India is making strides in the space industry and positioning itself as a reliable alternative to SpaceX, taking advantage of the geopolitical isolation of China and Russia. Last month, state-owned NewSpace India launched three dozen communication satellites for OneWeb from an island off the nation’s eastern coast, indicating India’s ambitions in the sector. By 2025, the space economy is expected to grow to $600bn from $447bn in 2020, according to Ernst & Young estimates.
India has emerged as a viable option for satellite launches since China and Russia, the long-running state space program providers, are now off limits to many would-be customers due to the war in Ukraine and Beijing’s tensions with the US. OneWeb turned to India after Russia scuppered the original launch last year, taking 36 of its spacecraft hostage. At the same time, France’s Arianespace has had difficulties getting its newest rocket ready for use, while Virgin Orbit Holdings ceased operations indefinitely after a launch failure in January.
China, in particular, has become a less appealing option for many satellite operators due to growing concerns about Beijing accessing Western technology. Conversely, India has moved closer to the US and other regional powers, including Australia and Japan, and the country’s launches cost less than other rivals.
Developing the space sector is a significant component of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India campaign, which aims to position the world’s fifth-largest economy as a top destination for technological innovation. His administration has encouraged the growth of startups to make India’s space agency more business-friendly.
NewSpace, created in 2019 as the commercial arm of the national space agency, the India Space Research Organisation (ISRO), is ramping up production of India’s largest domestically developed rocket, the LVM3, to help India compete on the global stage. Neil Masterson, the CEO of OneWeb, said NewSpace has “a real opportunity to be a mainstream commercial launch provider.” Last fiscal year, the company posted revenue of $210mn and profit of $41mn. NewSpace provided satellite launch services for 52 international customers.
Last year, China conducted 64 launches, the Communist Party-backed newspaper Global Times reported. In contrast, India managed five similar launches, all by ISRO or NewSpace. However, the Indian government has eased rules for private sector satellite and rocket companies, enabling them to carry out independent space activities instead of being solely the suppliers to ISRO. The reforms also allow startups to access ISRO’s facilities, such as launchpads and laboratories. By 2025, the value of India’s satellite launch services could almost double to $1bn.
India has a long way to go to catch up to China, which owned 13.6% of all earth-orbiting satellites as of March 2020, compared to India’s 2.3%, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. Furthermore, India’s rockets have had reliability issues in the past, with a success rate of about 70% in recent years compared to the 90s for rockets from the US, Europe, Russia, or China. Therefore, when choosing to launch in India, customers “are accepting a slightly higher risk of failure,” according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Centre for Astrophysics, operated by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution.
Despite the challenges, India remains a popular choice for cost-efficient launches. In 2013, India sent an orbiter to Mars for a tenth of the price of a Nasa probe that went the same year. “There aren’t many players that have a large-capacity launch vehicle that’s cheap,” McDowell said. “And that’s not China or Russia.”