India and the global spring of space commerce
Through a clear, humid night, 8.39 pm ET, December 21, 2015, SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage landed at Cape Canaveral, Florida, after finishing booster duties to place 11 satellites in orbit. The world had its first fully reusable launch vehicle, and a breakthrough for space commerce and humanity’s journey outside Earth.
In the garden city of Bangalore 9,246 miles from Cape Canaveral, exulting at Falcon 9 success was 25-year old Sanjay Nekkanti, co-founder of Dhruva Space, India’s first private company to make satellites. “My immediate thought (on Falcon 9’s first stage landing) was ‘Exciting times for space exploration,’” Nekkanti told Asia Times.
With Falcon 9 technology, a rocket’s first stage need no more be discarded after blast-off; satellites can be sent to space at all-time low cost, and soon people.
SpaceX CEO and Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk told a media conference after the upgraded Falcon 9’s success: “This was a critical step to establishing a city on Mars”.
Musk, co-founder of PayPal, started SpaceX in 2002 ultimately to enable human life in other planets. “If one can effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, costs will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred,” he said. “That is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.” (*1)
Anticipating revolutionary access to people living outside Earth, PayPal in 2013 had already started ‘PayPal Galactic’, for payment transactions in space. (*2)
“I am hopeful for manned missions to Mars becoming a reality,” said Nekkanti. “In my lifetime, I will see people landing on the Moon again. Private space industry in India will play a greater role in space exploration.”
Age of space entrepreneurs
The riverside town of Douglas, capital of Isle of Man, the stunningly beautiful island in the Irish Sea, is home of Tour de France cycling star Mark ‘rocket’ Cavendish. Douglas, or ‘Doolish’ as they call it in the local Manx language, is also home to the International Institute of Space Commerce (IISC), the premier global think-tank on business and commerce of space. Isle of Man is happy headquarters for many space companies like ManSat.
IISC experts say our fast changing world is seeing both a “new digital renaissance” and new technology causing upheavals in traditional space markets, and creating new opportunities.
Serving as IISC board member is senior space entrepreneur Chris Stott, CEO of ManSat, the satellite services firm he co-founded in 1998, two years after graduating from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France.
“US $314 billion is a good rough estimate for present commercial activities in space,” Stott said in an email interview with Asia Times. He predicts that figure more than doubling in a decade.
“We’re seeing a 7% to 9% annual growth in the global space industry,” says Stott, who is also chairman of the New York-based Society of Satellite Professionals International, the world’s largest such association of space industry professionals. “By 2025, we could conservatively project a commercial space industry that could be over $648.97 billion”.
As Stott points out: “The commercial space industry is in effect the global backbone of the communications network for the entire human race supporting over $4.3 trillion in communications activity.”
And investment for space activities, he reminds, creates more jobs for economic growth on Earth.
Stott sees innovation from Asia’s space powers Japan, China and India “driving new markets and new users in space commerce”.
Start-up space tigers of Asia
By age 19, Yuya Nakamura was making the ‘beverage can-sized satellite’ CanSat and nano satellites in Tokyo University. He started Axelspace Corporation in 2008, Japan’s first private satellite manufacturer.
Axelspace-type companies are springing across Asia. India has promising start-ups Dhruva Space, Earth2Orbit, Abhijeet Gahlot’s New Delhi-based Arya Space to specialize in a low-cost launch vehicle for small satellites, Prasad Bhat’s Astrome Technologies, and Bellatrix Aerospace from Coimbatore.
Gathering glory, and taking off on entrepreneurial wings, is Sinus Medii-based Team Indus (they have a hopeful Moon address as HQ, and probably employ a few earthlings in Bangalore), India’s private space entity and its unique team — distinguished space scientists, IT leaders, maverick entrepreneurs, and young aerospace engineers. (*3) Team Indus won the $1 million ‘Landing Milestone’ prize, part of the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize to land a robot on the moon by December 2016.
Just as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 broke launch cost barriers, new technology and privately-owned small companies are shattering satellite-making costs, and shaking up the market. Manufacturing and launching a telecommunications satellite costs over $150 million. SpaceX cut that cost to $16 million.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) averages US$ 4 million to make a satellite. With ISRO as its mentor, Dhruva Space builds a satellite for less than a $1 million.
Nakamura’s Axelspace is making 50 micro satellites for launch from 2017 to 2022, a cluster of small satellites each about 60cm x 60 cm x 80 cm, but covering 45% of the Earth surface. With multiple uses – oil prospecting worldwide, harvest forecasts in North America, high resolution images to track vehicles on Earth – these small satellites cost one-hundredth of a big satellite.
Space commerce has quickly evolved in the past three years, as with SpaceX. In May 2012, the SpaceX Dragon craft reached the International Space Station, exchanged cargo payloads, and returned safely to Earth — the first private spacecraft to service a space station. By December 2015, SpaceX completed 22 missions, including satellite launches for Asian clients like Thaicom.
