March , 2017
India becomes a major player in the multi-billion dollar space marketc
00:00 am

Varsha Singh and Ankita Chakraborty

Integration of space infrastructure into the larger telecommunication industry, which is globally worth $5 trillion annually, has enabled the creation of a large value chain for space telecommunication services. Comparatively, the size of the entire space economy, including all government budgets and commercial revenues, is $330 billion annually.


The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) created history by launching 104 satellites at one go. The rocket took off at 9:28 am on February 15, 2017, and cruised at a speed of 27,000 kilometres (16,777) per hour, successfully ejecting all the 104 satellites into orbit in 30 minutes or so, according to ISRO officials. Out of the 104 satellites, 101 were foreign satellites to serve international customers as India seeks a bigger share of the more than $300 billion global space industry.

The rocket’s main cargo was a 714 kilogramme satellite for earth observation but it was also loaded with 103 nano satellites, weighing a combined 664 kilogrammes. Nearly all the nano satellites are from other countries, including 96 from the United States and one each from Israel, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates. After this launch, India holds the record for launching the most satellites in one attempt, surpassing Russia which launched 37 satellites in a single mission in June 2014.

The Chairman of the Indian Space Agency, Kiran Kumar, said his team had not set out to break records. He said, “We are just trying to maximise our capability with each launch and trying to utilise the launch for the ability it has got, and get the maximum in return.”

Commercial aspect of Indian space tech

Space technology can be used as an instrument in enhancing human welfare, in communications, in forewarning against disasters, and for expanding the horizons of human knowledge. Further, it can be used to mitigate the devastating consequences of conflicts, wars, and deprivation that threaten human survival.  According to the think tank, Observer Reserve Foundation (ORF), the global commercial space industry is booming due to an enterprising private sector that has the support of the government. Integration of space infrastructure into the larger telecommunication industry, which is globally worth $5 trillion annually, has enabled the creation of a large value chain for space telecommunication services. Comparatively, the size of the entire space economy, including all government budgets and commercial revenues, is $330 billion annually.

The business of putting commercial satellites into space for a fee is growing as phone, internet, and other companies, as well as countries, seek greater and more high-tech communications. India is competing with other international players for a greater share of that launch market, and is known for its low-cost space programme. The February 2017 launch has helped to cement India’s place as a serious player in the burgeoning private space market, which is expected to significantly grow as the demand for telecommunications services increase.

Last June, India set a national record after it successfully launched a rocket carrying 20 satellites, including 13 from the US. It sent an unmanned rocket to orbit Mars in 2013 at a cost of just $73 million (roughly `488 crores), compared with NASA’s Maven Mars mission, which had a $671 million (roughly `4,490 crore) price tag. In September, 2016, it launched 79 foreign satellites. This has earned the country more than $120 million. Further, India’s space agency has already secured deals to launch many more foreign satellites.

Since India has launched multiple satellites in a single mission it has put the country on a firm footing in the global market. Many private companies are developing satellites that they need for their operations but most cannot afford to launch these independently. So they need to be associated with agencies like ISRO that have launch facilities.

“The need for launches is growing exponentially worldwide, primarily because of new companies that are planning to launch entire commercial constellations (groups) of satellites, where a single company might need to launch anything between 24 and 648 satellites,” said Susmita Mohanty, Chief Executive of Earth2Orbit, a company that has been helping to negotiate launch deals between India’s space agency and private firms.

ISRO is also considering the idea of missions to Jupiter and Venus. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often hailed India’s budget space technology, quipping in 2014 that a rocket that launched four foreign satellites into orbit had cost less than the money needed to make the Hollywood film “Gravity”.

China praised India’s efforts for the launch of the 104 satellites. An article titled “India’s satellite launch ramps up space race”, quoted Chinese officials who said that ISRO’s historic launch can give Beijing the much-needed push to speed up the commercialisation of its rocket launches.

Why are other countries approaching India?

What prompts developed countries like Germany, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom to approach India to launch satellites for them? These countries are more technologically advanced as compared to India and have the technical know-how to do it themselves. Lower labour costs and an emphasis on locally sourced equipment contribute to the cheaper cost of India’s space programme, though generally the scientific capabilities of its crafts are narrower than those launched by NASA.

“If the launcher is too big and you are using it to launch a small satellite, you will be under-utilising it. It may be more cost-effective for the customer to have a country like India launch it along with other smaller satellites,” an ISRO official explained. Representatives of both ISRO and Antrix Corporation Ltd, which handles its marketing and commercial aspects and negotiates with potential customers, declined to disclose to the media how cost-effective it is for customer countries to have a satellite launched in and by India.

