Antrix beckons

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s, or Isro’s successful launch of a 3,400-kg communication satellite, GSAT-29, on Wednesday shows that it has developed the capability to lift four-tonne payloads using its new GSLV Mark -III rocket. The GSLV-III is also likely to be used in the Chandrayaan-II mission. In fact, by 2022, Isro intends to carry out its first manned mission, putting three “Gaganauts” in space, and it is also planning an unmanned mission to Venus. This will demand a massive expansion in budgetary resources and manpower for the famously frugal organisation that is accustomed to running on a shoestring. The agency will expand in many directions as it strives to develop the new technologies required to learn how to keep humans healthy in high-radiation, airless environments with extreme temperatures. The financial resources should be provided. The space programme has already delivered many payoffs by enabling communications, mapping, weather forecasting, etc. The new GSAT-29 satellite, for example, will enable high-speed, high-capacity data transfers across remote regions. But more than budgetary support, it is high time that Isro was commercially enabled to use the capabilities it possesses, and the new capacities it will acquire, to generate meaningful revenues for itself.

This is more so because there have been interesting technological developments in the commercial satellite market, which is estimated to be worth over $30 billion annually, that tilt the scales in Isro’s favour. Most national space agencies (and private operators such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX) have focussed on launch vehicles that can carry large payloads. These rockets are inefficient at delivering small payloads. Meanwhile, rapid miniaturisation had led to the development of micro- and small-satellites, some of which are about the same size and weight (10-30 kg) as microwave ovens. It is possible to launch many micro-satellites from a single vehicle. Isro has already demonstrated this capability with a 31-satellite launch in January. It is highly competitive in terms of price and reputedly, the lowest-cost satellite launcher in the world. But other players are also interested in this large market. A new private aerospace company, Rocket Lab, believes that is can become the “FedEx of rocket launches” by carrying only small satellites. Rocket Lab recently launched a seven-satellite mission using its “Electron” rocket, which has a maximum payload of 225 kg. Apart from Rocket Lab and SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group are serious players.

Isro has the technical capacities to dominate this market. But it needs to develop the skills to market its services more aggressively as the competition gets hotter. But Isro's commercial arm, Antrix, has been under a cloud since the Devas scandal broke. Between 2013-2015, India earned just $101 million (about Rs 6.5 billion) from commercial launches and Antrix registered just Rs 19 billion in 2016-17 revenues. That is a tiny sliver of a very large market. In addition to funding Isro more generously to run its "blue sky" programmes, it would behove the government to beef up Antrix to enable it to compete more aggressively. It would make eminent sense to turn Antrix into a full-fledged public sector undertaking with the financial capital and the mandate to go out and aggressively compete in the highly lucrative market for commercial launches.

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