Space commerce means more jobs on Earth and cities in other planets. The years arrive near to ordinary people living in space, of the Space Family Robinson science fiction becoming everyday fact … breakfast in orbit, nibbling buttered toast or a Punjabi samosa on Sunday, and sipping ginger tea seeing the Earth from outside Earth.
It’s a pathway to the planets that a new tribe of space entrepreneurs are working to make possible.
‘Internet of Things’
At age 22, Nekkanti started a satellite-making company. Narayan Prasad (then 24) and Nekkanti co-founded Dhruva Space in 2012, with funds from their own savings, family and friends.
Dhruva Space is scheduled to launch its first satellite later this year. Already collaborating with Berlin Space Technologies, Dhruva Space is entering a strategic partnership with Hyderabad-based COMSAT Systems to explore the satellite support services market.
It’s a space market linked to e-commerce, telecommunications and ‘The Internet of Things’ – a new life of inter-connectivity: people, even animals, everyday objects like a coffee machine, car, cell phones having unique identifiers embedded, holding software, sensors, and network connectivity. With your cell phone in office, you operate gadgets at home. A doctor monitors how a treatment works with his patient in another country; a tennis racket collects and transmits data on the player. Ideas are the final frontier.
The idea of ‘Internet of Things’ is not new – such a magical, inter-connected world was promised with the birth of the World Wide Web – but technology to bring alive the concept is. As www.com did, ‘Internet of Things’ is a life changer – more so for the satellite market and space commerce, or let’s call it s-commerce.
Not surprisingly, e-commerce entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are big investors in technology to drive s-commerce. Google invested US$ 900 million in SpaceX.
Thousands of small satellites are to be launched within the next four years to keep pace with our use of Internet, cell phone, television, navigation systems for road, sea and air, weather and crop forecasting, medical science, mining, oil prospecting and the Internet of Things.
All 11 satellites that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 hauled to orbit on December 21 were for ORBCOMM, a global provider of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and Internet of Things.
Ambitious projects are underway, such as Greg Wyler’s OneWeb, a consortium including Qualcomm, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Enterprises and Airbus. From 2018, OneWeb aims to use a constellation of 900 small satellites to bring cheaper broadband access to the world’s remote regions.
The Washington-based aerospace consultant SpaceWorks Enterprises estimates 2,000 to 2,750 nano/micro satellites would be launched by 2020. That number will increase with e-commerce and Internet use. India plans to bring broadband satellite services to 250,000 remote villages and towns.
“Satellite development is like watching a child throwing a tantrum,” said Nakumura, founder of Axelspace. “Both require considerable care and attention.”
Nakumura’s favorite pastime is running around the Imperial Palace Grounds of Chiyoda, Tokyo. The children of grandchildren of his days could be running around in the Elysium quadrangle of Mars.
Shopping malls in Mars, space commerce evolution
The year was 1962 and the scene St Mary Magdalene Church located in Thumba village in the scenic Indian state of Kerala that lures tourists as ‘God’s own country’. During this year, the church became the headquarters for India’s newly born, cash-strapped space agency ISRO.
India’s pioneering space scientists Vikram Sarabhai and APJ Abdul Kalam (President of India, 2002-2007) chose the church area for its proximity to Earth’s magnetic equator.
The prayer room of the church served as Kalam’s first laboratory. Bishop Rev. Peter Pereira’s room became Kalam’s design and drawing office. India’s first rocket was assembled in this church and its parts were carried on bicycles.
By 2015, ISRO was employing over 17,500 people and it accomplished much applauded missions to Moon and Mars. Today, it owns a space port and runs one of the most innovative space programs in the planet.
In 2025, ISRO will launch its ongoing AVATAR project. The Aerobic Vehicle for Trans-atmospheric Hypersonic Aerospace Transportation is a manned single-stage reusable space plane with horizontal take-off and landing capacity. AVATAR will enable low-cost satellite space launches for satellites and space tourists.
Nekkanti said ISRO’s Mars Mission was an inspiration to start Dhurva Space. By 2025, when the first AVATAR space plane is to take off, Nekkani predicts a timeline for India’s space industry: by 2018, more satellites built by Indian companies launched with ISRO’s trusted workhorse PSLV rocket; by 2020, satellite-based broadband accessible to millions in India; by 2021, a few Indian companies operating satellite constellations like OneWeb; by 2020, significant turnovers for India’s new space companies.
“We will see real time space-based data analytics in applications for agriculture, urban planning, mining, insurance, asset management etc,” Nekkanti said. “There will be active engagement between private space players and ISRO in manned space flight in the next few years”.
ISRO chairman A.S Kiran Kiran Kumar announced plans to share satellite manufacturing and support systems technology with private Indian companies, to promote the small commercial satellite industry.
Some worry about ISRO lacking business savvy, but ironically it is this non-commercial outlook of ISRO scientists that helps India’s space commerce. ISRO is a teacher and generous mentor to a generation of space entrepreneurs.
