Indian Space Association (ISpA) – Explained, pointwise

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Indian Space Association was recently launched by the Prime Minister of India. The industry association will act as an independent and “single-window” agency for enabling the opening up of the space sector to start-ups and the private sector.

The tagline of the association is Bhumandal Se Brahmaand Tak”, meaning from “Earth to the Universe”. The launch of ISpA follows the government’s move in 2020 to open up this sector to private enterprise.

With a new age space race underway between the US on the one hand side and China & Russia on the other, India has taken a step in the right direction to make the most of its potential and in keeping up with the competition.

What is ISpA?

ISpA is the premier industry association of space and satellite companies, which aspires to be the collective voice of the Indian Space industry. It will undertake policy advocacy and engage with all stakeholders in the Indian Space domain, including the Government and its agencies.

Echoing with the vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat, ISpA will help in making India self-reliant, technologically advanced and a leading player in the space arena.

ISpA is represented by leading homegrown and global corporations with advanced capabilities in space and satellite technologies. Its founding members include Larson & Toubro, Nelco (Tata Group), OneWeb, Bharti Airtel, Mapmyindia, etc.

What is the aim of the ISpA?

One of the main goals of the organisation is to supplement the government’s efforts towards making India a global leader in commercial space-based missions. Of late, ISRO’s rockets have been carrying the payload and communication satellites of various countries; now, private players will also look to enter this space with the new organisation.

ISpA will also work towards building global linkages for the Indian space industry to bring in critical technology and investments into the country to create more high skill jobs.

ISpA will be focussed on capacity building and creation of space hubs as well as incubators in the country for private space start-ups. It will work in tandem with NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), a central public sector enterprise under the Department of Space (DOS), which functions as the commercial arm for ISRO and secures launch contracts from customer satellites.

The association will also work with IN-SPACe, which acts as a regulator facilitating the use of government facilities by private companies.

What is the rationale behind establishing ISpA?

Space exploration: Ever since the race to reach space and then land on the Moon began between the US and the erstwhile USSR, governments across the world have poured millions of dollars towards the exploration of the edges of space. With time, governments and government agencies collaborated to explore newer planets and galaxies in search of life forms that exist outside Earth.

In the recent past, private sector companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin have taken the lead in spaceflight, promising to start tourist flights to space.

Though India too has made significant strides in space exploration over time, state-run ISRO has been at the centre and front of this progress. Several private sector companies, however, have shown an interest in India’s space domain, with space-based communication networks coming to the fore.

Innovation of new materials and technology: Space exploration and the demand it creates for tough, lightweight, heat-resistant, radiation–impervious materials have also led to the creation of many materials with unusual properties, such as teflon, nanotubes, dust-resistant paints, heat-resistant composites, etc. A domestic material sciences industry can thrive in such favorable conditions.

The origins of telemedicine and remote diagnosis also lie in space research. This has led to the development of things like lightweight exercise equipment, and portable MRI scanners. Studying humans, plants and other organisms in variable gravity has given us many insights into bioscience.

Also, there are the futuristic possibilities of robotic mining on the moon and asteroids, and the establishment of colonies or long-term habitats, on the moon, or Mars. These would require entirely new technologies and Indian start-ups may well contribute in these spheres as well.

If ISRO and the other ISpA members decide to launch manned missions, or offer space tourism packages, they will have to develop advanced technologies to ensure medical care. Instead of importing such equipment, the domestic healthcare industry would then receive access to “Made in India” products.

Space research has also led to extremely good recycling systems, which reprocess organic waste products (urine, faeces, carbon dioxide), and make them fit for re-consumption. Space research has also led to better designs for adult diapers, and more efficient toilets. Some of those water-recycling technologies have been scaled up for urban wastewater treatment at municipal level. Given India’s endemic and growing water shortages, more efficient toilets and better wastewater management and recycling systems would be a very big deal.

Satellite internet: In India, the space-based communications network is being seen as the next frontier to provide high-speed and affordable Internet connectivity to inaccessible, hilly and remote areas. This includes SpaceX’s StarLink, Sunil Bharti Mittal’s OneWeb, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, US satellite maker Hughes Communications, etc. Satellite internet is hugely important for the “Digital India” concept to work evenly across the nation.

