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Govt to part-fund 12 earth observation satellite launches in PPP model

The Centre is looking to offer a range of incentives in order to build demand for the domestic private space sector. These include establishing a public-private partnership (PPP) model for earth observation (EO) satellites, as well as incentives for conducting satellite launches through domestic rockets from Indian launchpads.

In an interview with Mint, Pawan Goenka, chairman of Centre-affiliated space coordination body Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (In-Space) said, “Right now, we are launching an EO-PPP model, which will offer support to private sector companies to launch 12 satellites with some funding from the government. We’re also offering funding support via incentives for space launches through India, as well as accessing technologies.”

Goenka, however, did not provide information about the size of the incentives for either of the activities.

Also in the works is the creation of a nodal space data organization—a precedent of which already exists in the European Union through the latter’s Copernicus programme. “We’re looking to create a company that will become a nodal data disseminator—by accessing data through Isro as well as other sources, and making it available to multiple entities,” Goenka added.

Even as private space firms continue to ramp up their offerings, demand generation has been a challenge. On Wednesday, S. Somanath, chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), said that the key to generating demand will be in creating new applications that require satellite data. “There is so much more possibility in the area of applications, as well as space timings and fusion of earth observation and miscellaneous observations. This will create demand to make satellites in India, which in turn will lead to demand for satellite launch vehicles,” Somanath said.

Elaborating on this, Goenka added, “Creating this demand is not a policy or financial hurdle. Apart from satellite communications, so far, only government bodies have been clients to the space sector. There continues to be very little demand for anything apart from communications. This is why we need to increase visibility of space.”

Opportunities in space
To do this, In-Space has identified two areas of opportunities—ground station as a service, and satellite as a service. “Three firms have already sought authorization to set up ground stations. Today, any downlink of satellite data is only done by Isro. Non-Indian satellites passing through Indian airspace presently do not have a facility to download their data to a ground station within Indian borders. If any such data is required here, it is downloaded elsewhere and transferred to India. The private sector can resolve this through commercial ground stations,” Goenka said.

For satellite services, one of the early instances was Wednesday’s $8.5-million space launch contract signed between Australian startup Space Machines and Isro’s commercial arm, NewSpace India Ltd (Nsil). The former’s 450kg satellite observation payload is set to be launched aboard a privatized version of the Isro-designed Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) in 2026.

Calling this a big opportunity, Goenka said that satellite services can help India create an all-round commercial space economy. “Any payload operator can come to an Indian firm to access a satellite, and subsequently, its data. Three startups from within India have had some success in conducting pilot projects here, with commercial revenue. One of the companies from these three is currently in process of signing a large commercial contract from a foreign firm to carry three payloads aboard their satellite, which will be launched aboard an Indian rocket. The launch should take place this year,” he added.

Bengaluru-headquartered satellite imagery and data analytics firm Pixxel is among entities that are in the race to capture early commercial satellite clients, and has conducted commercial pilots with revenue, two senior industry officials said. Others currently in contention for a share of the satellite manufacturing and services pie include Chennai-based Galaxeye and Bengaluru-based Digantara, among others—the officials added.

Beyond startups, long-term supplier vendors to Isro are also involved. For instance, Bengaluru-headquartered Ananth Technologies is manufacturing Space Machines’ upcoming satellite, called ‘Optimus’, based on the latter’s reference design from its team in Australia, Ananth founder Subba Rao Pavuluri told Mint.

Chaitanya Giri, space analyst and associate professor of space studies at Flame University, Pune, underlined that while Wednesday’s space contract with Australia was “not very big,” it was still significant. “Such contracts are likely to be seen more often, and while they are not major events in the overall space industry of India—which has done far larger launches aboard Isro’s heavier rockets—contracts of such magnitude will be what small rockets will target at more frequent intervals,” Giri said.

Rocket launches
Now, both Goenka and Somanath expect to see nearly 30 small rocket launches within the next two years. Calling the demand realistic, Goenka added, “It won’t take 10 more years for small rocket launch operators to build demand to around 30 launches per year. Three things need to come together—launch vehicle, launch pad and market demand. The ability to make up to 12 rockets on-demand will be there in the next two years for each of the private operators. For the small rockets, a new, dedicated launch pad will also be ready within this time.”

Hyderabad-headquartered Skyroot Aerospace is expected to host its second rocket launch later this year, while Agnikul Cosmos is expected to host its second launch in the first half of 2025. The privatization bid for SSLV is currently underway, and a final bid winner is likely to be announced in the months to come, Goenka said.

“Practically, if we can do 30 small rocket launches in a year including all of the three, that is a very good number. This benchmark can make each of the three ventures commercially viable, but scaling up is always great,” he said. LiveMint

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