On 28 February 2021, ISRO successfully launched 19 satellites using the PSLV-C51 launch vehicle. The payload included the 637 kg Amazonia 1, Brazil’s first indigenous earth observation satellite, as well as 18 Indian satellites (including some built by students and faculty from three Indian engineering colleges). ISRO’s robust and world-class capabilities in designing, building and launching satellites have been demonstrated on multiple occasions in the course of the past five decades. The growing interest shown by India’s private sector (including start-ups), to build satellites is certainly something to be proud of.

India is already a member of an elite club of countries with significant capabilities in the arena of space technologies (“spacetech”). While we are making steady progress, space needs to be looked at in the broader context of the important role that will play in enabling and accelerating the future economic growth and social development of countries like India.

Mobile telephony unleashed a worldwide revolution two decades ago. By quickly becoming a part of it, India benefited hugely; indeed, we continue to see how a hand-held device can become everything from a bank to a source of news to a shop and so much more. If India can pragmatically direct even more of its resources to spacetech, enormous benefits can be realized in the decades ahead. This is something that has started to happen in recent years by way of enabling policy changes.

For many years, ISRO’s satellites have been providing us with tangible benefits in three areas:

Giving farmers better and more timely information about weather conditions;
Alerting vulnerable populations to impending natural disasters and assist rescue and relief operations;
Enabling TV-based classes for rural students.

But the world is changing in several ways, and harnessing space technologies can ensure that we as a nation are able to adapt more effectively. One set of direct benefits accruing from spacetech relates to people living on earth, on the other hand, exploration of outer space through manned and unmanned missions can lead to greater knowledge about other planets and their suitability to support life as we know it. This of course may offer only long-term benefits.

Harnessing Space Technologies Can Deliver A Range Of Benefits

Here’s a look at diverse areas where space technologies can play an important role in the coming years.

It is quite clear that water will become an increasingly scarce resource because of climate change as well as continued irresponsible behaviour by human beings around the world. Managing groundwater resources will become even more critical in the years ahead. This is something that satellite-based remote sensing technologies can enable. Such information can also help farmers in selecting crops that are better suited to their areas so that they are less impacted by the vagaries of nature.

Traffic jams are an undeniable reality of most urban centres. With satellites at the right locations, it is possible to gather real-time information about traffic build-ups and alert on-ground police and other authorities to take timely action to minimize the magnitude of the jam. Similar eyes-in-the-sky can also be used to monitor forests, wildlife movements, prevent poaching and other illegal activities. Fishermen can be provided with better communication facilities when they are at sea. Government properties can be monitored so that encroachments can be prevented. Spacetech can also aid e-governance activities.

In a post-COVID19 world, as remote working and hybrid working models become mainstream, robust and reliable nation-wide digital connectivity becomes even more critical. Education too will be delivered through hybrid models, as will some elements of healthcare. However, large sections of India’s rural population do not yet have access to reliable and high-speed internet access due to various reasons including difficult terrain for laying fibre optic cables, inhospitable weather conditions for large parts of the year etc. This effectively denies many of our fellow-citizens access to various essential services. Spacetech has the potential to provide better connectivity.

If India is to encourage investments in new clusters to move away from large urban centres, those areas need high-speed connectivity. This is especially important for factories that wish to embrace Manufacturing 4.0, which relies on IoT (Internet of Things) technologies. Providing land banks and physical transport infrastructure, though necessary, will not be sufficient in the next decade.

While we in India are still in the early stages of testing 5G technologies, some countries have already started experiments in 6G. Although the world is several years away from agreeing on 6G standards and specifications, in November 2020, China launched what it calls the “world’s first 6G satellite” to demonstrate the use of terahertz frequency waves. If successful, this technology can enable data-transmission speeds that are many times higher than 5G can deliver.

Collaboration on space-related areas can play an important role in India’s foreign policy. The launch of Amazonia-1 is the culmination of years of collaboration between Indian and Brazilian space scientists and technologists.

As other countries start building and deploying space-based defence systems, India cannot afford to ignore its security interests. Spacetech can help identify threats and create more effective deterrents against hostile intentions.

Outer Space Is Another Frontier We Must Explore

While colonizing space to overcome the earth’s real estate limitations is a few decades away, we cannot ignore the growing competition in outer space exploration. Countries such as the US, Russia, China etc. have already made significant progress by sending probes to many planets. India too has made significant progress with its Chandrayaan 2 mission. While the lunar lander did not land as expected, the orbiter continues to provide valuable data to our space scientists. The Chandrayaan 3 mission is already in the works, as is Gaganyaan, India’s manned mission to the moon.

Several Enablers Are Needed To Efficiently Realize The Benefits of Spacetech Innovation

It is one thing to identify priorities and appreciate the need to move decisively; creating the right ecosystem to move forward productively, quickly and at scale is another matter altogether. Allocating financial resources is of course an important aspect. But it is just as critical to ensure that the different stakeholders- the government, industry (private and public sector) and academia work collaboratively and cohesively.

The government of India has put in place some important policies and legislations in this context. These include a Satellite Communication policy, Remote Sensing policy and the Space Activities Bill. While the intent to open up participation in different areas of the space sector to private players, the laws seek to maintain government control to prevent national interests from being compromised. However, there are still references to the Indian Telegraph Act (1885) and National Frequency Allocation (2018) that make the process of approvals and clearances cumbersome.

The draft Space Activities Bill, 2017 envisages mechanisms for regulating space activities, authorize and grant licences for commercial space activities, register space objects and liabilities relating thereto etc. India needs such umbrella legislation in keeping with the fact that we are a signatory to the international space treaty.

The government has established the Indian National Space, Promotion & Authorization Centre (IN-SPACe) under the aegis of the Department of Space to enable and support the participation of India’s private sector in the arena of space technologies. To build launch vehicles, provide launch services, build satellites and provide space-based services, the government, in 2019, set up New Space India Limited (NSIL). The role of the latter is to encourage industry participation in India’s space programmes. Yesterday’s successful launch was the first commercial mission undertaken by NSIL. But there needs to be more clarity around the regulatory powers of IN-SPACe.

The UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) has established a framework to ensure that individual entities (private or government) do not misuse space. Along with the International Telecommunication Union, this attempts to govern important aspects of activities in space, such as registration of objects launched into outer space, radiofrequency coordination, assignment and registration of satellite network frequencies, and compliance with the guidelines on space debris mitigation. Compliance is critical to ensure that the launch of a flurry of small satellites in the coming years does not put military or other satellites at risk.

Early steps have been taken. It is time that the government looks at bringing in necessary regulations and fine-tune existing ones to ensure that the intention of public-private partnership in this important field is encouraged, enabled and empowered.