Observer Research Foundation organised the fourth edition of the ORF Kalpana Chawla Annual Space Policy Dialogue on 15-17 February. This Dialogue brought together all the different stakeholders to discuss security, governance, societal applications, industry and entrepreneurship aspects of outer space. The Dialogue is dedicated to the Indian-American astronaut Dr. Kalpana Chawla whose life and achievements continues to inspire all. The Dialogue happened in the context of the changing scope, nature and geopolitical underpinnings of India’s space programme.
This year’s Dialogue was inaugurated by Lt. Gen. Amit Sharma, former Commander-In-Chief, Strategic Forces Command, India. He said that outer space is being utilised for two main military purposes — missiles delivery and C4ISR functions. He cautioned that trends towards space weaponisation is increasing despite the international space treaties stressing peaceful uses of outer space. Nevertheless, given the trends in India’s own backyard, he recommended operationalising the Space Command to synergise the use of space assets for defence as well as for better awareness of the space assets. He assessed that ISRO is not in a position to handle the requirements owing to lack of finances, manpower and infrastructure. Therefore, India should develop its private space industry for handling routine work while ISRO concentrates on research and development. He also emphasised that given India’s reliance on space assets, it must not shy away from framing the rules for space sustainability.
Mr. Sunil Gupta, Secretary, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), delivered special address on the regulatory environment in India’s telecom sector where satellite communications play a critical role. He stated that satellites are a ubiquitous tool to provide various services such as internet to far-flung areas. Telecom services have evolved from providing fixed-point voice calls to a host of services now such as internet. However, satellites services are yet to be leveraged for optimum utilisation and reasons for this could be policy, cost or procedures. The cost of acquiring satellite transponders is not optimum due to the procedures involved. He opined that this procedure needs to be streamlined for effective commercial use of leased transponders. The ‘open skies’ policy has been debated and the Secretary, TRAI welcomed industry inputs in the form of a paper. He asserted that the national telecom policy has been made simpler to promote good, controlled commercial utilisation of satellites.
These remarks set the ground for the panel discussion on Space and Telecommunications. This was followed by panel discussions on Space Security, Space Stability and Sustainability, Emerging Space Actors, Multilateral Governance Architecture, Legal Issues and Militarisation of Space, Small Satellites – Potential, Challenges and Risks, The Changing Space Environment, India’s Space Commercialisation Drive and Indian Space Industry and Propulsion: The Missing Link.
India is experiencing a significant gap between demand and supply of transponder capacity. Moreover, the technology on the ground is changing faster while the capability to update the telecommunications satellites in orbit is almost nil. On-orbit refueling could become a game changer by extending the lifetime of satellites as well as sustain business models. Meanwhile, small satellite constellations are being designed for satellite internet, imaging etc. Micro satellites are the fastest growing segment in the small satellite market and can perform various missions like the bigger satellites. There is a rise in the number of startups working on different aspects of small satellites manufacturing and applications. Accessibility to technology, resources and funding are the fundamental building blocks for starting a business in this sector. Given the skillset, low manufacturing costs and the proven launch vehicle — PSLV, India could become a global hub for these activities. The Indian space programme has nurtured a few industry players but the future requirements can be met only through a consolidated effort of encouraging the industry and NewSpace players. This will also help India increase its stakes in the global space industry. Satellites will be driving future platforms and technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) creating more value driven businesses. One of the key enablers of these future requirements is low launch cost and electric propulsion on satellites. India should liberalise its propulsion licensing regime to enable the industry innovate with different propulsion technologies.
However, satellite operators also had to contend with increasing space weaponisation by advanced countries. The anti-satellite weapons could include kinetic and non-kinetic weapons such as missiles and lasers. The capacity of countries to jam satellite signals such as GPS is increasing. China is developing advanced anti-satellite technologies while trying to better encrypt its own satellites to prevent jamming. Increasing space debris has also become a major threat to space systems. In this situation, space situational awareness could be a foundational element for space stability and sustainability. National space policies should incorporate sustainable practices for debris mitigation. The multilateral governance architecture designed during the Cold War is not comprehensive enough to deal with the contemporary developments. The increasing prospects of great power conflict with high probability for a conflict extending into space suggests that governments, academia and the private sector should come together to honour the basic operational principles enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty. Transparency and conference building measures must be enhanced and the guidelines of the long-term sustainability working group under COPOUS must be implemented.
