With the launch of Brazil’s Amazonia-1 satellite last week from Sriharikota, a new chapter has begun in India’s space history. The satellite, a 637-kilogram entity, was the first dedicated commercial mission of NewSpace India Limited, a two-year-old commercial arm of the Department of Space.
This is not the first time that NSIL has organised a launch of foreign satellites aboard an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launch vehicle. The organisation has had launches last November as well as in December 2019. However, the primary satellites aboard both these missions were Indian satellites — the RISAT-2BRI and the EOS-01 — with smaller satellites from several other countries, as well as India, piggybacking on them.
The Amazonia mission also saw 18 other satellites being launched and was the first fully commercial mission. India has so far launched 342 foreign satellites from 34 countries using its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle platform and many of them have involved ISRO’s first commercial entity, the Antrix Corporation.
There is still confusion on how exactly the responsibilities of NSIL differ from those of Antrix. But with the formation of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe) — a regulatory agency — as well as plans of an independent tribunal to adjudicate disputes among private space entities, there is a potential explosion of market opportunities from space applications on the anvil.
Though the private sector plays a major role in developing launch and satellite infrastructure for ISRO, there are now several companies that offer myriad services. Many of these companies want to launch their own satellites, of varying dimensions, and the experience with ISRO has not been smooth always. The most conspicuous has been the controversy involving Devas Multimedia, to which the Government of India owes nearly $1.2 billion going by an order of a tribunal of the International Chamber of Commerce and upheld by a United States federal court last year.
NSIL, it is said, is also a move by India’s space establishment to insulate the prospects of the space industry in India from repercussions of the Devas-Antrix imbroglio. Much like unfettered access to the Internet has spawned industries that were inconceivable, similarly, space applications and mapping have barely scratched the surface in terms of the opportunities that they can create.
NSIL has a broad ambit and will be involved in collaborations spanning from launches to new space-related industries. NSIL is also expected to be more than just a marketer of ISRO’s technologies; it is to find newer business opportunities and expand the sector itself. NSIL must endeavour to not be another Antrix but be continuously in start-up mode. It must conceive of ways to aid space start-ups reach out to rural India and facilitate more recruits from India’s young to facilitate careers in space applications and sciences. It must see itself both as an Indian ambassador and disruptor in the space arena.
Background – The government has directed Antrix Corporation, the commercial arm of India’s space agency, to file a petition to wind up Devas Multimedia, a Bengaluru-based firm that has filed lawsuits seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation from it over a cancelled satellite deal.
About – Antrix and Devas are engaged in a legal battle, both in India and in the United States, after the government cancelled a satellite deal in 2012 citing national security issues. In 2005, Antrix signed a deal with Devas to build two communication satellites, which were to use the S-band spectrum and offer hybrid satellite and terrestrial communication services throughout the country. The deal soon got caught in a political imbroglio after allegations that the S-band had been offered at a throwaway price.
Following this, Devas went to an international tribunal claiming damages for scrapping the deal. It also subsequently appealed in a US federal court saying its investors as well as senior executives were US nationals. Deutsche Telekom had invested $75 million in Devas, whose other investors include Columbia Capital and Telecom Ventures.
In October last year, a US court upheld the tribunal’s order for damages and asked Antrix to pay $1.2 billion to Devas. Subsequently, in November, India’s Supreme Court stayed the execution of the award till a case on the same issue had been decided by the Delhi high court.