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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.”

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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
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expected to double, and the number of “connected” devices is projected to


become around thrice the global population.

Enter SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

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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 plans to begin testing prototypes this year, and launch its first
satellites in 2019, with full capacity service expected to begin by 2024. In
May, the US regulatory body Federal Communications Commission held a
hearing for SpaceX’s application.

Musk is not alone in betting on broadband satellites, an idea that first took
shape in the 1990s with American companies Teledesic and Iridium, and
ended in spectacular failures. This time, the results may be very different. For
one, the technology for both satellite manufacturing and launch vehicles has
undergone cosmic changes. And, as Carolyn Belle, satellite and launch
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industry analyst at Northern Sky Research (NSR), a space market research


and consulting services firm, says, “The times have changed.”

“In the 1990s, the idea was a bit too early,” she says. “But now connectivity
and mobile Internet network is in every part of our lives.”

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Musk’s opponents in this race include OneWeb, a London-based consortium


backed by Sunil Bharti Mittal and Richard Branson, among others, that
raised $500 million from investors in 2015 when it announced the plans, and
received a further $1.7 billion this year from Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp.
after it merged with satellite telecom firm Intelsat (SpaceX raised $1 billion,
with backing from Google).

Boeing Co. is also in the fray and Bloomberg reported in April that Apple Inc.
may be funding its efforts. There are smaller firms such as US-based LeoSat
as well. Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd too has outlined similar plans. The
International Telecommunication Union, which designates orbital slots for
communication satellites, says it has received 35 filings since 2015 for
broadband constellations, most of them involving “mega constellations”. The
target is a share of the $30 billion in revenue from satellite Internet by 2025,
according to a forecast by SpaceX.

All of this is just to say that if things go according to plan, thousands of new
satellites will have to be launched in the next five years, at a frequency that is
unheard of.

“This is now a separate market (small satellites),” says Belle of NSR. “Right
now, commercial operators are restrained most by launch availability—they
have satellites, but no way to put them into orbit.”

While SpaceX will use its own launch services for its constellation, OneWeb
has already secured services for its proposed 648-satellite constellation
through a deal between European Space Agency’s Arianespace, Russia’s
Roscosmos and Virgin Galactic; valued at over $1 billion, it’s the largest
commercial launch purchase in history.

That leaves all the other Internet broadband firms scrambling to secure
launches.

“So when you have something like a 104 satellites launched in one go, it
opens up intriguing possibilities; it adds a lot of value for whatever company
can secure such a deal,” says Belle.

Sasibhushan says that Antrix is already in discussions with some of the


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companies in the broadband space race, though he did not disclose names.

“Currently, we have on hand orders of around Rs600 crore, for PSLV


launches up to 2020,” he says, “We are expecting many more orders to come
in.”

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The business of space

So far, India has been an insignificant entity in the space business, where
roughly 80% of the revenue has historically come from the launch of heavy
satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Despite the success of the GSLV Mark III,
India still does not have a rocket powerful enough to do that. It relies almost
entirely on Arianespace to launch its own heavy satellites.

PSLV, a smaller vehicle, has been in use since 1994, and slowly built a
reputation for reliability over the next decade, launching a handful of small
satellites for other countries. Since 2008, PSLV’s “order book” began to show
a spike in interest, and in 2013, when it successfully launched India’s Mars
Orbiter, the cheapest ever mission to Mars, there was a further boost to
orders.

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Till around five years back, there was little commercial interest in putting
small satellites in LEO. Now there are all kinds of companies that want that
space, for remote sensing, earth imaging and communication.

This change of orbital interest coincided with another development that


turned out to be lucky for Antrix. The global vehicle of choice for launching
small satellites, a Russian-Ukrainian converted intercontinental ballistic
missile called Dnepr, was decommissioned after the Russian annexation of
Crimea led to tension between the two countries in 2015. Russia’s space
agency suspended its joint programme with Ukraine to launch the rockets. It
was Dnepr that had held the previous record for most satellites deployed in a
single launch, when it put 37 of them in orbit in 2014.

