Home / Opinion / Views /  Private rocket Vikram-S puts India’s space economy in a new-age orbit

With the expected launch of Vikram-S, a rocket that will put three microsatellites into space at an altitude of 120 km, India’s state-run space programme will evolve into a proper space economy with private sector participation. Vikram-S is a demonstration launch for Hyderabad-based start-up Skyroot, whose planned Vikram-1 rockets are intended to launch satellites into low-earth orbits.

Skyroot is far from the first private sector company to be part of India’s space programme, but it would be the first company to develop a launch vehicle and put satellites into space. So far, private companies’ role in the space programme had been limited to manufacturing parts and systems for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), India’s state-owned space pioneer, with its roots going back to Independent India’s ambition to have its own atomic and space programmes. ISRO superseded the Indian National Committee for Space Research (Incospar), set up in 1962. For all the criticism heaped on the policy approach of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and often rightly so, ISRO in fact stands as one of its awesome successes stories.

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Now, India has dozens of start-ups in space, building satellites, launch vehicles, propulsion systems and improved designs. Chennai IIT-based Agnikul Cosmos is waiting in the wings, with its own rockets and satellite launch business plans. ISRO set up the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACE) in 2020 to actively involve the private sector in India’s space programme. Vikarm-S will launch from ISRO’s launch site at Sriharikota.

Space is gaining critical importance both in strategic and commercial terms. Satellite launch vehicles overlap considerably with missile launch technology. After India signed its nuclear deal with the US in 2008, the path was cleared for India’s membership of MTCR, the Missile Technology Control Regime, that regulated access to critical technologies. India can access technology and even invite foreign investment in space ventures, as a result of that deal signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Building on that solid foundation provided by the UPA government, Prime Minister Modi is showing interest in involving the private sector, including foreign players, in India’s space economy.

The US leads the world in private companies with launch vehicle capability. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are the most capable private companies in the satellite launch business. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is in the same space but, so far, has less capable launch vehicles than those developed by the American private companies.

Satellites are being put to ever greater use across the world, for an ever-expanding number of purposes, including military and non-military uses. Spotting methane emissions, using ground-penetrating radar to spot underground formations, crop maturity and cropped area are some of the uses other than telecommunications.

SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband business depends on thousands of low-earth-orbit satellites that buzz around the earth at high speed just a few hundred km above sea level. ISRO recently launched 36 communication satellites in the low-earth orbit for another satellite broadband company, One Web. More such services are expected to come into being. Their thousands of satellites have to be launched, and eventually replaced, when they fall down. Space debris, an inevitable consequence of thousands of satellites careening around close together, increasing the probability of collision and damage, will pose a big challenge; and cleaning up space debris, a major commercial opportunity. The demand for satellites with unique capabilities will go up dramatically.

Satellites are not just about launch capability. These involve complex technologies in signalling, materials, miniaturization of already tiny electronics, power generation and management systems, sophisticated radars, telescopes, and many more things. Rocket engines need steady improvement. The ability to re-use rockets calls for additional sets of capabilities.

When start-ups take up the technological and business challenges thrown up by a growing and diversifying space economy, it would create thousands of high-skill, high-value jobs, produce technologies that would have diverse applications far removed from space — ‘staycool’ undergarments that make use of ‘phase change’ materials developed to regulate the temperature inside space suits are just one example — in civilian and defence sectors.

Geolocation services depend on satellites. Turning off or corrupting geolocation during complex military manoeuvres and the ability to thwart it could mean the difference between defeat and victory in battle. It is vital for India to develop capability across the range of technologies that go into the space economy. It is impossible for the state sector alone to produce all the innovations India’s economy and India’s strategic capability would need from the space sector.

One of the initial funders of Vikram-S’s developer Skyroot was Mukesh Bansal, who made his fortune selling the company he founded, Myntra, to Flipkart, and later selling Flipkart, whose shares he acquired while selling Myntra to Flipkart, to Wal-Mart. The space start-up is, thus, a success story of not just space ventures, but of start-up ventures, in general.

A vigorous, innovative economy will spawn and feed a dynamic start-up ecosystem, which, in turn would fuel growth in diverse areas. Vikram-S is one excellent example of such dynamism.

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