India’s space business is ready for lift-off

India launched its heaviest and most powerful rocket, GSLV Mark III, developed entirely at home, on 5 June. Photo: PTI

New Delhi: For the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), this has been a remarkable year. It took two launches to make it so. The first, in February, set the startling record of the maximum satellites injected into orbit by a single launch, 104—a tremendous leap from the previous record of 37.

The second, in June, was the first successful launch of India’s heaviest, most powerful rocket, GSLV Mark III, developed entirely at home, through more than 15 years of patient work. GSLV is short for Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle.

Beyond the usual registers of ingenuity, scientific progress and national pride that space programmes evoke, these launches marked a strictly business-oriented milestone: It announced the ambitions of Antrix Corp. Ltd, Isro’s fledgling commercial arm, of becoming a serious contender in the $335.5 billion global space industry, and part of a new space race that is poised for take-off.

“In the next five years, the growth in space will be mind-boggling,” says Rakesh Sasibhushan, Antrix’s chairman and managing director. “It will change the way we do things and the kind of technology we will be able to put in space.”

Rakesh Sasibhushan, chairman and  managing director of Antrix. Photo: Mint

Rakesh Sasibhushan, chairman and managing director of Antrix. Photo: Mint

Billions of dollars worth of new investment have poured in for a clutch of new projects with old roots, providing high-speed satellite Internet connections that will blanket the globe. Isro and Antrix are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this because the nature of the project involves placing thousands of small satellites in a so-called Low Earth Orbit, or LEO, the very thing that Isro’s most successful rocket, PSLV, does so well (the 104-satellite launch was all about small satellites being put into LEO). PSLV stands for Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

Antrix, says Sasibhushan, is looking at “an unprecedented transition period because of the growing global market”.

“The 104 launch by the PSLV has been a big boost for us as far as marketing is concerned,” he says. “In business terms, we are looking at a major milestone in the next one year.”

The new space race needs a lot of rockets.

Internet on satellite

Most of the world’s Internet works through terrestrial connections. One of the major reasons why communication satellites that are in geosynchronous orbits (at around 35,000km from earth), are not used for Internet is “latency”—the time lag that is introduced when signals have to travel back and forth from the satellites. It takes a radio wave at least 230 milliseconds to get to geosynchronous orbit and back; a signal through a fibre optic cable can travel between New Delhi and London around eight times in that time.

But the terrestrial network has its own limitations; despite the galloping demand for connectivity, Internet users across the world are still clustered mainly in urban areas, because those are the areas the cables reach. Forget India or African countries, even large swathes of the US do not have access to fast broadband connections.

Yet, the global demand for broadband services continues to grow at light speed; according to a report by Cisco Systems Inc. last year, over 1,000 billion gigabytes of data was exchanged in 2016. By 2020, that figure is expected to double, and the number of “connected” devices is projected to become around thrice the global population.

Enter SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

To meet these needs, and to overcome the problem of time lag, SpaceX plans to instal a “constellation” of small satellites in LEO (between 1,150-1,350km above earth). The idea is that this constellation—4,425 satellites according to SpaceX—will be able to provide coverage to every part of the planet. The satellites will deliver broadband using Ka- and Ku-band radio frequencies and move data between each other using laser links in a mesh network. The latency will drop to nothing because of the small distance between the satellites and the ground systems.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Photo: Bloomberg