The Government of India accords strategic importance to national space activities. The country’s space-based assets – satellites, spacecrafts, and launch vehicles – are constituents of expanding national critical infrastructure. Despite this criticality the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic has substantially delayed India’s space activities calendar for the year 2020. The activities need to be resumed expeditiously. Here’s why.
In the COVID-19 era, the world, including India, has grown in its dependence on information communication technologies (ICT). According to the Ericsson Mobility Report of June 2020, there has been an increase in data traffic ranging from 20% to 100% in various regions due to usage of remote working, education, remote health consultation, social-shared experience, and wellness mobile and computer applications since the COVID-19 lockdowns began. This consumption growth has suddenly generated immense business prospects for the ICT industry, not limited to 5G wireless services, but also to optical fiber as well as space-based ‘Sixth Generation’ (6G) internet networks. Space-based 6G, being the only enabler of last-mile space-air-ground-sea integrated connectivity, is witnessing early but fierce contest, particularly between US and Chinese private space companies.
Loon, the sister concern of Google from the Alphabet family, is working to provide last-mile 5G plus service, with particular focus in remote areas of Africa, using high-altitude balloons. SpaceX has begun providing low-Earth orbit satellite-based 5G plus internet service through its Star Link satellite constellation; it launched its latest instalment earlier in August and is preparing beta network tests by the end of 2020.
China’s state-owned company China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) too is launching the Xingyun satellite constellation, delivering space-based laser-based internet-of-things ICT, with the first of the Xingyun satellites in May this year. The satellites were launched using the Kuaizhou launch vehicle that belongs to another quasi-private subsidiary of CASIC, Expace. Kuaizhou is not a new rocket; it is a modified version of the Dong-Feng 21 missile, which the People’s Liberation Army often uses. Such projects have been possible because of the State Council of China’s recent recognition of satellite-based internet as a ‘new and non-traditional infrastructure’. China understands that acquiring quick industry competence in this domain is essential for dominating the 6G and space-based ICT technologies, an aim of the Digital Silk Route megaproject, as well as the information battlespace, a concurrent aim of the Military Civil Fusion strategy.
China’s confidence in the success of the Xingyun comes with the guarantee of an on-demand launch service provided by Expace. Similarly, SpaceX’s confidence in Star Link comes with the backing of its in-house low-cost and on-demand rocket launch capability that comes through its Falcon series of rockets.
The Indian government has used the lull in space activities due to COVID-19 lockdowns to reform the national space programme. These space reforms have put the private sector on a par with ISRO, the space R&D agency. However, apart from this vital policy level intervention, there has not been a single space launch until now in 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdowns.
Additionally, the lockdown has delayed numerous important space projects: such as the landing experiment of India’s space plane – the Reusable Launch Vehicle, the maiden launch test of the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, the launch of real time imagery satellites GISAT, and the unmanned test flight of the Gaganyaan project. Further delaying these strategic projects can have technopolitical consequences. India has lost three quarters of space activities, and there does not seem to be any urgency as exhibited by the US, Russia, Japan or China which have continued their space launches, COVID or not. This is evident from the launch of the US, Chinese and Emirati missions to planet Mars, the human spaceflights to the International Space Station and launches of numerous commercial, civilian and military satellites. There’s a lesson for India in this: The Indian space programme and its triad – civilian, military and commercial – must be equipped with uninterrupted operational capabilities, come disasters, pandemics or extinction.
India must exploit the liberalization of the space programme to the fullest. The private sector can now undertake space businesses either with international partners or with assistance from ISRO. In the absence of a concerted national space vision, India will occasionally give birth to promising global players that will go international as independently, and not part of a national endeavor. An example is the Bharati Group’s newly acquired stake in the internet service company, OneWeb, which is a corporate effort. A national space vision will encourage India’s private space players to form flourishing ecosystems, where each player has its own space ‘walled garden’ like CASIC, SpaceX and Alphabet.
The government has done its preliminary duty of reforming the space programme; it hopefully is now working on post-reform space plans. The private sector, now on an equal footing, must reflect and identify Space 2.0 business areas where it can quickly attain space competences as well as expand its business footprint precipitously. India’s space programme must participate in lucrative contest-worthy arenas such as space-based 6G assertively. This will happen if the government hand-holds the private sector for the next decade – just as other countries have done, successfully.
Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.
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