“ISRO has been a guiding light to many in the world with its exemplary example of what a nation can do in space,” says space entrepreneur Chris Stott, “a superb home grown space industry for launch services and satellite manufacture; and also to pave the way for the rest of the world in the utilization of space – tele-education, tele-medicine, sustainable development, multi-use satellites, resource management, weather monitoring, and broadcasting. To see the world’s largest democracy with a mission to Mars was even more inspiring.”
The ISRO mission to Mars with its Mars orbitor Mangalyaan might have seemed outlandish in year 1962, when ISRO was born in the church of a coastal village. By 2062, a Martian shopping mall might be common place just as AVATAR selling season tickets from Mumbai to Mars.
Personal satellites and era of space commerce
1996. Mumbai. Vijay Mukhi’s Computer Institute, Tardeo. I was among a few journalists getting our first surfing ride on early waves of the World Wide Web.
I began writing a weekly column for The Statesman called ‘Cyberspace’, probably the first of its kind in India – and Google then seemed an interesting new project from Stanford University. When I wrote the feature ‘Phantom of the Internet’ for Times of India, it was yet to have an Internet connection. No corporate websites, no e-shopping, no IT laws. Twenty years later in 2016, we take for granted the Internet, which has become a part of daily life for billions of people.
Likewise, by year 2026, space commerce and satellite technology will be part of daily life in ways we do not yet know. India is working on its first space commerce laws. (*4)
Having your own personal micro satellite might sound strange now, as was the idea in 1996 of having a multi-purpose, hand-held personal gadget called a smart phone – and with it, being able to sit at home and track orbiting satellites. (*5)
Space Commerce or s-commerce in 2016 is riding an evolutionary booster similar to Internet and e-commerce circa 1996. “New disruptive technologies [innovative new technology that creates new markets and displaces established market leaders] will in turn drive new demand and new economic activity,” says Stott. “After all, the majority of the world’s satellites flying today we designed, built, and launched before the first iPhone was released in 2007.”
In 2000, when the first dot.com bubble went bust, Stott was a director at Lockheed Martin Space Operations. He had earlier worked at McDonnell Douglas and Boeing. Having seen growth of space commerce through the Internet Age, Stott, now based in Isle of Man (*6), lists the key factors going to drive global space commerce for the next ten years:
1. More commercial utility of Low Earth Orbit through the International Space Station (ISS). This is through commercial research aboard the ISS, and utilizing the ISS as a platform for commerce: bio technology, nano-tech, material sciences, Cube Sat launching, 3-D printing, satellite servicing and more. Of great importance is the medical data coming from the astronauts themselves.
2. Disruptive technologies and new business models already having an impact – note SpaceX and others – to drive down cost of access to space. If this trend continues, we will see an even greater commercial use of space.
3. By 2025, the next five iPhone models will continue to drive capacity demands upon satellites. By this time, people will be online with personal smart devices each with their own lifetime personal data cloud of everything – from medical data to social data to lifetime learning. Add to this, the ‘Internet of Everything’ and growth of ‘machine-to-machine’ markets, future data demands will lead to an ever increasing reliance upon space and satellite technology.
4. We may hopefully see beginnings of commercial space-based solar power. Solar power outside of our atmosphere is 10 times stronger than on Earth and also available 24 hours a day at Geostationary orbit. We power our satellites and space stations today with carbon-free renewable energy and many wish to power our cities with the same tomorrow.
5. We have seen the three great waves of commercialization in space so far (satellite communications, remote sensing, and space tourism). Maybe, we will see the fourth wave within ten years: that of resource utilization from space – from the Moon and from Asteroids.
6. Issues of space security will also begin to dominate as more commercial investment is placed in space.
Investment in space is unavoidable, because it is investing in human future. “All civilizations become either space-faring or extinct,” said astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996), this boy from Brooklyn who took millions worldwide in a journey of the mind through ‘Cosmos’.
One day, passenger flights to Mars will be as common as to Carl Sagan’s New York. One day, there will be people journeying beyond our resident galaxy of stars we call the Milky Way.
Between 13th and 15th century AD, explorers like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus paved the way for new discoveries and new lands, while searching for new trade routes from Europe for commerce with China and India. Likewise, 500 years later, exploring space commerce entrepreneurs are paving ways to a new world, a life outside Earth.
1) Reusability: The Key to Making Human Life Multi-Planetary, SpaceX, Rocket Road, Hawthorne, California
2) PayPal Galactic, Cosmic Currency: PayPal and SETI Developing Space Cash System, Space.com
3) India’s first space laws, the evolving ‘National Space Act’. Excerpts of ‘Commercialization and Privatization of Outer Space: Issues for National Space Legislation’, Round Table Conference, National Law School of India University Bangalore, NewSpace India.
5) Track satellites at N2YO.com, with live streaming from the International Space Station
Raja Murthy is a Mumbai-based journalist writing for the Statesman since 1990 and Asia Times since 2003 – besides having been a long-term contributor to the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.