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'ISRO's goal is to develop a rocket company'

By Shine Jacob
January 27, 2022 12:25 IST
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'We have all the technologies available, but it should be converted to something that can be commercially viable.'

IMAGE: The Geo-imaging satellite GISAT-1 onboard GSLV-F10, stationed at ISRO'S Sriharikota spaceport, August 10, 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo

rocket scientist Dr S Somanath took charge as the 10th chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation and as the secretary of the department of space on January 14.

"There are crucial missions that we announced like Chandrayaan-3, Aditya-L1 (Sun mission) and Gaganyaan that are technically complex and are currently in the preparation stage. I have to review all of them," Dr Somanath tells Shine Jacob/Business Standard.

 

How important is the participation of the private sector in the entire range of space activities, including planetary exploration missions?

There is a huge set of governmental programmes, be it disaster management support, weather prediction modelling support, agriculture land resource mapping, strategic usages like boosting communication network, all these will have to be met by the governmental system. That cannot be funded by anybody else.

Are there any rocket companies in India?

No. There are only people who are able to manufacture some items. Our goal is to develop a rocket company in India that can actually do everything end-to-end. If you say an established company could get into this, it is not easy.

I have hope in start-ups, where they define things differently. Naturally, there will be a new way of developing and a new set of ideas. That is why start-ups are important. They innovate and bring in new technology approaches.

There are at least 50 start-ups in India now in the space sector -- in launch vehicle satellite building, space applications, they are developing and trying to market some of the elements of space technology. We hope more will join.

How significant is the plan to have a reusable launch vehicle?

For me, it is a top priority. It is important because you have to bring down the cost of access to space. Satellites are very costly -- anywhere between Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) to thousands of crores.

The cost of launches is very high. Per kg it costs around $20,000 or above $10,000. If it comes below $5,000 or $4000 per kg, then I can say it is very affordable.

The only way to make this happen is not to make it out of cheap material, but to reuse rockets. But this is not easy as technology for this is as complex as the rocket. Countries like Russia, Europe, Japan or China, none of them have a reusable rocket. We are looking at various options.

IMAGE: ISRO Chairman Dr S Somanath, left, with Minister of State for Space Dr Jitendra Singh in New Delhi, January 25, 2022. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

What are your other major priorities?

First, we have pending launches. For that purpose, I need to talk to all the user segments -- like communication users, remote sensing data users, and strategic users.

There are crucial missions that we announced like Chandrayaan-3, Aditya-L1 (Sun mission), and Gaganyaan that are technically complex and are currently in the preparation stage. I have to review all of them.

The third priority is the space reforms announced by the government, which have to be fully operational.

You are looking at the creation of a space enterprise. Can you explain that a bit more?

When you talk about space, you generally talk about ISRO. We have reached a point of inflection and we cannot sustain in the same mode. The question is, how we expand our space activities.

Can you pump more money into ISRO? Can you increase the manpower here? That cannot be a feasible option.

The point is that it has to become self-sustaining, generate revenue, have its own programmes and it should find users by itself.

We have all the technologies available, but it should be converted to something that can be commercially viable.

When I talk about an enterprise, it will have a larger share of private equity in it, which means people who want to make use of the available technology will be able to do that.

They will be able to develop, launch vehicles on their own and can also develop satellites on their own, put it in Indian space, use Make in India for domestic uses and as well as for users outside the country.

They can also provide services to many countries that have no space programmes and make a commercial business out of it.

When I talk about space enterprise again, it is a collection of industries -- ISRO, start-ups, research institutions all put together. Each one will have a certain share of the money; it will not be cooperation alone.

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