Space business & India

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) deserves much credit for elevating the public’s interest in space research to a level comparable to that in cricket and the economy.

The space business is dominated by the US, Russia and Europe, and India, like China, hopes to get a piece of the launch business. The supply of high resolution images in various bands (remote sensing) is another traditional commercial expectation. In both areas, ISRO has a solid record and the successful launch of Chandrayaan-I has lifted ISRO’s brand image to a higher level.

Competition for launches as well as remote sensing is heating up. Private entities with respectable launch capabilities have sprung up in Russia and the US. SpaceX, a California-based company, offers simple pricing and even a user’s manual. Apparently, a rocket launch can become as simple as buying, say, an oscilloscope.

What may be lost in the glare of the launches and the rich and fine tapestry of remote sensing is the holistic accomplishment of ISRO and related agencies in the use of space technology for societal needs. Remote sensing has doubled the precision of pin-pointing groundwater tables (wells), enabled monitoring of farm and natural resources and increased yields for fishermen. Communications satellites have linked doctors, consulting rooms and operating theatres across the country and have provided bandwidth for education, research and farmers.

It is this integrated package (including the construction of inexpensive radio telescopes) that may constitute a new market for which India is well positioned. Creating this integrated market for remote sensing and inexpensive satellitebased communications will necessarily involve a determination and major effort on the part of the Indian government.

The space business can not only be good business but also help India project its “soft power”. In a world racked by climate change (and associated bouts of food shortages and fuel deficits), this sort of soft power will be far more attractive than projections of military power or even simple-minded economic power.

In contrast, the West’s scientific satellites have become increasingly large and prohibitively expensive. The satellites frequently take a decade to build and run the danger of becoming obsolete in terms of technology by the time they are launched! An opportunity exists for India to promote space-based research based on frequent access to the heavens and the use of small satellites.

Again, India can simultaneously promote global science as well as project its soft power by designating itself as the centre for small satellites. I do not think it is essential for India to pay for these projects. Merely signalling its readiness to become a leader will elicit strong responses from smaller countries. Indeed, Chandrayaan-I is an example of this approach: six of the 11 instruments were built by other countries (including Bulgaria and Sweden).

The future for India in the space business and space science is quite bright. India can blaze a successful and a distinct trail by building on her strengths and being aware of her financial limitations.

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