Will Space Startups Disrupt situational awareness?

The Indian space startup ecosystem in 2023 experienced significant growth with an addition of 54 new companies, bringing the total number of emerging firms in this sector to 204. These fledgling space startups collectively secured funding amounting to $123.9 million during the same year. This substantial investment raised the cumulative funding received by Indian space […]

The Indian space startup ecosystem in 2023 experienced significant growth with an addition of 54 new companies, bringing the total number of emerging firms in this sector to 204. These fledgling space startups collectively secured funding amounting to $123.9 million during the same year. This substantial investment raised the cumulative funding received by Indian space startups to $380.25 million, as reported by the Indian Space Association (ISPA), the representative body of the country’s space industry.

Before the space sector reforms in India, private companies and startups were limited to acting as mere suppliers of components to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). However, the reforms paved the way for these private entities and emerging startups to seek governmental support in undertaking a diverse range of space activities.

The increasing number and variety of entities conducting activities in space could potentially create new sources of conflict or aggravate existing tensions if not managed responsibly. Across commercial, civil, and military sectors, there is a trend away from traditional large and costly single geostationary satellite systems toward more distributed architectures involving multiple smaller satellites operating in low Earth orbit (LEO).

Advent of Space Development in India

India’s journey into space began in 1962 with the founding of the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) and the commencement of activities at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) near Thiruvananthapuram. The institutionalization of the Indian space program occurred in 1969 with the establishment of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). This was followed by the formalization of the program in 1972 when the Government of India created the Space Commission and the Department of Space (DOS), thereby placing ISRO under the jurisdiction of DOS.

Over several decades, the Indian space program emerged as an economic sector with government-backed investments and official institutions in both military and civilian domains. During this period spanning over four decades, ISRO consistently transferred technologies to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), resulting in a network of over 500 component suppliers by 2017.

India’s IT industry began engaging with the space sector in the 1990s. The Department of Space actively promoted the growth of the sector, leading to the domestic manufacturing of various systems. The expansion of India’s private space sector was propelled by the government outsourcing of extensive mapping endeavours that catered to both civilian and military needs. However, the private sector remained in a supporting role, while the government continued to dominate the space sector.

In the late 2010s, a significant number of startups began to emerge across the country, proposing and conceptualizing the development of various satellite technologies and rockets. This marked a notable shift in the dynamics of India’s space sector.

insights into Space Situational Awareness

Space Situational Awareness (SSA) deals with having comprehensive knowledge of the space environment, assessing any threats to space activities, and implementing necessary mitigation measures to safeguard space assets. SSA plays a crucial role in ensuring safe and sustainable space activities by complying with domestic and international guidelines, standards, and other norms.

SSA encompasses more than just monitoring objects in space – it is a vital component for ensuring the safety and long-term sustainability of our activities in the space domain. It addresses a range of critical needs and concerns related to asserting space sovereignty, while also unlocking new opportunities for managing the evolving space economy.

Need for SSA

A core aspect of SSA involves tracking and monitoring objects in orbit, including space debris and operational satellites. This capability is essential for assessing collision risks, predicting orbital trajectories, and safeguarding critical space infrastructure. Moreover, effective space traffic management is crucial to prevent overcrowding in orbits. Coordinating space launches and organizing the allocation of orbital slots are key elements of enabling smooth and secure space operations.

SSA represents a fundamental pillar that not only strengthens space security but also facilitates the orderly growth and management of the burgeoning space economy by providing the necessary oversight and coordination mechanisms.

While the early space activities were government-driven, the last decade has seen growing private investment disrupting traditional satellite services and launch providers. Some governments are encouraging private space endeavours to bolster national claims and develop space-based jobs/capabilities, especially in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) regions. However, increased exploitation of these orbits risks congestion, debris, and collisions, with few governance structures to mitigate emerging threats from the lack of comprehensive regulations as private actors expand.

Meet Digantara; A startup for secure space operations

Digantara, a startup focused on Space Situational Awareness (SSA) solutions, has announced the successful closure of an extended $2 million financing round, in addition to the previously raised $10 million Series A funding. This latest investment saw participation from prominent investors, including Aditya Birla Ventures, the venture capital arm of the Aditya Birla Group, and the Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI).

Digantara’s solutions aim to address the growing challenges and concerns surrounding Space Situational Awareness, such as tracking space debris, monitoring satellite trajectories, assessing collision risks, and enabling effective space traffic management.

The rapid proliferation of objects populating the space environment necessitates that all actors engaged in space activities take responsible measures to curb the generation of additional space debris by rigorously adhering to established mitigation guidelines.

Looking Ahead: A Vision for 2047

The growth of the space sector in India has been remarkable, witnessing a staggering 77 per cent increase between 2021 and 2022. This surge in activity is further highlighted by the emergence of nearly 190 new space start-ups, reflecting the untapped potential that the space domain holds. The IN-SPACe project estimates that the Indian space economy, currently valued at US $8.4 billion, has the potential to reach an impressive US $44 billion within the next decade. This projection underscores the immense opportunities that lie ahead for the space industry in India, fueled by the rapid growth and innovation taking place in this sector.

Furthermore, the Indian Space Promotion and Authorization Center (ISpA) aims to foster a robust private Indian space ecosystem that supports the government, industry, and citizens. Special emphasis is being placed on providing comprehensive support to startups to power the ‘Atma Nirbhar’ (self-reliance) initiative in the space sector, with a focus on strategic autonomy and developing niche technological capabilities.

These innovations highlight the need for space surveillance to ensure secure space operations. Here is where SSA steps in to take the lead. SSA goes beyond mere surveillance and emerges as a crucial geopolitical factor, playing a vital role in ensuring the safety, sustainability, and successful execution of space operations. It has become an indispensable component in the realm of space activities, transcending its traditional role as a mere monitoring mechanism.

Persistent surveillance and tracking of resident space objects constitute a fundamental requirement for maintaining comprehensive situational awareness and formulating effective protection strategies to safeguard critical space assets.

Jennifer Philip is a Geopolitics and Defence Journalist from Mumbai and currently serving as a Beat Editor at Business Upturn Asia


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