Space at Earth Prices

Еvgeny Pakhomov

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The Indian government is losing its monopoly on space travel. Several start-ups, which have mastered the production of inexpensive but functional equipment, are ready to carve out their place in the space exploration services market, and eventually to repeat the international success of India’s offshore programming.

The Indian space program has been around for nearly four decades, but little was known about it internationally until very recently. However, the world started talking about India’s space prowess when the Mangalyaan space probe entered Mars’ orbit in September 2014 and started sending photographs of the Red Planet to Earth. In doing so, India not only became the first country in history to successfully send an unmanned space probe to Mars on its first try, but also the first Asian nation to attempt such a feat. Moreover, the Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission was the least expensive project in the history of Mars research. According to estimates, the cost of the program was between $68 and $74 million; this relatively miniscule figure is about 10 times less than NASA’s MAVEN mission, which cost $671 million.

The incredibly low cost of the Mars Orbiter Mission even attracted the attention of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Our program stands out as the most cost-effective,” the Indian PM said during a June visit to mission control in Bangalore. “There is a story of our Mars mission costing less than the Hollywood movie Gravity. Our scientists have shown the world a new paradigm of engineering, and the power of imagination.” At the same time, at least on an official level, India is not trying to compete with other countries. “We are really not racing anyone, only with ourselves to reach the next level of excellence,” said Koppillil Radhakrishnan, head of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), when commenting on the success of the Mars program.

But such statements feel somewhat insincere. Indeed, India may not be ready to compete with space superpowers such as the US or Russia, but when it comes to catching up to its main regional rival, India is perfectly capable of competing with (and even overtaking) China in the space race. Now the Indians are enthusiastically preparing for their upcoming Chandrayaan-2 mission, which will send an automatic space probe to the moon with a lunar rover onboard. The ISRO is also actively working on a manned spacecraft, with a launch announced for 2016-2017. New Delhi is certain that sending its own cosmonaut/astronaut (the official name is still being debated) into orbit in the coming years will be important for the country’s prestige.

At the same time, there is no doubt that Indian space programs will run on modest budgets, just like the Mangalyaan Mars mission. India’s ability to produce world-class space technology at a very low price is already becoming an important characteristic of its positioning in the global marketplace for space applications and services.

In this sense, the Indian space industry follows in the well-established footsteps of the national IT industry, which conquered major international markets back in the 1990s. One of the chief reasons for local programmers’ success was their willingness to do highly skilled work for what was considered extremely low pay by Western standards. This kind of ‘dumping’ in the early stage helped Indian companies stand on their own two feet, and eventually become a real threat to their American counterparts in Silicon Valley.

Right before our very eyes, space exploration is ceasing to be something inaccessible – achievable only by powerful countries – and becoming a technological product, like computers or communication systems. In the very near future, the space service market is expected to boom in the area of construction and small inexpensive satellite launches, where India can make a decisive contribution

It seems that the Indian space industry wants to follow the same path. The space industry has even piqued the interest of private companies, which are becoming equipment and solutions suppliers. This is a new trend that could change the face of not only India’s space program, but the entire world’s as well.

A lower price tag

Without major contributions from private enterprises, the Mangalyaan Mars mission would have been far more expensive. While preparing its interplanetary spacecraft, ISRO was also actively working with local companies that supplied inexpensive but well-made equipment. Private businesses also provided multi-layer thermal protection, antenna parts, elements of the propulsion system and onboard optical equipment, inertia sensors, cables, wires, and several electronic systems. The work on the Mars program was done in partnership with a whole array of private companies including Godrej Aerospace, Walchandnagar Industries Limited, Larsen & Toubro, General Optics (Asia) Limited, Micropack, TATA Advanced Materials Limited, Shree Lakshmi Tool Tech Engineers, and Technocom. Their contributions helped make the Mars project economical and, just as important, fast. This fact was underscored in a report by the Office of the Prime Minister to India’s Lower House of Parliament. The project was approved by the Government of India in August 2012, the station was launched in November 2013, and the probe entered orbit last autumn.

Still, the Indian Space Agency’s cooperation with businesses did not happen overnight. In 2000, private companies were first allowed to use the Indian National Satellite System (INSAT) infrastructure for the active development of satellite communications, which called for significant private sector participation. The ISRO itself is part of the Department of Space responsible for the national space research program. It began to look for opportunities to earn money on space exploration – primarily on commercial launches of foreign satellites that use PSLV, an Indian launch vehicle. The ISRO even created a special commercial structure, Antrix Corporation Limited, to arrange for-profit launches, although income from this is still rather low by international standards. According to official data, Antrix earned $17 million and €78.5 million in 1999, the year that these launches started at India’s Sriharikota spaceport.

Whatever the case may be, ISRO representatives say that working with the private sector has proven to be a valuable and successful experience. Now, especially after the triumph of the Mars mission, the agency intends to engage local companies more actively in the national space program, including in the construction of rockets for launching satellites into orbit, the making of communication and navigation satellites themselves, and related systems. According to experts, this approach may also, among other things, reduce the cost of the program – private entrepreneurs count every rupee and Indian engineers are able to find ways to reduce production costs.

