Space companies await the fineprint of reforms with big hope


The promise of a level playing field, helpful policy and use of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) facilities: how far-reaching would May 16’s round of reforms be for the country’s private funded space industry?

It could stretch from young Indian rocket-making companies building their satellites or testing their rockets at ISRO facilities to probably leasing or putting up their own launch facilities at the sprawling Sriharikota launch port on the east coast, hopeful voices from the space industry say.

Apparently such a broad reform has been in the making for about a year. In the wake of hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic across sectors, it came out now as Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s tranche-4 reliefs for space — and seven more niche sectors such as defence and atomic energy.

For the first time, satellite companies may feel assured that they could save much money by renting out ISRO’s infrastructure, assemble and test their satellites there, and probably export them, too.

Move welcomed

K. Sivan, Secretary, Department of Space & ISRO Chairman, told The Hindu that the ISRO was putting the policy details together. “We are working out a mechanism for these guidelines. Very soon we will put it in place for enabling private firms to do their activities. We welcome the government’s move and are appreciative of it,” he said.

Dr. Sivan did not confirm it: a separate committee is expected to assess the spare capacity of each relevant ISRO facility and fix the modalities and a fee for letting it out.

Rakesh S., CMD, Antrix Corporation under the DoS, said the new move in space would have wide implications comparable to the connectivity revolution unleashed by the telecom policy of 1994.

Associated policies should follow this soon.

Col. H.S. Shankar (retd), Founder-CMD of Alpha Design Technologies Ltd., Bengaluru, said this was one more complimentary step as ISRO had already opened up the sector to private players.

Alpha is among a handful of companies chosen to help the ISRO build national satellites at the agency’s facilities.

A couple of Bengaluru-based space entrepreneurs said the announcement sounded positive but broad. They would wait for the fine print of the government’s intent.

Growth spur

Noting that many competent but cash-needing space startups have come up in recent years, Mr. Rakesh said, “Commercial space in India will start growing.”

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For one, “facilities related to satellites and launch vehicles are very expensive and private companies and startups cannot afford to invest in them. The new access to public funded facilities will be a relief to them,” he said.

In the U.S., private companies used and leased launch pads and facilities at NASA’s Cape Canaveral launch complex. A similar model could be followed here also, he said.

Many of the ISRO’s subcontractors who want to build satellites for overseas companies faced unclear regulatory hitches. Now they can partner an overseas technology company and get into the global market for small and mid-sized spacecraft.

Mr. Rakesh said policy concerns of venture capitalists or VCs who held funds were now removed. They could feel confident about investing in space startups. For industries hit by COVID-19, “The reforms will help them to garner funds & move ahead with their operations post-COVID-19.”

The demand for applications based on earth observation data was phenomenal. Mr. Rakesh said the new intent eased security-driven restrictions on using the ISRO’s remote sensing satellite data and broadened its uses.

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Sagar Biswas

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