When Indian entrepreneur Awais Ahmed founded a startup in the satellite industry in Bangalore in 2019, his country still closed the space sector to the private sector. However, finally a year later the Indian government decided to open the door for private parties to take part in this industry.
“When we started, there was absolutely no support, no momentum,” said Ahmed, of founding Pixxel, a company that deploys a constellation of Earth imaging satellites.
Since then, the private space sector has begun to develop in India, following the fast-growing global market.
There are now 190 space start-ups in India, double the previous year, with private investment surging by 77 percent between 2021 and 2022, according to consulting firm Deloitte.
The Chandrayaan-3 rover maneuvers from the lunar lander to the lunar surface. India began exploring the lunar surface with a rover on August 24. (Photo: ISRO via AFP)
“Many Indian investors did not want to look at space technology, because previously the risks were too great,” Ahmed said in an interview with AFP.
“Now you can see more and more companies increasing investment in India, and now more companies are starting to emerge,” he added.
Pixxel makes hyperspectral imaging satellites — technology that captures a broad spectrum of light to provide details invisible to ordinary cameras.
The company says it is on a mission to build a “health monitor for the planet” where it can track climate warming risks such as floods, forest fires or methane gas leaks.
Pixxel initially sought to use a rocket from the state-run Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
“I remember having a conversation with someone at ISRO. We tried to schedule a launch and they said, ‘Look, we don’t even have procedures to launch an Indian satellite. But if you’re a foreign company, then basically there’s a process’, which didn’t make sense when we started,” Ahmed said.
Pixxel ultimately had to hire US rocket company SpaceX to launch its first two satellites.
Pixxel raised $71 million in funding from investors, including $36 million from Google, which will allow the company to launch six more satellites next year.
The startup has also won a contract with the US spy agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, to provide hyperspectral imaging.
Indian journalists cover the progress of the Vikram lunar lander from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) facility in Bangalore, September 6, 2019. (Photo: AFP)
Before the opening of the sector in 2020, “all of India’s space activities were under the supervision of the ISRO space agency, which managed everything absolutely,” said Isabelle Sourbes-Verger, an expert on India’s space sector at France’s Center National de la Recherche Scientifique.
ISRO’s budget is still relatively small, at $1.9 billion in 2022, six times smaller than China’s space program.
Despite limited resources, India’s space program has made major progress, culminating in the landing of a rover on the South Pole of the Moon previously unexplored by any country in August.
The country also launched a probe towards the Sun earlier this month and is preparing for a three-day manned mission to Earth orbit next year.
Before the reform, private companies could only act as suppliers to the agency.
“This is no longer sustainable because there is too much to do,” Sourbes-Verger said.
India deepened reforms of the sector in April, launching a new space policy that limits ISRO’s work to research and development while encouraging “greater private sector participation in the entire Space Economy value chain.”
India says it accounts for two percent of the $386 billion global space economy, and is expected to increase to nine percent by 2030. The market is expected to grow to $1 trillion by 2040.
People watch a live broadcast of the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft landing on the Moon, inside the Gujarat Science City auditorium in Ahmedabad, India, August 23, 2023. (Photo: REUTERS/Amit Dave)
Indian companies have a cost advantage as the country has many highly qualified engineers with lower salaries than their overseas counterparts.
Other Indian startups that have emerged in recent years include Skyroot Aerospace, the first Indian company to launch a private rocket.
Dhruva Space develops small satellites while Bellatrix Aerospace specializes in propulsion systems for satellites.
“Will this really create a dynamic and profitable industrial landscape? Maybe, but no doubt, with some limitations,” Sourbes-Verger said.
India has not yet completed reforms in this sector. More legislation is expected to be passed in the coming weeks to open the industry to foreign investment. (ah/ft)