‘Large rocket capacity being doubled, small rocket privatization by June’

Another key area is in completely privatizing Isro’s small rocket—the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). (Photo: AFP)
Another key area is in completely privatizing Isro’s small rocket—the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). (Photo: AFP)


  • Privatization would help increase the number of commercial launches to up to 25 a year

New Delhi: Growing demand for satellite launches from offshore companies is prompting an Indian pivot to private firms for building rockets.

This is being done to develop the central government as a key customer for the private sector alongside global clients—akin to the successful privatization model achieved by the US over the past four decades – said Pawan Kumar Goenka, chairman of the regulatory body for the space industry, the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (In-Space).

“Globally, there is a shortage of satellite launch capacity in heavy rockets, for which the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro)’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV)- and Large Vehicle Mark III (LVM3)-class launch vehicles have a supply constraint. For LVM3, Isro only builds around three rockets per year, most of which are committed for Isro’s own missions," he said in an interview.

“As a result, the heaviest rocket is mostly not available for commercial missions. Isro today is working with private vendors to increase the capacity of the heaviest rocket from three to seven per year. This will help meet heavy commercial demand, especially at the pricing that Indian space firms are offering," Goenka said.

Further addition, crucially, is being made in manufacturing capacity of the PSLV, too. “Its per-year capacity is being increased from around six, to 12. Most of this demand is coming from global markets," he said.

Privately manufactured rockets for Isro is being seen as crucial to the space sector’s ability to attract commercial missions—a field that today is largely led by the US.

Companies such as Elon Musk-backed SpaceX have, over the years, built heavy launch capacity for their rockets. After launching 98 rockets last year, SpaceX is eyeing 144 launches this year.

To do this, in September 2022, a consortium of Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) and Larsen & Toubro (L&T) Aerospace won an 860-crore contract to make five PSLV rockets in four years. This capacity is now being ramped up through more private vendor participation.

Another key area is in completely privatizing Isro’s small rocket—the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV).

“All technology of the rocket will be transferred to the private sector, and Isro will no longer make them. There is a bidding process to license the small rocket’s technology, for which In-Space raised an expression of interest a few months ago.

Since then, we’ve shortlisted companies that will qualify for the final bidding of the SSLV’s technology, who will be informed by next week. Once they submit, the final process is likely to be completed within the next three months, after which the SSLV will be fully privatized," Goenka said.

However, critics say the Indian private space industry suffers from gaps, for which the industry is looking to the Centre for solutions.

“The stipulated demand for global satellite launches, as per earlier estimates made by various entities in India, was very high. Right now, due to the macroeconomic slowdown, many companies have revised their satellite constellation launch estimates," said Chaitanya Giri, associate professor, science and technology policy, at Pune’s Flame University.

This will significantly impact the ability for India’s private space startups to attract commercial business. If they cannot attract business, attracting substantial investors will be challenging," he added.

Goenka, however, said that there is “not much to read into this at the moment."

“By the end of FY26, between private startups Skyroot Aerospace and Agnikul Cosmos, and Isro’s public-sector undertaking, NewSpace India Ltd (NSIL), we may have enough demand and capacity to reach a small rocket launch frequency of up to 25 launches per year, or nearly once every two weeks."

Narayan Prasad Nagendra, chief operations officer at Netherlands-headquartered space supply chain discovery platform, Satsearch, said a key aspect that the Centre is yet to address is its role as a customer.

The US government, for instance, is the single largest commercial contractor for SpaceX—the world’s most successful private space startup.

“The role of the government will be very important as a customer for the private space sector. This is a question that would lie with In-Space—it will not be possible to create a successful private space sector without the government playing the role of a customer.

Space agencies around the world are looking to support their local industry by playing the role of an anchor-customer which allows credibility to be built. This can then be leveraged to fast track the process of acquiring global customers and market share that the government is very interested in," he added.

Goenka said such a role for the central government “will evolve over time."

“Going forward, Isro will not make any commercial satellites, or satellite launches, barring anything of strategic importance, such as for military uses. Any other government requirement will eventually be addressed by the private sector. Today, the Centre’s public sector undertaking (PSU) in the space industry, NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), has become the medium through which other government departments will give business to the private sector," he added.

In-Space’s ‘decadal vision’ of the space sector, published in October last year, projected potential revenue of $44 billion by 2033. The projection also claimed that at such revenue, India’s market share in the global commercial space market can increase to 8% in 2033, up from 2% last year.

“Tender-based offering of projects in the private sector has already happened in one case, where a large order of satellites was given to NSIL, which in turn issued a tender to private sector companies to build satellites. This will be the process that will be followed for now, until more confidence in our private sector builds up across government departments and global markets," Goenka further said.

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