ISRO has already opened its doors to private players to participate actively in the space sector and a mega project like Shukrayaan-1 would be an ideal platform to commercialise ground operations such as mission support and satellite broadband operations

A lot more than science and high adventure await the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) as it clears the decks to launch Shukrayaan-1—a robotic probe to explore Venus, tentatively in December 2024. ISRO Chairman S Somanath formally announced the mission last week at a conference organized by the space agency in New Delhi.

“Building and putting a mission on Venus is possible for India in a very short space of time,” he said. “The capability today exists with India."

Shukrayaan-1 underlines the technological maturity ISRO has achieved, having successfully sent probes to the Moon and Mars and poised to launch its first manned space mission in 2023. But unlike the Mars Orbital Mission of 2014—which was essentially a technology demonstrator—Shukrayaan-1 will focus on doing a lot more science in Venusian orbit.

Venus is often referred to as Earth’s twin because of the similar size, mass, density and gravity of the two planets, but the reality is very different. Although Venus is not the closest planet to the Sun—Mercury is—it is the hottest, thanks to a dense atmosphere laden with carbon dioxide and sulphuric acid clouds that trap heat. Shukrayaan-1 will study this from a 300-kilometer high perch in Venus’ orbit, and map its surface and subsoil to detect hot spots associated with volcanic activity that are believed to be scattered all over the planet.

Venus has had many robotic visitors from Earth since becoming the first planet to be explored by a spacecraft way back in 1962 when NASA's Mariner 2 flew by the planet and gathered data on the heaviest planetary atmosphere in the solar system. In the years that followed, a number of Russian, American, European and Japanese orbiters and landers were dispatched to the second rock from the sun, giving us more insights into Venus’ bizarre atmosphere.

But scientists are still in the dark about many Venusian features. For instance, no one knows what makes temperatures soar to 500 degrees C in the atmospheric region 60 to 100 kilometers above Venus’ surface. Studying such anomalies will help scientists build computer models of the dynamics driving the bizarre Venusian atmosphere and provide vital clues about Earth’s own atmosphere: a fragile shell threatened by the inexorable push of global warming.

Interestingly, there is a more ‘down to earth’ aspect of Shukrayaan-1: its potential to impact India’s aerospace ecosystem. For the technologies powering Shukrayaan will also usher in new opportunities for India’s aerospace sector to come into its own. Technological spinoffs are inevitable for any interplanetary mission and India’s Venus mission is likely to put new horizons within reach of the country’s aerospace start-ups. ISRO has already opened its doors to private players to participate actively in the space sector and a mega project like Shukrayaan-1would be an ideal platform to commercialise ground operations such as mission support and satellite broadband operations.

This did seem far-fetched till some years ago, but recent developments augur well for the country’s nascent space industry, which is currently valued at less than 7 billion dollars—barely 2 percent of the global space market. In October last year, the government launched the Indian Space Association (ISpA)—the primary industry association of space and satellite companies in the country. ISpA’s mandate is to provide policy advocacy to the government while acting as a single window agency for stakeholders in the space domain, including government agencies like ISRO’s commercial arm, the NewSpace India Ltd (NSIL), and the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (IN-SPACe). The NSIL seeks to change ISRO’s approach to commercialisation from that of a “supply based model” to a “demand based model”, making it easier for the space agency and industry to partner each other in developing space-based services and strengthen the country’s space economy. Earlier this year, Skyroot Aerospace, a Hyderabad-based private company, highlighted this by test-firing an indigenously built upper stage cryogenic rocket engine running on liquid natural gas and liquid oxygen.

Private aerospace entities have a vast talent pool in fields ranging from design and aerodynamics to avionics, and today they make everything from spacecraft parts to rocket engines—at one time an exclusive preserve of ISRO. It is heartening to see encouragement coming their way as policies like “make in India” allow these companies to expand their operations, helping India on its way to becoming a major aerospace manufacturing hub.

While cheap labour and supportive regulations give India an edge over other countries in the aerospace domain, international aerospace giants seem to be increasingly averse to sharing technology with their Indian partners. Space projects like Shukrayaan-1, however, could set the tone for strategic collaboration between industry and foreign entities on more lenient terms of technology transfer rather than just the assurance of market access.

France, Russia, Sweden and Germany, for example, have evinced keen interest in sharing technology on India’s Venus mission. This will hopefully have a trickle-down effect on the country’s space sector which has the potential to become a $50 billion industry before this decade is out.