Space policy draws cautious optimism

Experts say clear demarcation of roles among various entities would mean sowing the seeds for a burgeoning private sector space industry; they also say policy is only the first step and many more are needed

April 22, 2023 10:37 pm | Updated 10:37 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Narendra Modi receives a memento from InSPACe chairman Pawan Kumar Goenkar (right) during the inauguration of the organisation in 2022.

Narendra Modi receives a memento from InSPACe chairman Pawan Kumar Goenkar (right) during the inauguration of the organisation in 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

The Centre’s updated Space Policy, cleared by the Union Cabinet on April 6 but made public on Thursday has drawn measured optimism from the India’s budding private sector start-up space.

The Indian Space Policy-2023 creates four distinct, but related entities, that will facilitate greater private sector participation in activities that have usually been the traditional domain of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

“To augment space capabilities; enable, encourage and develop a flourishing commercial presence in space; use space as a driver of technology development and derived benefits in allied areas; pursue international relations, and create an ecosystem for effective implementation of space applications among all stakeholders,” the policy says.

InSPACe (Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre) will be a “single window” clearance and authorisation agency for space launches, establishing launch pads, buying and selling satellites, and disseminating high-resolution data among other things.

It will also develop space industry standards, promote identified space activities and work with academia to widen the space ecosystem and enable industry-academia linkages.

ISRO will focus on research into outer space. This will mean developing new space technologies and applications “…to maintain India’s edge” in the areas of space infrastructure, space transportation, space applications, capacity building and human spaceflight.

It will also share technologies, products, processes and best practices with NGEs (non-government entities and this will include private companies) and government companies.

The policy underlines that ISRO will “…transition out from the existing practice of being present in the manufacturing of operational space systems. Hereafter, mature systems shall be transferred to industries for commercial exploitation.”

A third entity, New Space India Limited (NSIL), that has already executed a few commercial space launches – and the replacement for ISRO’s beleaguered Antrix – will be responsible for commercialising space technologies and platforms created through public expenditure, as well as, manufacture, lease, or procure space components, technologies, platforms and other assets from private or public sector.

Finally, the Department of Space will provide overall policy guidelines and be the “nodal” department for implementing space technologies and, among other things, co-ordinate international cooperation and coordination in the area of global space governance and programmes in consultation with Ministry of External Affairs. It will also create “an appropriate mechanism” to resolve disputes arising out of space activity.

While private sector participation has been highlighted as one of the main draws of the new policy, they will be limited to Indian companies and the question of whether foreign direct investment via the ‘automatic’ route will be permitted in space is as yet unresolved and pending government approval.

Experts told The Hindu that overall, the clear demarcation of roles among various entities, meant sowing the seeds for a burgeoning private sector space industry. Much as India’s telecom sector is now dominated by private companies unlike a few decades ago, similarly the space sector too was envisioned to follow a similar trajectory and the policy acts as an enabler, said Arup Dasgupta, a former scientist at the ISRO and an observer of the space sector. “This clarity that has been brought that Department of Space won’t be everything and that whatever will be done will be relevant to, for instance, the Ministry of Commerce, Finance etc., is significant. INSPACe will play the role of growing a private-sector,” Dr. Dasgupta added.

Narayan Prasad, Chief Operations Officer, Satsearch said that while the long-awaited policy was an important “first step” in the commercial space ecosystem, there were several others needed. These included directions on the new entities actively demanding goods and services from private start-ups, and clarity on whether INSPACe would take on regulatory roles.

“One aspect that’s revolutionary, according to me, is the enabling of open data access from ISRO’s remote sensing satellites... Also, we have clarity on INSPACe’s role as a guardian and promoter of the private space industry rather than gatekeeper,” said Sreeram Ananthasayanam, partner, Deloitte India, and closely involved with India’s space technology industry ecosystem.

In enabling open satellite data access, satellite images with a ground sample distance (GSD) greater than five metres (a satellite image where two adjacent pixels represent points five metres apart on the ground) would be freely available, the new policy states. However those with a GSD less than 30 cm required INSPACe authorisation due to “national security considerations,” the policy noted. “That’s a little unusual because we have Google images freely available that are 25 cm,” said Dr. Dasgupta.

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