What’s more, ISRO is exploring the idea of creating a consortium of private companies for the production of standardized space equipment components. The agency would then be able to focus on developing cutting-edge technologies.

This policy is in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ program, the purpose of which is to make the country one of the technological leaders of the modern world, although many are still skeptical about the plan. “In order to maintain a high rate of commercial space program development, India will have to develop a unified space exploration policy, which should have a place for private companies,” said Vladimir Ivashin, an expert at the Moscow State University Center of Indian Studies, in an interview with BRICS Business Magazine. “The problem is that such a consolidated policy does not exist, although Indian experts have been emphasizing the need for one for several years now.”

At the same time, said Ivashin, public spending on space exploration continues to grow in India. For instance, the Department of Space’s budget was $473 million in the 2002-2003 fiscal year, and $1.2 billion in the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

On the other hand, the lack of a unified strategy seriously hampers the development of the industry and creates a barrier to broader private sector participation. “Perhaps a consortium, which the ISRO keeps talking about, will help the private sector participate more actively in the Indian national space program,” said Ivashin. “But it is unclear when it would be established and how it would be organized.”

Satellites by the pound

National businesses, which are becoming increasingly interested in playing a part in the industry, have also expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of a government space exploration strategy. Many believe that the main obstacle is the space program’s exclusive focus on the ISRO government agency. “We need to convince the government to create policies to include smaller companies like us and integrate us into the ecosystem,” Abhishek Raju, Chief Strategy Officer at Dhruva Space, was quoted as saying in Times of India. Dhruva Space, founded in Bangalore in 2012 by young Indian engineers Sanjay Nekkanti and Narayan Prasad, is one of the still rare private Indian space start-ups. The company intends to offer customers small satellites weighing up to 100 kg, and also lay claim to the not-yet-crowded niche of commercial satellites that are unrelated to telecommunications. These are satellites designed to track the movement of vehicles, ships, and aircraft; map routes; work as part of warning and natural disaster prediction systems; and to photograph and scan the Earth’s surface. The first of two satellites developed by Dhruva is to be launched in December 2016. In the future, the company plans to manufacture up to 12 small satellites a year. The company does not try to conceal the fact that it relies on the product’s low price, which was achieved thanks to widespread use of inexpensive standard components and advanced manufacturing technologies, such as 3D-printing. “We can build a satellite with the same capabilities as a big satellite, but at a fraction of the cost,” Raju asserted.

The Mangalyaan space probe not only made India the first country in history to successfully send an unmanned space probe to Mars on its first try, but also the first Asian nation to attempt such a feat. Moreover, the Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission was the least expensive project in the history of Mars research

Another space start-up which has been trying to lobby the expansion of private companies’ access to government satellite programs is Earth2Orbit (E2O). The start-up, which specializes in consulting with companies that are looking to leverage space technology and in organizing Indian launches of foreign satellites, was founded by engineer and entrepreneur Susmita Mohanty, who is confident about Indian private companies’ commercial prospects in this niche, especially in launching vehicles for foreign clients. “India is sitting on a space gold mine. Indian companies can leverage the impressive portfolio of space products and services that ISRO has developed over four decades to serve ISRO’s expanding needs, exploit the satellite services market, and become competitive in the global marketplace. This requires New Delhi to overhaul its space policy. It also requires ISRO to amend its policy on contracts, Indian industry to share risk and investment, and the two to co-develop and co-innovate, Mohanty said to BRICS Business Magazine. “If we do things right, we could capture a quarter of global space business by 2040, if not more. This will create a huge pool of employment opportunities. We have the world’s largest population of young people; they deserve to have meaningful employment, and also an environment in which they can go out, take risks, start their own businesses, and in turn create more jobs.”

Private companies see a commercial future not only because of how inexpensive their products are, but also thanks to a clear positioning in the market. “The private sector companies in India consider small satellites as key to their future success, and these considerations do not appear out of nowhere. Experts from the Atlanta-based company SpaceWorks Enterprises, Inc. believe that between 2,000 and 2,750 nano/microsatellites will require launching from 2014 through 2020. In other words, those will be probes weighing 10-100 kg, which can complete a variety of different tasks for companies, public organizations, and even individuals,” said Singh Kohli, an independent Indian expert, in a conversation with BRICS Business Magazine.

Right before our very eyes, space exploration is ceasing to be something inaccessible – achievable only by powerful countries – and becoming a technological product, like computers or communication systems. In the very near future, the space service market is expected to boom in the area of construction and small inexpensive satellite launches, where India can make a decisive contribution. “Interest in such satellites is perfectly illustrated by the growing number of devices that students at Indian universities have been racing to build,” says Kohli. “Let me remind you that the founders of the first private space companies in the country also started out as students with experimental devices.”

Today, Indian students have already built a veritable flotilla of small satellites. Among them is the 40-kilogram ANUSAT ‘microsatellite,’ created by Anna University students in Chennai and launched into orbit in 2009, as well as StudSat-1, a ‘picosatellite’ weighing only 950 grams, which was launched in 2010. Since then, local students have created several other devices, although not all of them have made it to space yet. But the process is gaining momentum. There is every reason to believe that inexpensive, capable, ‘Made in India’ satellites will soon blaze a path to the stars, while the reputations of their creators will rival the worldwide fame of Indian programmers.

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