Space Commerce

India Sees Growth in Smallsats, Commercial Space Industry as it Targets Moon

By Elizabeth Howell
July 17, 2023
Filed under , ,
India Sees Growth in Smallsats, Commercial Space Industry as it Targets Moon
The ISRO prepares to launch 36 OneWeb satellites in March 2023.
Image credit: ISRO.

Despite the fact that India’s space industry has been operating since the beginning of spaceflight history, it is now, as of recently, suddenly taking off.

A recent New York Times report suggests there are at least 140 companies in India working in the small satellite business — up from only five listed companies in 2020. Aside from overall global trends pushing for more small companies (like those providing smaller satellites and more affordable launching options), India’s big push comes from two main factors, the report said.

The first of them is the collapse of international business with Russia in 2022 following that country’s unsanctioned and condemned invasion of Ukraine, creating an opportunity for India to stake a larger claim on the global market. OneWeb presents a notable example of how things have changed: instead of launching its satellites with Russia, one of its launching options is with the India Space Research Organization (ISRO). The other, ironically, is its rival in the satellite broadband industry, SpaceX.

The second factor is the sheer size of India’s space industry. India comes second in worldwide population after China, which cannot work with the United States or NASA due to geopolitical concerns. The report suggests that ISRO’s work has generated 400 private companies with some form of space expertise, and oftentimes, 100 of those may work together on a given launch — showing that the companies are well used to being with each other and have co-evolved processes for spaceflight.

Also fueling this new shift to India and the growth of the country’s spaceflight industry is policy from the upper circles of the United States. In June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a joint statement with the White House pledging “a course to reach new frontiers across all sectors of space cooperation.”

India signed the NASA-led Artemis Accords for peaceful space exploration and has plans to create a strategic framework with the US space agency for human spaceflight, and aims to fly an International Space Station mission in 2024.

Other key milestones celebrated in the White House statement include:

  • A NASA instrument that will be delivered for the NASA-ISRO SAR (NISAR) mission set to launch in 2024. The radar mission will examine Earth’s surface to look for changes in land, ice, and water to assess systems such as “biomass, natural hazards, sea level rise, and groundwater”, according to NASA information.
  • A commitment by both countries to “address export controls and facilitate technology transfer” to make the private space business between the two countries more efficient.
  • Discussion by both countries on “new defense domains including space and AI, which will enhance capacity building, knowledge, and expertise” in the public and private sectors. An example is the newly launched US-India Defense Acceleration Ecosystem that includes industry, startups, think tanks, and universities. As a symbol of that commitment, the US Department of Defense’s Space Force recently signed research and development agreements with Indian companies 114 AI and 3rdiTech; the companies will work with General Atomics “to co-develop components using cutting edge technologies in AI and semiconductors, respectively.” 

Such international collaboration will be key to accelerating India’s space industry, according to recent comments from Pawan Kumar Goenka, the chair of Indian Space Promotion and Authorisation (IN-SPACe), the space regulating agency that Modi’s government established in 2020 and which is credited for the Indian industry’s rapid growth.

IN-SPACe calls itself an autonomous agency to the Indian government’s department of space “to enable and facilitate the participation of private players,” such as providing educational and research opportunities, and seeking more efficient uses of space resources.

Goenka was referring to recent efforts by the Indian government to allow anywhere between 50 to 100 percent foreign direct investment (FDI) into the Indian space industry in the areas of subsystem manufacturing, launch vehicle operations, and satellite operations and establishments.

Goenka told online news source MoneyControl that the “last leg of processes” concerning FDI policy is coming soon, although the release date is not yet public. He said once that new framework is in place, he expects spending in the Indian space sector to go up quickly.

“Last year, we had $110 million of investment, a small but significant increase over the year before,” he told MoneyControl. “This year, in five months, we already have had $35 million.”. While the average of $7 million per month represents a slower year-over-year pace compared with 2022, Goenka emphasized “a lot of conversations are happening” and because of that, “I would expect that number — $110 million — to be higher this year.”

India will soon have a chance to show the world just how far it has come in the last six decades of global space exploration. The country plans to launch its Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft as soon as tomorrow (July 14) that will include a rover, a lander, and a propulsion element that will together provide information about the Moon’s surface.

Several companies are seeing their components fly on the mission, such as Mumbai’s Godrej Aerospace (which provided core components) and Himson Industrial Ceramic (which has parts aiming to provide temperature shielding), according to CNBC.

Should India accomplish this landing — learning from the mistakes that prevented Chandrayaan-2’s lander from reaching the surface — it will bring the country’s companies confidence in the world market for even more ambitious goals, Pawan Chandana, co-founder and CEO of small rocket developer Skyroot Aerospace, told India Today.

“This will benefit the industry in a way that it promotes the cost-efficient and highly reliable space-grade hardware that the Indian space industry has supplied for this mission, increasing revenue flow and investments into the industry,” Chandana said. “It also validates our industry to become suppliers to lunar programs by other countries.”.

Knock-on effects are expected to include new startups and more spending by foreign companies and countries interested in India, he added.

On that note, the overall valuation of India’s space economy is expected to almost double between 2020 and 2025 as well, from $9.6 billion to $13 billion, according to EY India figures cited by India Today. Opportunities for the industry indeed appear ripe.

Business and science reporter, researcher and consultant.