ISRO has crossed the 50 international customer satellite launch mark. All the 51 satellites from abroad launched by India so far have been placed in orbit by India’s workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). During 1994-2015, the PSLV has launched a total of 84 satellites of which, as stated earlier, 51 are for international customers.  ISRO entered the commercial launch services market by launching KITSAT-3 of the Republic of Korea and DLR-TUBSAT of Germany along with IRS-P4 (OCEANSAT) on board PSLV-C2 on May 26, 1999. So far, international customers satellites from 20 countries (Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK and the USA) have been successfully launched by PSLV.

“Our primary objective is to launch our own satellites, but when we have the capability, why not use it for customers. It demonstrates India’s technological capability to the world,” said an ISRO official.

How cost-effective is India?

The economical project execution and 100% success rate in foreign satellite launches of the Indian space agency have kept it in the limelight for the past few years. ISRO’s low cost services are attracting a lot of foreign customers as new private players like SpaceX and the French Arianespace are much more expensive. While for a satellite launch, SpaceX will charge around $60 million, ISRO charged an average of $3 million per satellite between 2013 and 2015. The ability to reuse components and some government subsidies contribute to these savings, said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

According to reports, the average annual revenue of the  international satellite market for nearly four years is close to `13 lakh crore, of which, the launch services market is worth `0.37 lakh crore. The launch capacity available with ISRO earned revenue of around `239 crore by commercial launch services Antrix, which is about 0.6 % of the global launch services market.  India is likely to take a leading role in launching satellites for the SAARC countries  and is likely to generate revenue by offering its space facilities for use to other countries.

Current status

ISRO is competing with SpaceX to develop a reusable rocket. Avatar, ISRO’s reusable rocket project, is scheduled to take at least another nine years before achieving its aim. The agency, which had its operating budget increased by 23% this year is also developing plans to send a spacecraft on the three-month journey to Venus and another to Jupiter, which would take more than two years. However, with the making of nano-satellites, which proves to be more useful in space than on ground, waivers are offered to companies on an individual basis to be allowed to use ISRO launch vehicles.

The space industry incurs capital-intensive investments and high risks for returns on investments. But Antrix did not own expensive facilities or a huge workforce and instead leveraged its capacity creation in the Indian industry.  ISRO had also said that Antrix should play an enabling role for the growth of India’s space commerce by using synergistic interactions with the space industry instead of doing everything by itself or reinventing the wheel.

Why should India focus on space business?

Space programmes are important for the country’s economy, homeland security, and technological superiority. Starting from the telecom services, the Direct-To-Home (DTH) cables, communications, weather prediction for agriculture and disaster prevention, the need for space programmes are many. As India acquires a fairly good number of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) base that caters to the traditional space agency-driven model, it is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of business in the space sector.


The concept of NewSpace has also helped several entrepreneurs to develop products and service enterprises focusing on space with private funding. Companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and Planet Labs, which are primarily funded by private capital to build products and services, comes under the foray of NewSpace.

NewSpace has also attracted successful global entrepreneurs to kick-off ventures to support start-ups or initiate other ventures in space. Entrepreneurs like Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos who is starting Blue Origin and Google’s Larry Page who is backing Planetary Resources are important players. This concept has also led to the creation of cheaper rockets and satellite constellations. It may diversify into space tourism and the mining of space resources. NewSpace has inspired several Indian entrepreneurs to form companies that can inspire a whole new generation of businessman to develop on space products and services.

The Government of India has also taken several initiatives and policies like the ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’, which will aid the space business in the long run. The efforts of ISRO and its client base will also leverage the NewSpace enterprises in terms of technologies, infrastructure and manpower to build space-based services.

Although, the investments needed in the space sector are high, there is an immense scope for developing the commercial space landscape. The IT industry will also contribute to this space tech and will be a major platform for space development in the near future.  If India continues to focus on space business, India will turn out to be a key player in the sector.

What kind of satellite is India launching?

The commercial launch services for small and medium  satellites with the well- proven PSLV is a success in India. According to the ORF, Antrix successfully found international customers for launching small satellites from a score of countries including Germany, Korea, Belgium, Argentina, Indonesia, Israel, and Italy on India’s PSLV, both in piggyback and primary payload modes. As of end-November 2016, a total of 79 satellites from international customers were launched into orbit successfully by PSLV. PSLV has established a record of reliable flights, regular turnaround and flexibility for accommodating different types of orbits. Based on domestic and other commercial demands, ISRO is planning to launch 12 to 18 PSLVs per year. Moreover, there could also be demand for at least three to four Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLVs) annually and commercial opportunities will increase once the GSLV Mark III version is operational. This means much more than just doubling the present capacity in the industry. The entire supply chain in the space industry can benefit in addition to opportunities for new entrepreneurship.

