As British billionaire Richard Branson and his fellow travellers return from their 90-minute suborbital flight onboard the Virgin Galactic VSS, he can take satisfaction in beating his rival, Jeff Bezos by a few days. However, Bezos is unlikely to be very bothered as he launches into an even higher altitude on July 20 with three other passengers, including his brother.
This billionaire space race makes for an entertaining spectacle but it is simply one manifestation of a broader phenomenon: the increasing privatisation of space activity. The rise of commercial space enterprise comes at a time when humans are more dependent on space than they have ever been before. As citizens, we’re directly dependent on constellations of satellites orbiting over us, whether we’re hailing cabs, watching sports on our televisions, or checking the weather forecast.
Militaries are even more dependent on space, relying on satellites for intelligence, communication and navigation. As commercial enterprises bring innovation and lower costs to an industry previously dominated by governments, the consequences for India’s prosperity and security are likely to be profound.
Taking Profits to Higher Orbits
Most estimates value the global space industry at about $350 billion. Morgan Stanley projects this number could rocket to more than a trillion dollars over the next 20 years.
Whether or not such projections hold true, the democratisation of space is already evident. Advances in computing over the decades have enabled satellite builders to make smaller and lighter craft. Launch costs have also dramatically fallen. For example, the partially reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has slashed the launch cost per kilogramme by about 85% compared to two decades ago. Private launch capabilities have allowed both small states and non-governmental entities to place satellites of their own in orbit.
The growing market for small satellites has also proved lucrative for governments. In 2017, India’s Isro launched a record-breaking 104 satellites in a single mission, most of which were privately-owned nano-satellites.
Regulations in the Last Wilderness
While spacefaring becomes profitable, it also runs the risk of turning our orbits into overcrowded junkyards. In 2010, the Union of Concerned Scientists Satellite Database listed less than a thousand active satellites in orbit. By 2020, that number was up to 3,372.
Most of the new additions are small satellites in low earth orbit. Without clear, internationally accepted rules for de-orbiting satellites at the end of their working life, the near-earth environment of space could become a dangerous debris field.
In the more distant future, this problem could extend deeper into space, to the lunar surface and the asteroid belt. It’s already becoming a cliche to predict the world’s first trillionaire will be a space miner. However, if space mining is unregulated, such a fortune could be made at a devastating environmental cost, one that complicates all future human activity beyond the earth.
Unfortunately, at present, international space law is ill-equipped to deal with the rise of commercial enterprise. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (to which India is a signatory), laid out basic principles of spacefaring but had nothing to say about private entities. India must ensure it has a seat at the table when major powers put in place new norms. And the only way it will wield influence is by becoming a major player in the commercial space industry.
It’s All Astropolitics
Beyond economics, India’s commercial space industry will have paradoxical effects on its security. Commercial competition will likely reduce costs for some military satellites. However, by increasing India’s commercial and military dependence on space, the industry may unintentionally turn India’s satellites into attractive targets for adversaries.
This means India will have to invest more in deterring attacks on its space-based assets. It will also have to rely on the commercial space industry to build redundancies through rapid space launch capabilities. These will be needed to quickly replace satellites that have been disabled or damaged during a conflict.
Separately, the worldwide commercial space industry will make high-quality satellite imagery cheaply and freely available. Rivals like Pakistan and terrorist groups could soon have access to detailed and timely satellite images of Indian sites.
Creating Indian Space Power
India is late to the task of creating an environment in which the commercial space industry can thrive. However, it has made impressive progress in recent times. Last year, the government announced the creation of a regulatory body, Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre or IN-SPACe.
The next step is to create conditions that ease the path to technological innovations and business viability. Here, instead of offering subsidies or creating special economic zones, which can create perverse incentives, the government should consider options best suited to this nascent industry.
For instance, they could shape regulations that encourage venture capital and foreign direct investment into India’s commercial space sector. They could also create ‘regulatory sandboxes’ that allow India’s budding rocketeers to experiment – and blow things up – in specially designated facilities.
To help small space companies remain viable in the early years, both the Union and state governments should identify applications in which they would benefit from commercial space services and then create reliable markets for such services.
Finally, Isro must turn its focus to high-end missions like human spaceflight and planetary exploration, leaving the field open for private players to launch satellites into low earth orbit.
In the near future, the health of this industry will help determine India’s overall space power – its ability to leverage its commercial, military and scientific activities in space to wield influence in international politics.
The choice is clear: India can catch up and thrive or be stranded behind as others soar.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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