The Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, launched 36 satellites of OneWeb last week. OneWeb, a joint venture between the UK government and India’s Bharti Enterprises, had been scampering to secure a launch of its satellites after its original partner, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, backed out following the war in Ukraine. There seemed to be no backup available for OneWeb, with analysts citing SpaceX as the only possible option.
This launch by ISRO, therefore, is seminal. It has defied market expectations. It has done the launch in record time. It was also the first mission that did not use India’s traditional workhorse vehicle, the PSLV, but instead opted for the more sophisticated GSLV-Mk III. And it has further catapulted ISRO, and by extension India, as a promising and emerging player in the commercial launch market. To be sure, India did undertake commercial launches for other customers earlier as well, but the speed with which ISRO launched OneWeb’s satellites, and their overall significance, was truly a noteworthy milestone.
Given India’s increased capability and an enhanced appetite to undertake launches for overseas customers, is it possible to expand the scope of these activities? Could India not just launch small satellite constellations but also build them? Could it do this not just for private enterprises but also countries as well? India should use its capabilities in space infrastructure to undertake deft space diplomacy, with a focus on small satellites. This may fulfil a variety of objectives.
Small satellites are seeing an uptick in adoption in space due to the trend of miniaturisation of space components. And satellites increasingly drive a wide variety of products – from credit card swiping machines to weather monitoring systems. In the Ukraine War, SpaceX’s Starlink terminals (which link to a small satellite constellation of some 3,000 satellites in the Lower Earth Orbit) have been used not just to restore Internet connectivity in war-affected regions, but also as an aid to the Ukrainian armed forces in carrying out drone attacks against Russian forces. The fact that this asymmetric warfare has been effective has made other countries sit up and take note. Some are even calling Ukraine’s success in this war as “rewriting the rules of war.”
Therefore, India can and should think about entering this domain that enables smaller and less “space-capable” states to build their defensive capabilities for peaceful purposes. While SpaceX currently provides access to its Starlink terminals only to its customers, and has cited “cost” as a factor in possibly pulling such access from Ukraine, India should consider providing an entire vertical stack to other countries, including capacity building related to imparting technical “know-how”. This could be done by building, launching and providing access to small satellites to nations that wish to utilise the benefits arising from such services. Besides using them for defence purposes, these benefits accrue in the domains of precision farming, disaster management, and climate change impact measurement.
Logistically speaking, even for countries that may possess such satellite building capability, launching them in a timely and cost-effective manner is often a challenge. Many small satellites have to often operate as secondary payload on most rocket launches. The more thrust a rocket has, the more payload it can carry. Accordingly, since there are various payloads on a rocket, small satellites usually have to take a back seat and essentially “rideshare” with other payloads whose readiness determines the overall launch schedule. India, with its newly built SSLV, has demonstrated that it can address this logjam too. In fact, ISRO had developed the SSLV keeping in mind lighter payloads weighing less than 500 kg, which are usually used to provide Internet access in remote areas.
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Rules are in order
As luck would have it, India’s domestic policy matrix as well as the international regulatory scenario are currently aligned with these geopolitical aims. India’s freshly proposed telecommunication bill might just make it easier for satellite spectrum to be cheaper – which could help with the adoption of satellite terminals and then help drive use of satellite broadband. A larger satellite broadband user base may effectively drive down the cost per terminal and help ISRO, which itself entered the market for providing satellite broadband last month, to cross-subsidise other countries’ adoption of such satellites.
In addition to this, with the new US FCC rules mandating deorbiting going into effect (and with FCC being the de-facto global space regulator), de-orbiting may become a more common phenomenon, thereby providing opportunities for Indian companies that specialise in deorbiting satellites which have completed their missions. Given the increasing frequency of small satellite launches and the need for their replacement/deorbiting every now and then, this is eminently feasible. At the same time, there is a valid fear that this may lead to congestion in outer space over time, but India is currently chairing the Working Group on UNCOPUOS LTS Guidelines that is promoting the implementation of existing guidelines as well as discussing the possibilities of developing new guidelines to address the sustainability issues of small satellites, including satellite constellations.
However, challenges remain. India would need to ensure that the benefits provided by its small satellites are unique and not in conflict with any existing space programmes of partner/beneficiary nations. Furthermore, the gap between promise and performance must also be addressed since there is a perception that India’s other bilateral infrastructure projects have been afflicted by delays, whatever the cause may be. In the end, India has an opportunity to share the manifold benefits of its prowess in space with other countries. It must do so actively as a form of space diplomacy. Space has always been characterised as a part of the global commons. India can now validate this axiom to the advantage of the comity of nations.
Konark Bhandari is an associate fellow with Carnegie India. He tweets @KonarkBhandari.
Tejas Bharadwaj is a research assistant with Carnegie India. Views are personal.
The article is part of a series examining the geopolitics of technology, which is the theme of Carnegie India’s seventh Global Technology Summit (29 November to 1 December), co-hosted with the Ministry of External Affairs. Click here to register. ThePrint is the digital partner. Read all articles here
(Edited by Prashant)