Awaiting lift-off into the Second Space Age

Context: The Space Age began in 1957 with the launch of satellite Sputnik 1, and in 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the world’s first person in space. Neil Armstrong made history by walking on the moon in 1969. The First Space Age became reality.. 

Some of the key highlights of space exploration include

  • The first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 launched by Soviet Union in 1957. This marked the beginning of the space age and the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States.
  • The first human spaceflight by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961. This demonstrated the possibility of safe space travel and return to Earth.
  • The Apollo 11 mission in 1969 which landed the first humans on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the lunar surface. This remains one of the greatest technological and scientific achievements in human history.
  • The launch of space stations like Salyut 1, Skylab and Mir that allowed long-duration human habitation in space. This paved the way for today’s International Space Station.
  • The exploration of the solar system using robotic spacecraft like the Voyager probes which revealed mysteries of the outer planets. Spacecraft have explored Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
  • Major space-based observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope that have expanded our understanding of the universe. Astronomers have discovered new exoplanets, black holes, dark matter and distant galaxies with these observatories.
  • Commercial spaceflight has now become a reality with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin developing reusable rockets and spaceships. Space tourism may soon become available to more people.

Today, the Second Space Age is here. Though there is no precise date for its beginning, the contrast in today’s space domain is stark. Between the 1950s to 1991, a period dominated by the Cold War, 60 to 120 space launches took place annually and 93% of these were by the United States and the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) governments.

Three decades later, there are not only many more actors in the space scene, but a majority are also private companies. Last year, there were 180 rocket/space launches, 61 by Elon Musk’s Space X; 90% of global space launches since 2020 are by and for the private sector.

The ‘Second Space Age’ refers to the period from the 1990s onwards which saw increased private sector involvement in space exploration. Some key aspects of the Second Space Age:

  • Commercialization of space: Private space companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, etc. have emerged that offer launch services and space tourism. They are developing reusable rocket technology to lower the cost of access to space. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft have transformed space transportation.
  • Space mining: Companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries aim to mine asteroids for resources like water and precious metals. Space mining could revolutionize space-based industries if it becomes economically viable.
  • Space tourism: Companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are developing spacecraft for suborbital space tourism. SpaceX has also announced plans to send tourists on a flight around the Moon aboard its Starship spaceship. Space tourism can make space accessible to more people.
  • Advancements in robotics: Robotic spacecraft have explored much of the solar system. Robotic probes like New Horizons explored Pluto, Dawn explored Ceres and Hayabusa2 explored asteroid Ryugu. Robotic spacecraft can reach distant and harsh environments where humans cannot easily go.
  • Private space stations: Companies like Axiom Space and Bigelow Aerospace are developing private space stations. Axiom Space aims to build a commercial module for the ISS and eventually a free-flying space station. Private space stations can provide more opportunities for tourism, research and manufacturing in space.
  • Space-based solar power: Concepts like space solar power satellites that can harness solar energy in space and transmit it to Earth have been proposed. They could provide a constant source of renewable energy but face major technical and economic hurdles.
  • Space mining and space-based economy: If space mining and space-based solar power become viable, it could lead to a space-based economy with space resources and space-based products. However, we are still far from developing a strong space-based economy.
  • Deep space exploration: Robotic and manned missions are envisioned to destinations like Mars, Venus, asteroids, etc. SpaceX’s Starship aims to send humans to Mars. Robotic probes could explore ice giants like Neptune and Uranus. Future space telescopes could study exoplanets and distant galaxies.

India’s space journey begins

India’s space program began in the 1960s and has made tremendous progress in the decades since. Some key highlights of India’s space journey:

  • The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was established in 1969 to develop space technology and its application to national development. It replaced the erstwhile Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) set up in 1962.
  • India’s first satellite Aryabhata was launched by the Soviet Union in 1975. This marked the beginning of India’s space program.
  • The Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) program in the 1980s aimed to develop indigenous satellite launch capability. The first SLV rocket successfully launched the Rohini RS-1 satellite in 1980.
  • The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) program began in the 1990s. PSLV rocket is capable of launching payloads into the Earth’s polar orbit. It has had over 50 successful missions.
  • The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) program aims to launch payloads into geostationary orbit. GSLV Mk III, India’s most powerful rocket, successfully launched Chandrayaan-2 in 2019.
  • The Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) program has launched several remote sensing satellites used in fields like agriculture, water resources, forestry and disaster management.
  • Chandrayaan-1, launched in 2008, was India’s first lunar mission. It provided evidence for water molecules on the Moon’s surface.
  • The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) or Mangalyaan, launched in 2013, made India the first Asian nation to reach Mars orbit. It is studying the Martian surface and atmosphere.
  • Chandrayaan-2 and Gaganyaan are upcoming missions. Chandrayaan-2 will land a rover on the lunar surface. Gaganyaan aims to send Indian astronauts to space by 2021.
  • Applications of space technology have led to advances in fields like telemedicine, teleeducation, weather forecasting, GIS and navigation. Space technology has become deeply linked with serving societal needs.

India has one of the world’s most successful space programs despite its limited resources. Ambitious future goals include human spaceflight, space station, crewed missions to the Moon and Mars, and developing reusable rocket technology. The increasing commercialization of space may provide new opportunities for international collaboration. India’s progress in space has established it as a leader in space science and technology across the globe.

Space potential

The origins of the Second Space Age can be traced to the Internet. In India, the process began accelerating as the 1990s saw the emergence of private TV channels, together with cable TV followed by direct-to-home transmissions.

The demand for satellite transponders and ground-based services exploded. Today, more than half the transponders beaming into Indian homes are on foreign satellites.

