Disrupting space: How far ahead is India in the $323-billion space economy?

247

New Delhi: India has launched the PSLV-C36 successfully, with 104 satellites on board. Apart from three Indian satellites, taking up 748.1 kg of its 1,500 kg capacity, it also carried 88 small satellites owned by a US-based company, Planet Labs, and others from five different countries.

This is despite the fact that US companies are not allowed to use Indian launch vehicles. In October 2015, the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, COMSTAC, noted “Antrix (ISRO’s commercial arm) will have an unfair advantage over domestic private sector competition, since it is an Indian governmental entity.”

But over the years some companies have managed to get waivers.

In 2015-16, Antrix earned a revenue of approximately ₹230 crore through such commercial launch services. But this is a mere 0.6 per cent of the global launch services market.

Though the PSLV launch is a feat, in fact a world record, it still doesn’t give India a bigger piece of the $5.9-billion global launch industry .

Three primary reasons for this are:

– There are two kinds of launches, commercial and noncommercial (military, civil). A US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) report notes that in 2015, just 26 per cent of total launches were commercial.

Commercial versus noncommercial launches in 2015

Out of the 22 commercial launches, US (8 launches), Russia (5), and Europe (6) constituted the biggest chunk of the pie. All of China’s 19 launches, the third highest that year, were for either civil or military purposes. Overall, India launched only 5 vehicles, of which only 2 PSLVs were commercial. So, where does that place India in the space transportation market? Somewhere at the bottom. India earned only $66 million in revenues. Europe earned $1,066 million and the US $617.

2015 total worldwide commercial launch activity

In a response to a question in the Parliament last year, the PMO revealed that between 2013-2015 India’s total revenue for launching 28 non-Indian satellites was $101 million. However, a PIB report noted that during 2015-16, Antrix earned a revenue of approximately $34.4 million approx (Rs 230 crore) through commercial launch services, which is reported to be about 0.6 per cent of the global launch services market. FAA in fact notes that India’s estimated revenue for commercial for 2015 could be $66 million.

– Why is India’s share so low despite launching over 175 commercial satellites till date, including the ones on the most recent launch?

That is because while nano and micro satellites are becoming increasingly popular, the market lies in carrying heavier satellites. ISRO needs to develop more missions to carry heavier satellites. ISRO is still only a master at launching PSLV, which can carry only 2,000 kg or less into a Low Earth Orbit (between 300 km and 800 km). For India to gain an edge in the space economy, it has to further develop its GSLV with a capacity of over 3,000-5,000 kg to launch heavier satellites into a Geostationary orbit (GSO or GTO, over 36,000 km above earth surface). ISRO has completed only three GSLV launches since 2014.

An FAA forecast in 2013 had noted that between 2015 and 2017, 39 per cent of satellite launches would be in the heaviest mass class (above 5,400 kg) whereas the lowest mass class (below 2,500 kg) would be just around 7 per cent. In 2014, of 15 non-US commercially available launch vehicles 9 were in the heavier mass class of 2,500 kg and above. In 2015, all of the five US and FAA-licensed launch vehicles had a capacity over 2,500 kg.

In comparison, the PSLV-C37 launched on February 15 had a capacity of 1,500 kg and was carrying 1,360 kg.