crore in FY18.
A number of important changes have been made in India’s space policy and others have been in the works as evident from recent announcement by the Finance Minister. New Space India Limited (NSIL), ISRO’s commercial arm is a Central Public Sector Enterprise of Government of India was established on March 6, 2019 under administrative control of the Department of Space (DoS). The main objective of NSIL is scale up industry participation in Indian space program.
ISRO’s transfer of satellite building technology to the Indian private sector was demonstrated by the successful launch of a consortium-manufactured navigation satellite. In November 2019, ISRO’s commercial arm NewSpace India Ltd had called for Expression of Interest (EoI) from domestic private sector to make five Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rockets. The first private consortium-built version of the PSLV was expected to be delivered and launched in 2020.
On April 6, 2020 US President Donald Trump signed an executive order establishing US policy on the exploitation of “off-Earth” resources. It stressed that current regulatory regime (1967 Outer Space Treaty) allows use of such resources. US is not signatory to the 1979 Moon Treaty, which stipulates that non-scientific use of space resources be governed by an international regulatory framework but the instant executive order says the US does not see space as a common area for resources and US does not need permission of international agreements to get started.
It can be assumed that other nations exploring space would do the same. Mining the Moon will reportedly help human travel further in space, to places like Mars; Moon can be intergalactic fuel station with resources like hydrogen and oxygen needed for rocket fuel.
China is set to launch a Mars mission in July with the orbiter studying the planet and a rover landing on surface of Mars. India too is seized with the issue of mineral mining in space as future game-changer, potential benefits of mining the moon and asteroids, as also space-based solar power.
Plans are reportedly under discussion to mine Helium-3 rich in space, generate energy and transport it back to earth. According to western researchers 25 tons of Helium-3 could power the US for one full year.
Space-based weapons are serious issue that should not be ignored. Google search shows only a 22mm cannon and personal protection weapons at a Russian space station. However, technology has advanced far beyond. Space-based weapons are a reality, as experienced by China when the city of Tianjin was hit in August 2015.
Not only hypersonic weaponry and missiles travel through space, enemy capturing satellites and turning them into weapons is no more science fiction: hackers commandeered US-German ROSAT satellite in 1998 and burnt its batteries by aiming the solar panels at the sun; hackers took control of UK’s SkyNet satellites for ransom in 1999, and two NASA satellites were hijacked in 2008 albeit for few minutes only.
There are media reports indicating that in 2018 Chinese hackers launched a campaign aimed at satellite operators and defence contractors. This proves that satellites can be hijacked, killed, made to crash to earth (accurately?) and commanded to target originator’s critical infrastructure by jamming or spoofing the signals. There are no international regulations for satellites in space and even if there were could hardly be enforced. This assumes importance with China’s hacking proficiency and where we have dedicated military satellites.
The Finance Minister’s announcement of opening up ISRO’s infrastructure to private players no doubt will improve economic activity in the space sector and attract more investment. Private players will henceforth have access to the existing space infrastructure and access to satellite imagery.
Till now, ISRO was providing limited access of its imagery through ‘Bhuvan’, which will probably be eased more for technology entrepreneurs to leverage Indian space assets to build services on top. However, the type of access will be clear after issue of implementation instructions by the government by way of latency and whether this will be free or on payment.
Similarly, how will the access to ISRO’s launch pads for private players be regulated for launching their small satellites, and at what cost? Since space sector is parallel to sectors like IT or biotechnology, there is a view that government should permit private sector to conduct businesses independently rather than being dependent on ISRO; encouraging private sector as full satellite integrators and service providers in established value chains like DTH operators.
Government needs to take a call on this considering that ISRO’s satellite technology and facilities plus orbital slots will be involved. Similarly, decision is needed whether startups can acquire new products and services from ISRO to help them attract investments.
The Finance Minister talked of strict guidelines for private players in accessing geospatial data as also that government will provide predictable policy and regulatory environment to them.
However, considering that space activities are multi-layered projects which involve a lot of intricacies across domains like gaining access to frequencies, licensing of satellites for operation, ability to export products, imagery etc, government could consider establishing an independent regulatory body to facilitate and monitor private sector participation in space activities. This will boost economic activity in wake of adverse effects of COVID-19.
However, attributing the need for regulation only for geospatial data would be too simplistic a view as this may not encompass comprehensive cyber security requirements. Opening the private companies to the space sector can be critical security risk to the nation and the military if not handled properly.
Technical intricacy of satellite building requires involvement of multiple manufacturers for making components. Similarly, satellite launch can involve multiple partners. Private companies owning satellites would naturally continue to outsource even after getting established in the space sector. Each additional vendor will increase the vulnerability to hackers.
In addition, private companies themselves could be having FDI (including by China directly or through proxy). Therefore, foolproof system would be needed to guard against hackers exploiting multiple opportunities to infiltrate the system. Cost for private companies to ensure cyber-security of their satellites being high, they would tend to ignore it in interest of maximizing economic gains. The government, therefore, needs to be doubly careful.