PSLV stepped in. In 2015, three PSLV flights put 18 foreign satellites in orbit;
previously, it used to average four foreign satellites a year. More launches
followed in quick succession, including the full constellation of 100 satellites
for US-based start-up Planet Labs, an earth observation company that hopes
to begin data services by the end of this year. Twelve Planet Labs satellites
travelled on a PSLV in June 2016, and the rest were a part of the record 104-
satellite launch.
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Yet, says Sasibhusan, “the launch market using the PSLV is still not large. It
brings in only 20% of our revenue”.

Most of Antrix’s revenue (it made a profit after tax of Rs209.13 crore in
2015-16, up from Rs205.10 crore in 2014-15) comes from satellite

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communication services, and the biggest contributor is direct-to-home


television.

Now that this is set to change with the battle for satellite broadband, Isro and
Antrix are increasingly focusing on making PSLV launches more
commercially attractive.

First off, PSLV is marketed as the cheapest launch vehicle in the world.
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A launch by Ariane-5, the most successful commercial rocket in use right


now, costs more than $100 million, while that by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 costs
around $62 million. When SpaceX introduced Falcon 9, there was serious
disruption in the market, with Arianespace and other firms scrambling to
bring costs down. In comparison, a PSLV launch costs $15 million, yet the

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cost is not considered disruptive enough.

“The dynamics of launch costs are a complex area,” says Belle of NSR. “The
PSLV is far less capable than the Ariane 5, for example, being used to deliver
satellites with a lower total mass to LEO rather than GEO, thus should be a
lower cost. Costs must always be made by approximate price per kg to the
same orbit to eliminate these variables.”

Taking such variables into account, Belle says that “commercial operators
have clearly stated that the launch prices they have received from Isro are not
that much cheaper than the proposed American or European launch prices”.

For Belle, the availability and frequency of launches is a far more pressing
concern for companies.

“The business requires the constellation to be in place,” she says. “If you are
waiting for launches, and you can’t get more than 10 or so satellites up in a
year, then you may have to drop the idea altogether.” This is one of the chief
reasons why OneWeb has secured a multi-agency deal, involving multiple
rockets and launch sites.

Improving the frequency of launches is on top of Isro’s priorities as well.

“There is a great demand for PSLV launches and our primary aim now is to
streamline the activity so we can have more frequent launches,” says Isro’s
chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar. “At the moment we are doing four-five a year.
By 2020, we are hoping to get to 18 launches a year.”

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Work is on at multiple fronts to make this happen. A second vehicle assembly


building is being added to Isro’s launch site at Sriharikota, so that even while
one mission is ongoing, another vehicle can be in preparation. Already, Kiran
Kumar says, by streamlining various processes and bringing in better
technology, the gap between two launches has been reduced from 70 days to
30 days (till 2007, there used to be one launch every two years). In June, the
new capacity is being put to the test for the first time, with the GSLV Mark III
launched in the first week, and a PSLV launch scheduled for the last week of
the month.

There is still a major barrier before Antrix can properly exploit Isro’s launch
capabilities: as a national space agency, the priority for Isro is not business,
but national missions, and commercial launches are accommodated only
when some spare capacity opens up.

“There has always been a huge gap in national needs for strategic or civilian
use,” says Kiran Kumar, “and we have worked to bridge that gap. But the gap
is still there; we need double the number of satellites that we already have, so
commercial activity cannot be a priority.”

This year, for example, Antrix has not had much to do after the February
launch of PSLV because of the lack of spare capacity.

“We are not at all in the same domain as SpaceX or other private space
companies,” says Sasibhushan. “Our vision is to build a strong ecosystem for
the space industry in India. We have very good intellectual assets and a host
of good technology sitting at Isro and we want to manage that and see how
we can work with private companies so they can build their portfolios and
also complement Isro’s program.”

Opening up the skies

Space is still an entirely government-controlled entity in India, unlike in the


US or in Europe, where it has been increasingly privatized since the 1980s,
turning their national space agencies into managing and contracting
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organizations.

Isro has promised for long to move in that direction, but has had to walk the
tricky line of strategic limitations and government regulations. The space
agency has an enduring relationship with close to 400 companies, but none

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of the companies can offer the products they make for Isro to the general
market. For the same strategic reasons, Isro also keeps tight control over
technology as well as material. Godrej Aerospace, which manufactures the
engines and boosters for Isro’s rockets, for example, has had to turn down
inquiries from global companies for its products. The final assembly for the
engines is also not in its hands and is done by Isro. Private companies are not
allowed to build or operate satellites for their own commercial use.