History of Antrix

It was in the 1990s when ISRO thought of introducing a technology-based arm for India’s commercial space activities. As the international dimensions of space activities during the time were much ahead of India, authorities focused on developing a significant global front to embark on major international opportunities.

Progressively, Antrix, the corporate wing of ISRO, was mooted to assist ISRO’s product, services, and technologies. Launched in September 28, 1992, Antrix is a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU), wholly owned by the Government of India.

Since its inception in 1992 and until mid-2011, Antrix was managed by a board chaired by the Chairman of ISRO and the Secretary of the Department of Space. The members of the board included key leaders of ISRO’s centres, responsible for satellites, launch vehicles and applications, and a few eminent leaders of the industry in the private sector. The wide diversity in ISRO’s activities and capabilities also enabled its nodal agency Antrix to focus on various areas.

The operational launch vehicles like PSLV and GSLV were administered by the Department of Space (DoS) and had earlier dealt with EADS Astrium, Intelsat, Avanti Group, WorldSpace, Inmarsat, and other space institutions in Europe, West Asia and South East Asia. In 2008, Antrix was awarded ‘Miniratna’ status by the government.

In September 2012, Antrix launched two satellites from France and Japan.  Antrix also signed Launch Service Agreement with DMC International Imaging (DMCii), the
wholly owned subsidiary of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) in UK to launch three DMC-3 Earth Observation Satellites built by SSTL, on-board ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) on January 29, 2014.

On February 5, 2014, Antrix signed another Launch Services Agreement with Satcom and Sensor Systems in Singapore, for launching TeLEOS-1 Earth Observation Satellite, on-board PSLV. All these launches were planned during the end of 2014 and 2015, achieving a turnover of `18 billion during the time.

During the inauguration of the International Astronautical Congress at Toronto, Canada gave the contract of the July 2015 launch of its M3M (Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Micro-Satellite) communications satellite to Antrix.  During the year, eight PSLV launch services agreements were signed for launching 16 international customer satellites as co-passengers. Antrix also successfully launched the W2M satellite. Some of Antrix’s better known clients are Hughes, Matra Marconi, and World Space among others. Antrix has successfully executed many IOT / TTC support services to International Space Agencies. Some of the customers using Antrix services are World Space PANAMSAT, GE Americom, AFRISTAT and others.

Till now, India has launched 79 satellites for 21 different countries. All satellites were launched using the ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) expendable launch system. India launched 28 foreign satellites for 13 different countries between 2013 and 2015, earning revenue of $101 million.



l India ranks third among the most attractive investment destinations for technology transactions in the    world.

l India is among the world’s top 10 nations in the number of scientific publications. Position-wise, it is ranked 17th in the number of citations received and 34th in the number of citations per paper across the field of science and technology (among nations publishing 50,000 or more papers). The country is ranked ninth globally in the number of scientific publications and 12th in the number of patents filed.


l  India’s analytics industry is expected to touch $16 billion by 2025 from the current $2 billion, as per the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom).

l  ISRO’s geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle-F05 (GSLV) successfully launched India’s weather satellite INSAT-3DR into space, which will provide meteorological services and assist search and rescue operations of security agencies including all the defence forces, the coast guard, and the shipping industry.


l  ISRO has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Airports Authority of India (AAI), aimed at providing space technology for construction of airports, which will help make flight operations safer and provide optimum utilisation of land.

l  The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has signed an MoU with the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) under ISRO and the North East Centre for Technology Application and Research (NECTAR) to use spatial technology to monitor and manage national highways.


India’s achievements through ISRO:

RISAT-1: India’s own crop monitoring satellite is important for national food security.

INSAT-4A & 4B: Advanced satellite for DTH television broadcasting services.

RESOURCESAT-1 and the IRS series: Remote sensing satellites for meteorological data and flood imaging.

RISAT-2: India’s “spy satellite” used for military purposes, to check infiltration, and observe potential terrorist activities.

The INSAT-2 satellites also provide telephone links to remote areas, mobile satellite service communications for private operators, railways and road transport, and broadcast satellite services, which are used by India’s state-owned television agency as well as commercial television channels.

The GSLV launched in 2004 was intended for adult literacy and distance learning applications in rural areas. It augmented and would eventually replace such capabilities already provided by INSAT-3B.


The IRS satellites have found applications with the Indian Natural Resource Management programme, with regional Remote Sensing Service Centres that include environmental monitoring, analysing soil erosion, and the impact of soil conservation measures, forestry management, determining land cover for wildlife sanctuaries, delineating groundwater potential zones, flood inundation mapping, drought monitoring, estimating crop acreage, and deriving agricultural production estimates, fisheries monitoring, mining and geological applications such as surveying metal and mineral deposits, and urban planning.

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