India’s private space sector skyrockets

This image from video provided by the Indian Space Research Organisation shows the surface of the moon as the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft prepared for landing on Aug 23, 2023. - AP

Paris: When Indian entrepreneur Awais Ahmed founded his satellite startup in Bangalore in 2019, his country was still a year away from opening the space industry to the private sector.

“When we started, there was absolutely no support, no momentum,” said Ahmed, who was 21 when he founded Pixxel, a company deploying a constellation of Earth imaging satellites.

Since then, the private space sector has taken off in India, joining a rapidly growing global market.

There are now 190 Indian space start-ups, twice as many as a year earlier, with private investments jumping by 77% between 2021 and 2022, according to Deloitte consultancy.

“A lot of Indian investors were not willing to look at space technology because it was too much of a risk earlier,” Ahmed said.

“Now you can see more and more companies raising more investment in India, and more and more companies have started coming up now,” he added.

Pixxel makes hyperspectral imaging satellites – technology that captures a wide spectrum of light to provide details that are invisible to ordinary cameras.

The company says it is on a mission to build “a health monitor for the planet”: it can track climate risks such as floods, wildfires or methane leaks.

Pixxel had initially sought to use rockets from the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

“I remember having a conversation with with someone in ISRO. We were trying to book a launch and they said, ‘Look, we don’t even have a procedure to launch an Indian satellite. But if you were a foreign company, then basically there’s a process’, which didn’t make sense when we started,” Ahmed said.

Pixxel ended up having to hire US rocket firm SpaceX to launch its first two satellites.

Pixxel has raised US$71mil from investors, including US$36mil from Google, which will allow the company to launch six more satellites next year.

The start-up has also won a contract with a US spy agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, to provide hyperspectral images.

Prior to the 2020 opening up of the sector, “all Indian space activity was under the supervision of the ISRO space agency, which managed absolutely everything,” said Isabelle Sourbes-Verger, an Indian space sector expert at France’s National Scientific Research Centre.

The ISRO budget remains relatively modest at US$1.9bil in 2022, six times smaller than the Chinese space programme.

Despite its limited resources, India’s space programme has made huge strides, culminating with the landing of a rover on the Moon’s unexplored south pole in August.

The country also launched a probe towards the Sun at the start of this month and is preparing a three-day crewed mission into Earth’s orbit next year.

Before the reform, private companies could only act as suppliers for the agency. — AFP

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