In the space sector, there are ‘enabling’ technologies and ‘enabling’ people whose vital contributions need to be adequately acknowledged. For instance, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai was an enabling scientist who foresaw the benefits of space technology as early as the 1960s. It was under his capable leadership that the country embarked on the world’s largest socio-technological experiment in the space communications sphere.
Humanity has come a long way since then. Today, countries and governments across the globe are looking to employ space technology to reach out to ordinary citizens and facilitate effective governance. In fact, the Indian administration has attempted to secure at least 2Mbps-20Mbps connectivity in rural areas and gram panchayats.
Of course, this technological progress brings certain challenges with it. As individuals and companies become used to instantaneous connectivity, even a few milliseconds of delay may appear intolerable to them. In such a context, the shift from geostationary satellites to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) systems seems rational, at it guarantees a relatively lower latency. It will, however, be important to install relevant hardware across the globe.
At present, satellites require large surfaces for collecting radiation. If their electronic parts can be made into compact and deployable systems, the size of the satellite decreases. This makes it possible for micro, nano and pico satellites to perform as well as their existing counterparts, in providing broadband connectivity. This, in turn, reduces the costs allowed, allowing the technology to be adopted within no time.
In this veritable milieu of space technology, the enabling personality of Elon Musk has undoubtedly made a difference. This is symptomatic of a larger trend where private enterprises are forging their own paths in traditionally government-dominated sectors. In the future, they will be crucial in running the last mile, as economics and affordability continue to be the primary drivers of success.
While the infrastructure provided through space may come from large private enterprises, the actual use of such platforms in providing services to the ordinary citizen will be exceedingly critical. This is where start-ups can play a major role by offering innovative solutions.
Ultimately, end-consumers will derive value from the application of deployed technologies, which may be a mix of ground and space technology. In such cases, the equitable use of spectrum remains a key concern. Almost all the service providers on the ground are demanding access to the whole spectrum, leaving precious little available for use by space entities.
This is a conflict that cannot be easily resolved. In the coming years, therefore, the benefits of scarce resources like spectrum will accrue to those projects that are most economically viable.
With the world poised at the cusp of a ‘satellite internet revolution’, it is imperative to effectively manage traffic in space and boost collision-avoidance capabilities. This is a crucial challenge and requires a global endeavour to avoid chaos in space. The dense network of satellite constellations must not be allowed to affect the activities of astronomers and stargazers.
As far as India is concerned, its space policy should focus on leveraging technology and improving access to facilities in a manner that promotes healthy and sustainable living in the country. It is important to define this objective categorically and work towards it.
Kiran Kumar is the former Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2014 for his contributions to the field of science and technology. This article is written by the Synergia Research team based on insights shared by the expert at the round table titled ‘Empowering the Internet through Space: Limitations, challenges, and the future’ on 21 January 2021.