All of this is set to change. This year, Isro contracted out one of its satellite
integration facilities to a private company, Alpha Design Technology Pvt. Ltd.
Work has also started with Godrej Aerospace to enable them to make the
final engine or “stage”.

“It needs a lot of government approvals still, but Isro has internally begun the
process of farming out the manufacturing of the PSLV entirely to private
industry,” says S.M. Vaidya, executive vice-president and business head at
Godrej Aerospace. “All the existing players have been asked to step up by one
level.”
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Vaidya says that it is only a matter of two-three years before this goal is
realized. “We’ve waited for 20 years, but now we are close.”

It is not just regulatory issues that have delayed this opening up, but also
technical ones. The Vikas engine built by Godrej Aerospace for PSLV has

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been a work in progress for years, and it is only in the last 10 flights, says
Vaidya, that its accuracy has reached 99% on all parameters.

The increasing frequency of launches by Isro has also helped Godrej


Aerospace to finally justify its rocket engine business.

“Till 2014, our production lines were operating at 30-40% capacity, making
one engine per year,” says Vaidya. “Now we are working at 60-70%, because
Isro now needs seven-eight engine per year, and we hope to hit 90% in the
next two years. To give you some perspective, you need to operate at 80% to
break even.”

This year, the GSLV Mark III flew on India’s first fully home-grown cryogenic
engine. But the engine makers are poised for another major leap already. “We
are making a 200-tonne semi-cryogenic engine—the second biggest booster
in the world,” says Vaidya. “It has gone for sub-systems testing, and we are
set to deliver by the end of the year.”

Sasibhushan, who has been with Isro since 1984, and spent 25 years in
manufacturing before taking charge of Antrix last year, is driving some of
these changes.

“I know what it takes to make a space system,” he says. “I knew what changes
were required in manufacturing to make it commercial. We are looking at
technology sharing as a step-by-step process. First we are looking at sharing
tech that can’t do damage, that’s not sensitive, but which will enable a
company to enter the growing global market in space.”

Isro is also helping companies get space qualification, a strict requirement in


the business. Not a single nut or bolt can make it to the market without being
space-qualified, which basically means that it can handle the extreme
conditions in space.

“We have end-to-end solutions if you look at it,” says Sasibhushan.

TeamIndus, a seven-year-old Bengaluru start-up that is in the news for being


the only Indian company in the Google Lunar XPrize competition, is a perfect
example of this new push. It is hoping to land an indigenously developed
spacecraft on the moon—that’s the objective of the Lunar XPrize
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competition—and has secured a launch contract with Antrix for this


December for an undisclosed sum.

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“Without Isro, we wouldn’t be here,” says Ramnath Babu, head of operations


at TeamIndus (his designation is “Jedi Master, Operations”.) “They let us use
their machining centres, facilities you won’t find anywhere else in India. Isro
went beyond their obligations. I remember being at their facility for one such
test last year, and every Isro team was there before time, and they all worked
after duty hours.”

The 49-year-old renewable energy expert says that he is confident that Indian
firms will finally get a slice of the space industry. TeamIndus, once the Lunar
XPrize contest is over, will focus on making cost-effective satellite platforms
or buses.

“There is growing demand for satellites for weather forecasting, earth


observation, remote sensing, broadband, and everyone from Google to
Facebook want to launch more satellites,” says Babu. “In another seven years,
you will have a lot of space entrepreneurs like me.”

Sasibhushan says that enabling Indian companies to make low-cost satellites


is something Antrix is actively working towards. “We are looking at
technology developed by Isro that can be leveraged to make India the hub of
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cheap small satellite manufacturing.”

There is still a long distance to go. For one, that precarious balance between
national demands and commercial ambitions is still weighed heavily towards
the former.

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“Isro has such pressure and backlog for national missions that it’s very hard
for them focus on the commercial side,” says Vaidya. “Huge integrated
investments have to be made in both Isro and private industry before we can
hope to enter the global space business, and that will take at least five or six
more years.”

First Published: Thu, Jun 15 2017. 07 54 AM IST

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