The Indian space program was established with a very different goal in mind. Unlike its western counterparts where the space industry began and evolved due to military expenditure during the Cold War, the Indian space program mainly focused on achieving self-reliance that would help solve the problems of the nation. In the words of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian Space program, “There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.”
The private space industry has recently grown rapidly around the world. This growth has given rise to a new terminology, New Space, which encompasses the privately funded space companies and ventures, globally. These companies aim to provide low cost and visionary commercial space technologies which would ultimately make space more affordable and accessible, while significantly improving the quality of lives here on Earth.
The Indian space program dates back to 1969, when the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) was established. Since then, the Indian space program has come a long way. Earlier this year, the 100th satellite launched helping India establish itself as one of the fast-rising space nations around the world.
Still, India’s share of the global $400 billion space market is less than 0.01%. The private space sector has recently started to take shape in India with some of these companies influencing the global space industry. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Team Indus is probably the most well-known space startup in India. The only Indian team to be the finalists of Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) has garnered a lot of media attention recently after ISRO pulled out of an agreement to launch their spacecraft. GLXP required them to build a rover which would soft land on the surface of the moon and travel 500m before sending images back to Earth. Since the deadline ended on 31st March 2018, the Lunar XPRIZE now runs as a non-cash prize competition. Team Indus still aims to launch their rover named ‘ECA’ sometime in 2019.
Earth2Orbit was started in 2008 by Sushmita Mohanty. Considered the first space startup of India, Earth2Orbit began with a goal of providing launch advisory services. It launched its first client satellite onboard a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) in the Fall of 2012. The client was the Osaka Institute of Technology from Japan and the payload was a university-built 15kg micro-satellite called PROITERES-1. In 2016, the company moved its focus to earth observation and analytics; the company was renamed “Earth2Orbit Analytix” with the mission to support global climate action by making human activities, both urban and rural, climate smart. Read our recent interview with Sushmita Mohanty!
Dhruva Space was started in 2012 by Sanjay Nekkanti and Narayan Prasad, both in their 20s, to lead the spacecraft development private industry in India. The two space buffs met during their double degree Erasmus Mundus Space Master program in Sweden and France, where they decided to start their own firm to make an impact in the private space sector in India. The main goal of Dhruva Space is to offer consulting and technology services to university satellite developers in India. In 2014, it collaborated with AMSAT India to launch the HAMSAT-II satellite.
The idea of providing high-speed internet from space has been around for quite sometime now. But it is only recently that company such as SpaceX and OneWeb are investing their money and efforts in making this idea a reality. Now, Astrome Technology from India is in that race, too. Founded in 2014 by Neha Satak and Prasad H.L Bhatt, Astrome aims to provide high-speed broadband internet from space with the help of their patented multimeter wave technology. Incubated at Indian Institute of Science (IISC) in Bengaluru, the company aims to achieve its goals with the help of satellite constellations in low Earth orbit (LEO). They plan to launch their first set of high capacity satellites in 2019 and then more in 2020 that will ensure high-speed broadband connectivity to the most remote places on Earth.
Bellatrix Aerospace is a research and development company developing orbital launch vehicles and electric propulsion systems for satellites. Founded by Rohan Ganapathy in 2015, the company was started in a small office in Coimbatore. Currently, the two proposed rockets “Garuda” and “Chetak” are under development. Both rockets will be reusable, hence making them the economical option. Bellatrix has also patented a new satellite propulsion system called “Microwave Electro-Thermal Thrusters” (MET), which is believed to be more efficient from traditional chemical thrusters. Additionally, they are in the process of developing technologies for future defense industry such as unmanned aerial and ground vehicles.
Xovian was started by Ankit Bhateja and Raghav Sharma in 2011 in New Delhi. Incorporated in 2014, Xovian started out with a vision of providing low-cost sustainable solutions in satellite fabrication. The company also works actively in bridging the gap between the industry and education with the help of workshops like CANSAT. It also performs R&D activities related to sounding rockets, high altitude balloons, and satellite component manufacturing.
The Indian Space Startup Ecosystem
There are over a thousand space startups all around the world. India’s share of these startups remains less than 1%.
The Indian Space Startup Ecosystem is still relatively new to the arena. Considering the space industry is capital intensive and activities come with a long gestation period, the road gets more challenging for space startups. Funding has always been an issue in the space sector. A lack of proper national space legislation in India has also hurt the cause for these startups. Indian startups’ biggest need is to have a structured space startup incubation program that would encourage people to come out with their ideas and get their ventures going, without having to worry about other external factors.
But wait, not all hope is lost. Recent happenings prove that India is serious about space entrepreneurship and steps are being taken to move in that direction.
The Kerala state government has collaborated with ISRO to promote and incubate the space startups in India. It will set up India’s first of its kind space park with the technical support from ISRO. The main purpose of the space park would be to provide a common platform for the aspiring entrepreneurs and the experts from ISRO. While the project is still in its early stage, it is expected to be the hub of space startups once it is completed.
Another Indian New Space company named SatSure Analytics has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Antrix Corporation, the commercial arm of ISRO. SatSure Analytics is a large area analytics company, providing products and solutions for sustainable development initiative by combining the power of satellite big data, internet of things (IoT), and machine learning. This collaboration will help develop the geospatial data analytics industry in India, as well as develop a framework for ISRO to nurture Indian space startups.
Recently, ISRO has also shown interest in transferring its in-house technology of producing Li-ion batteries to several startups in the country. This initiative further proves that ISRO is taking steps to encourage local startups. ISRO should continue proactively encouraging the space startup sector so that more and more people come out to help the space sector.
There is a clear need to set up an incubation program particularly for the space sector. This incubator will provide a path to the startups and will give them a platform to launch their products. The involvement of ISRO will also help the startups fetch some valuable amount of funding from national and foreign sources.
With initiatives such as Make in India, Digital India, and Startup India, the government has been able to push the startup sector. What is now needed is to frame a program exclusively for space startups that will benefit the space entrepreneurs and help them make an impact in the space industry.
With the continued success of ISRO and government investing heavily on startups in India, we can expect more space entrepreneurs to take the lead and help India reach out for the stars. Now is a great time for us space enthusiasts; anyone with an idea and a good team to back it up can make their mark in the space industry. So, what are you waiting for? How are you going to make an impact in this multi-billion dollar industry and use it for the betterment of society?
Posted by Gourav Namta