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India’s Cosmic Leap: The Emerging Powerhouse in the Global Space Race

From the Asia Tech Observer perspective, the global space race is typically viewed in terms of the prowess and capabilities of the United States and China. Historically, the Soviet Union and later Russia held a key role in this pursuit. However, the recent decline of Russia’s space sector, amidst a large-scale crisis, has opened the stage for a new player: India.

The nation’s persistent strides in the space sector reveal the untapped potential within. India has consistently proven that it is carving a path in the race to the cosmos. Despite the advantage of more dominant powers like the US and China, India continues to make notable advancements in space exploration.

The consistent launches of domestic payloads and satellites to space, including the recent launch of the PSLV rocket from the Satish Dhawan Space Center, are indicative of India’s growing capabilities. This year, India has undertaken three orbital launches, a slight shortfall compared to Russia’s six, but this potentially opens an opportunity for India to match or even surpass Russia’s statistics, a truly notable feat.

A standout venture for India this year is the proposed launch of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV Mk III) rocket, with the Chandrayaan-3 lunar probe onboard. The success of this mission could see India become the fourth country, following the US, China and Russia, to achieve a safe lunar landing.

Looking ahead, India’s ambition isn’t just focused on the moon. Early next year, India is planning its first test flight for the Gaganyaan space capsule, intended to carry the first Indian crew into Earth’s orbit. If successful, this will be another feather in India’s space hat.

India also aims to explore other celestial bodies in our solar system, as exemplified by the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), or Mangalyaan, which sent a probe into Mars’s orbit in 2013. Additionally, India possesses military satellites, such as GISAT-1 and GSAT-6A, which provide advanced surveillance and secure satellite communication capabilities.

Further to its lunar mission and military satellites, India is the fourth nation to have successfully tested a scramjet engine. This promising technology has been in development in India for years. For example, in 2016, the propulsion units of the ATV sounding rocket began utilising atmospheric air to sustain combustion.

India is also aspiring to build a national orbital station within five years of the successful demonstration of the Gaganyaan vehicle. If these ambitious plans come to fruition, India would join the elite club of countries that have built manned spacecraft and space stations, currently limited to Russia, the US, and China.

The space race is no longer a two-horse contest. With the rise of India’s space capabilities, the global space community should prepare for a new competitor on the interstellar block.

In a watershed moment for India’s space capabilities, the country successfully tested a hypersonic rocket demonstrator in September 2020. The Defense Research Development Organisation (DRDO) oversaw the operation, which saw the rocket ascend to an altitude of 30 km before detaching from its launch vehicle, igniting its sramjet propulsion system, and accelerating to Mach 6. With this achievement, India joined an elite group of nations, including the US, China, and Russia, that have mastered such technology.

India’s collaboration with the United States in space exploration and technology development dates back to 1963, when the US assisted India in launching its first rocket from the Thumba spaceport. The countries’ cooperation has continued to grow since then, encompassing data sharing from satellite missions and joint scientific endeavours. A key highlight of this collaboration was India’s inaugural lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, launched in 2008, carrying scientific instruments from several countries, including the US, to map the moon’s chemical and mineralogical makeup.

In the years that followed, US-India space cooperation was further cemented during a meeting between former US President Barack Obama and then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011. Both nations agreed to form a joint research group for lunar and Martian explorations. Subsequently, numerous agreements and strategies addressing scientific research and security issues were enacted during the “2+2” ministerial talks. In 2020, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) was signed, granting India’s military access to high-quality GPS and real-time intelligence data, a clear indication of the US recognising India as a key counterbalance to China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

One project of note is the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) programme. This satellite will carry a synthetic aperture radar capable of operating in the L and S bands to provide advanced earth observation and climate disaster warnings, as well as military intelligence. India’s engagement with the US in space exploration and defence technology is expected to grow, demonstrated by agreements for astronaut training and Indian companies’ participation in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme.

India’s relationship with Russia also plays a crucial role in its space and defence strategy, harking back to Cold War cooperation between the nations under the Soviet Union. This partnership has seen the successful launch of India’s early satellites and the first Indian astronaut’s journey to space. India and Russia have signed multiple agreements to cooperate in space exploration and technology development, including India’s involvement with Russia’s GLONASS global satellite navigation system.

However, the deepening ties between Moscow and Beijing present a strategic challenge for India, potentially pushing the nation towards increased cooperation with the West. Tensions between India and China, particularly over disputed territory in the Himalayas, create an atmosphere of competition rather than collaboration.

India’s efforts to bolster its space defences are evident in its work on anti-satellite missiles (ASAT). In a dramatic televised address in March 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that Indian armed forces had successfully used a missile to destroy a satellite in low earth orbit. This positioned India among an exclusive group of nations, including the US, Russia, and China, to possess such capabilities, underscoring its growing status in the global space arena.

Dubbed “Mission Shakti”, the operation to destroy a satellite in low earth orbit, reportedly completed in just three minutes, marked a significant stride in India’s security and technological advancement. Although unconfirmed, media reports suggest the missile used might have been a Prithvi Defense Vehicle (PDV) Mark-II. Prime Minister Narendra Modi underscored the test’s importance in enhancing India’s national security, economic growth and technological progress.

These developments underscore India’s burgeoning influence in the global space race. An evident shift in the dynamics is India’s increasing role in satellite launches, which were traditionally conducted using Russian launch systems. For example, following the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia and Moscow’s subsequent demand to sever ties with the UK authorities, OneWeb, a British-Indian company, decided to turn to New Space India Limited (NSIL) and SpaceX for satellite launches.

The surge in India’s space sector is not only state-driven; private enterprises are making a noticeable impact. According to a recent Reuters article, the country saw its space sector start-ups nearly double from 21 in 2020 to 47 in 2023. Not just the number, but also the investments in these ventures, have soared from $38 million in 2017 to $119 million in 2022, indicating a positive trend. Many private sector representatives credit this growth to the supportive policies of the Indian government.

Given India’s burgeoning human and technological capabilities, it’s likely that other global powers will seek partnerships with its space sector. As such, India is swiftly transforming into a technology powerhouse, boasting advancements in new space and military capabilities.

With an already formidable ground force, air force, and navy, the advancements in the space sector suggest that India is making substantial strides in this new domain as well. Compared to other nations, India’s capabilities in space are significant, and the upcoming years will reveal if it can capitalise on the current international climate and its potential for breakthrough advancements in the near future.

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