The mapping of India and pinpointing of locations could be sharpened with the help of orbital devices designed for domestic purposes.

Weather-forecast apps rarely offer the hour-to-hour precision in India than they do in the West, and this is another gap waiting to be plugged.

And there’s space tourism too, for which a market may emerge.

Note: The current size of the global space economy stands at about $360 billion. However, India accounts for only about 2% of the space economy, with a potential to capture 9% of the global market share by 2030.
There are huge opportunities in space-related areas. A focus on exploiting these could lead to a rapid build-up of capacities currently lacking in India’s industrial base. Global communications, entertainment, weather prediction, and geo-locational systems are all dependent on satellites.
The global satellite launch market itself represents a big opportunity. ISpA could help develop the capacity to design, build and launch larger satellites for clients all around the world. This would happen more efficiently if there were multiple players competing and pitching in to research this.

Hence, ISpA can serve as a platform to bring public space agencies and private players together towards the development of India’s space sector, policies on space communication, and promotion of startups and innovation in fields like remote sensing.

Why do we need ISpA when we already have ISRO?

At present, the ISRO undertakes two to three major satellite launches a year. The Pillai committee had recommended a greater role for private sector for using ISRO facilities for satellite launch taking the number of annual launch to 15.

Also, Public-private partnerships would accelerate the grasp of the necessary technical know-how for building and launching larger satellites commercially.

Moreover, no single agency, no matter how accomplished, can explore all possibilities. Encouraging the injection of private capital and entrepreneurship is a must. While ISRO has made contributions to geo-location, weather management and communications, private enterprise could surely do more.

For instance: The NASA experience indicates how a collaboration between public agencies and private enterprise can lead to many positive outcomes. The US space agency does engineering design, science experiments, and “blue-sky” research, while contracting out for equipment it uses. Moreover, it freely releases and licenses the arising patents. This has led to the development of a vast range of technologies, which have found other off-the-shelf uses, and enriched America’s technical capacities in many ways. For eg: improvements in propulsion systems (with the private sector now building rockets), advances in computing, innovative chip designs, solar energy systems, autonomous vehicles, water management and waste-recycling systems, robotics, were all driven by space research before finding more everyday applications.

What are some pending issues/challenges/concerns?

Following are some challenges that ISpA will need to tackle,

i). Clarity on the role: Leading telcos have said that they had been asked to be core members, but they would prefer to be inducted as founding members. The telcos’ apprehension is that while founding members have five votes, the core members have only three and this could lead to a “non-level playing field”, especially as they have varying views on many issues in the space sector.

ii). Lack of a robust Dispute Settlement Mechanism: This discourages private investment in the space sector. The void was seen in the cancelled Antrix – Devas satellite deal and the ensuing dispute between the two entities. The Government of India owes nearly $1.2 billion to Devas Multimedia as per an order of a tribunal of the International Chamber of Commerce.

iii). Brain Drain: India produces the best brains in the world but is unable to retain them. People emigrate from the country for better opportunities and careers abroad which might hamper the development of the space sector.

iv). Managing big constellations of satellites: Although India has a good potential to launch satellites, managing a huge number of satellites in space could be a challenging task in the future. This should be done keeping in mind the possibilities of a future space war.

v). Lack of space legislation: The draft Space Activities bill was introduced way back in 2017 but hasn’t been passed yet. India needs comprehensive space legislation enabling coherence across technical, legal, commercial, diplomatic and defence goals.

What is the way forward?

Capacity development of youth: Incubators need to be set up all around India for the capacity development of our youth. Further, India also needs space scientists who can innovate and complement the efforts of ISpA. This can fuel the next-generation disruption and help India reach the pinnacle of space innovation.

Creation of space parks: Space parks, like the one set up in Kerala, also need to come up in other parts of India to develop capacities for startups, foreign investments and leveraging industry-academia synergy.

Providing a stable policy and regulatory environment will be another major requirement, as ISpA can move forward only if the government has a decisive vision of the future for the space sector of India.

Brahmos model: The Pillai report suggested that the Brahmos model could also be followed in space ventures. In Brahmos, the DRDO which is department of the government is an investor in a private capacity. Similarly, the ISRO could invest in any major public-private space partnerships to further complement objectives of ISpA.

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