The Dialogue featured many special addresses. Lt. Gen. V.G. Khandare, former Director General, Defence Intelligence Agency, spoke on the ‘Utilisation of Space for Military Purpose: A Roadmap for India.’ He alerted that China possesses greater space capabilities alongside hard and soft kill capabilities. The military reforms are helping China with better interoperability and integrated asset applications. India needs to raise its own space capabilities along a timeline guided by a vision document and policy. India’s defence space and cyber agencies needs to be operationalised at the earliest for better coordination.
Dr. B.N. Suresh, Honorary Distinguished Professor, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), speaking on the ‘Evolution of India’s Launch Vehicle Programme and Future Trajectory’, has noted that India’s launch capabilities are tailored for civilian requirements. Cutting down the launch cost per kilogram is a trend of the present and ISRO is trying to lower its launch cost by working on the reusable launch vehicle. The semi-cryogenic engine programme will help increase the payload capacity without altering the structural dimensions of the launch vehicle. However, advances in electronics and materials is helping bring down the satellite weight without reducing its capacity and therefore launch capabilities need to be tailored for such advances.
Mr. Jean-Yves Le Gall, President, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) speaking on ‘Inventing the Future of Space’ has noted that space cooperation occupies a significant role in India-France relations. Even as France is interested in India’s future interplanetary missions, climate change monitoring has emerged a priority. The increasing number of state and industry players as well as an exponential increase in the user base is disrupting the current space industry. France has established partnerships with India’s NewSpace companies such as Team Indus.
Dr. A. Sivathanu Pillai, Honorary Distinguished Professor, ISRO spoke on the ‘Competitiveness of India’s Space Programme.’ He assessed that at least 60 departments are now using space services for developmental work. India’s space programme is self-reliant and has been also providing launch services to foreign countries. He has alluded to the potential of lunar resources for energy generation and the possibility of lunar bases.
The valedictory session was chaired by Mr. Sunjoy Joshi, Director, Observer Research Foundation. Dr. V.K. Saraswat, Member, NITI Aayog delivered the valedictory address. He talked about the latest advances in space technology such as high throughput satellites, on-orbit servicing, 3D printing and advanced propulsion technologies as well as emerging business models in the wake of reusable launch vehicles and small satellites. 3D printing has cost, quality and turnaround impact on space industry. In addition, small satellites which are of low cost are allowing conducting various missions in space. He opined that NewSpace is “a disruptive sectorial dynamic featuring various end-to-end efficiency driven concepts driving space sector towards a more business and service orientation.”
He said that outer space is contested and congested and resiliency has to be developed given the criticality of space assets in governance and commerce. Space weaponisation is a growing threat with the development of hard and soft kill capabilities. Resiliency can be enhanced by developing launch ready spacecraft and rapid response launch vehicles. He asserted that a declared space policy is highly valuable from an international perspective because it can serve as a communication tool to affirm principles and boundaries and avoid speculation. It would enhance India’s standing as a space power and partner in international rule making based on shared national interests. Dr. Saraswat has proposed that India should setup a think tank for outer space affairs with the involvement of academia, industry and the government. He concluded that the fundamental point is to ‘exploit the opportunity, mitigate the threat.’
Secure World Foundation and Jawaharlal Nehru University supported the Dialogue as Initiative Partners. European Space Policy Institute, The Simons Foundation, International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, SPACE and Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales joined as Dialogue Sponsors.
The panel presentations, special addresses and discussions of this Dialogue can be accessed here.
This report was prepared by Vidya Sagar Reddy, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi