Ridesharing To Space — Elon Musk Captures Space Launch Market From Russia, France; Sends Indian, Korean Satellites Into Orbit

SpaceX’s share of the burgeoning space economy has skyrocketed in the past decade. The Indian government has also been trying to woo Elon Musk’s spaceflight company by liberalizing foreign investment in the space sector.

On April 7, the company launched the first privately manufactured military-grade reconnaissance satellite for India and another satellite for South Korea.

There is no denying that Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) development of a ‘reliable, adaptable, and efficient’ vertically integrated vehicle production line has decreased the cost of launch in recent years and democratized space launches.

Governments worldwide trust SpaceX with high-priority defense launches. In 2023, the company launched a spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office and the US Air Force’s X-37B unmanned spaceplane.

This is indicative of SpaceX’s prospects, which are rising faster than a Falcon 9 off the pad. The relatively lower cost of Falcon 9, starting around US $62 million, has also increased its size pie in the launch industry.

On April 7, Falcon 9 launched the Bandwagon-1 mission to orbit from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On board this mission were 11 spacecraft, including South Korea’s 425Sat and Indian Tata Advanced Systems Limited’s TSAT-1A. It was SpaceX’s first-ever Bandwagon-1 class rideshare mission.

The spacecraft successfully reached orbit, with SpaceX ending its livestream early at the request of its customer South Korea, which flew its Project 425 SAR synthetic aperture radar satellite on the mission, according to Spaceflight Now.

It was South Korea’s second homegrown spy satellite. The launch comes after Seoul’s first spy satellite was put into orbit from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base in December 2023.

The Project 425 SAR made contact with the ground station about two hours and 40 minutes after the launch. The race with North Korea for military capabilities in space has pushed South Korea to conduct back-to-back launches, and SpaceX is one of the most economical options in the world at the moment.

According to the mission description, it was the 14th launch and landing for this particular booster. SpaceX’s reliability in landing and re-launching its rockets has helped bring launch costs further down, and countries across the globe are making a beeline to SpaceX launch pads.

SpaceX’s trajectory has been explosive. In 2013, its market share was a little over 5 percent, and Russia dominated the launch market at that time. By 2017, the share rose to 45 percent of the global market, and in 2024, it is expected to rise to 60 percent of the global commercial launches.

It was the first private company to successfully launch and return a spacecraft from Earth orbit and launch a crewed spacecraft and dock it with the International Space Station (ISS).

Before Falcon 9 revolutionized the launch market, the US had ceded the market to Russia and France. Since 2009, no US company has launched a single commercial mission.

In 1998, the US-dominated global launches with 66 satellites launched that year. That number fell to zero by 2011. SpaceX resuscitated the multi-billion-dollar market for the US.

India’s Reconnaissance Satellite Network

Till the time the ecosystem of Indian private players in the space segment is not mature enough, India will have to rely on SpaceX. The launch of the first privately built military-grade ‘spy satellites’ by SpaceX is no smaller feat.

Built by Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL), the sub-meter optical satellite is the first in a series of reconnaissance satellites to be built for India. It is capable of capturing details smaller than a meter.

Trying to keep up with China, India has been emphasizing using space for its military ends. Apart from keeping a tab on the adversary’s mobilization and troop movements, the satellites will be used for satellite-linked unmanned aerial vehicles that the Indian Armed Forces will be inducted into its fleet.

The satellite named TSAT-1A has been assembled in TASL’s Assembly, Integration, and Testing (“AIT”) plant at its Vemagal facility in Karnataka. This achievement follows the collaboration signed between TASL and Satellogic in November 2023, leveraging Satellogic’s expertise to develop and integrate an advanced Earth Observation satellite in India and TASL’s capability to undertake complex system integration.

India has fewer satellites than China. According to the Military Balance report published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, China operated 136 reconnaissance satellites in 2022, up from 66 in 2019.

Against this backdrop, India’s first private spy satellite launch is a significant milestone. Through its multispectral and hyperspectral capabilities, TSAT-1A will deliver high-resolution optical satellite images with increased collection capacity, dynamic range, and low-latency delivery.

When it comes to the first high-resolution commercial satellite it was IKONOS and was launched by the US in 1999. The excellent observation capability of high-resolution satellites spawned immense military and economic benefits.

Several countries, including China, are competing to develop a High-Resolution Earth Observation System (HREOS), and many high-resolution satellites have been successfully launched, such as QuickBird, WorldView, Pleiades, CARTOSAT, etc.

In 2019, China launched its first sub-meter high-resolution optical transmission stereo mapping satellite, Gaofen-7, from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in the northern province of Shanxi.

With a resolution of sub-meter and the highest positioning accuracy in China, Gaofen-7 can draw stereoscopic maps with an error of less than one meter for the topography of China and even the whole world.

Unlike ordinary optical remote sensing satellites, which can only take plane images, Gaofen-7 can draw three-dimensional images. Once it is used, all the buildings in the world will no longer be just a square on the map but a series of three-dimensional models.

Image for Representation

India has been dependent on the US for getting reconnaissance data. The armed forces needed to give exact coordinates and timings for the foreign vendors to obtain imagery. The ground control will be set up in Bengaluru and used to process the imagery sent by the satellite.

Colonel Vinayak Bhatt, retired Indian Army official and seasoned image analyst, called the launch a “great move.” “We also need more EO (Earth Observation) satellites with higher temporal resolution. We need more data downloading stations and more image analysts. Today, we require AI-assisted satellites that could give an analyst an added advantage over our adversaries,” Colonel Bhatt told the EurAsian Times.

India & Its Space Dreams

Since the Indian government opened the sector for private players, 100 deep tech start-ups have sprung up. The Indian space industry is expected to become a trillion-dollar industry by 2040.

With its first private orbital rocket launch, India was expected to fill the void created by Russia in the international launch market after the invasion of Ukraine. However, the third attempt to test-launch the Agniban SubOrbital Technology Demonstrator (SOrTeD) has been called off.

Indian private players are hopeful that Space X’s foray into India will open many doors for funding and space tech. In 2024, India announced that it would allow 100% foreign direct investment in the manufacture of satellite systems without official approval and eased the rules for launch vehicles, aiming for a greater share of the global space market.

A joint report by Ernst and Young and the Indian Space Association projects the country’s space economy growing to US $12.8466 billion by 2025. Satellite launch services are predicted to be the fastest-growing segment in the Indian space economy, followed by satellite manufacturing.

In India, Skyroot Aerospace, a Hyderabad-based start-up founded by former engineers from the government-run Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO) in 2018, has been leading the sector.

In November 2022, it launched the first privately made rocket and is now poised for another first—a private company’s first orbital rocket launch. The launch is planned for the next couple of months.

Calling SpaceX’s coming to India, Skyroot Aerospace co-founder and CEO Pawan Kumar Chandana had earlier told the EurAsian Times: “The Space sector, by its very nature, is a trans-global business, with cross-border supply chains, customers, investors, and partnerships. It is natural for each player to look at the global market to expand business.”

Skyroot recently announced the agreement with French new-space operator Promethee to launch its satellite constellation into space. Both firms will study the integration of the Vikram launcher into the deployment process of their JAPETUS earth observation constellation.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • The author can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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