The last 15 years witnessed another transformation, and this time India was in lockstep with the developed world. The age of mobile telephony, followed by smartphones has shown the world what a data-hungry and data-rich society India is.

Broadband, OTT and now 5G promise a double-digit annual growth in demand for satellite-based services.

In 2020, the global space economy was estimated at $450 billion, growing to $600 billion by 2025. The Indian space economy, estimated at $9.6 billion in 2020, is expected to be $13 billion by 2025. However, the potential is much greater with an enabling policy and regulatory environment. The Indian space industry could easily exceed $60 billion by 2030, directly creating more than two lakh jobs.

Potential of space exploration and space-based technologies

  • Space mining: Asteroids contain precious metals like gold, platinum, cobalt, etc. and water in the form of ice. Space mining could provide resources for space-based industries and space exploration. However, it remains technologically and economically challenging.
  • Space-based solar power: Giant solar panels in geostationary orbit could collect solar energy and beam it to Earth as microwaves. This could provide a constant source of renewable energy. But it requires major technological capabilities and high costs.
  • Space tourism: Suborbital and orbital space tourism could make space accessible to more people. SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, etc. are developing spacecraft for space tourism. While suborbital tourism is emerging, orbital space tourism remains expensive.
  • Private space stations: Companies are developing private space stations, either modules attached to ISS or independent space stations. They aim to host tourists, researchers, manufacturers, etc. But space stations require huge investments and the demand for their services is still not proven.
  • Space colonization: Establishing long-term human habitation beyond Earth, on the Moon, Mars, space colonies, etc. This could hedge against threats to humanity on Earth and eventually “backup” our species. But space colonization faces daunting technological, economic and physiological challenges.
  • Asteroid mining robots: Robotic spacecraft could explore and mine asteroids to extract resources useful for space-based or Earth-based applications. Robots can reach harsh space environments, but robotic manipulation of resources and transportation back to Earth requires major advancements.
  • Space-based solar power satellites: Satellites in geosynchronous orbit could capture and transmit solar energy as microwaves to receiver stations on Earth. They could provide a constant renewable energy source. But technology for efficient energy conversion, transmission and receival does not yet exist.
  • Space manufacturing: Microgravity environment enables production of materials, composites and biological tissues difficult or impossible to create on Earth. ZBLAN fibers for telescopes and organs grown from stem cells are examples. But space manufacturing and transportation back to Earth needs to become more economically viable. 
  • Space resources for deep space exploration: Access to space resources like water, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. on the Moon and asteroids could make deep space exploration more feasible by reducing the amount of supplies launched from Earth. But we have a long way to go to utilize space resources for human missions into deep space.

In summary, while space offers exciting possibilities, most space-based technologies and concepts remain at an early stage and require major advancements before providing tangible and economically sustainable services. Government and private sector support for space technology development and space exploration will be crucial to harnessing these opportunities. Overall, the potential of space is promising but much work lies ahead to unlock the promise.

Creating an enabling environment

  • The Indian space start-up industry is growing rapidly with increasing investment and number of start-ups. It has the potential to boost the space sector like the IT industry did for the economy.
  • ISRO currently manages limited launches and satellites compared to other space agencies like China. While ISRO has worked with private companies, they were mainly vendors. Space start-ups need a different relationship as their business depends on space.
  • ISRO plays multiple roles as an operator, user, service provider, licensor, regulator and incubator. It needs to now focus on research based on its expertise and resources. The government has taken some steps to promote private participation like draft space laws, NSIL, IN-SPACe, etc.
  • Specific policies for satcom, earth observation and FDI have been proposed but legislation like a space act is needed to provide a legal framework, set up a regulator and enable venture funding for space start-ups.
  • India has an opportunity to be part of the Second Space Age with increased private sector involvement but it needs to act fast before the opportunity is lost.
  • A space act should provide guidelines for licensing of space activities, a regulatory body to oversee compliance, and set the overall framework for public-private partnership in space sector. It can boost investment in space start-ups by providing clarity.
  • The existing and proposed government initiatives show there is willingness to bring private companies into space sector. But a comprehensive space act is vital to give shape to these efforts and transition ISRO’s role to open up the space sector.
  • Space start-ups in India want to do more than just build to ISRO’s specs. They need freedom and incentives to innovate which can be enabled by a progressive space policy and regulatory environment. Partnership with ISRO remains key but needs to evolve.
  • There is significant interest and talent within the private sector to take up new opportunities in space. An enabling policy and regulatory environment can unleash the potential of space start-ups to support the growth of India’s space sector. But the window to do so may be limited.
  • India’s space sector is poised for major transformation with increased private participation. ISRO and government’s role in providing an enabling environment through policy, regulation and partnership will influence the pace and scope of this transformation. Overall support for innovation and risk-taking can power India’s journey to the forefront of the global space race.

PYQ UPSC – 2016

Consider the following statements:

The Mangalyaan launched by ISRO

    1. is also called the Mars Orbiter Mission

    1. made India the second country to have a spacecraft orbit the Mars after USA

    1. made India the only country to be successful in making its spacecraft orbit the Mars in its very first attempt

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

    1. 1 only

    1. 2 and 3 only

    1. 1 and 3 only

    1. 1, 2 and 3

Answer – c)

Prelims practice question

Consider the following statements about India’s space program:

    1. ISRO was established in 1962 to spearhead India’s space activities.

    1. India’s first satellite Aryabhata was launched by ISRO in 1975.

    1. The GSLV rocket successfully launched Chandrayaan-2 in 2019.

Which of the statements given above are correct?

    1. 1 and 2 only

    1. 2 and 3 only

    1. 1 and 3 only

    1. 1, 2 and 3

Answer – b)

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