Concept art of a spaceship passing over Earth

View from India: Private space tourism could redefine recreation

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In-Space has begun to promote private space sector launches. Aspirations could soar sky high as space tourism begins to open up.

The Indian Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (In-Space) has begun to promote space activities in the private sector.

With an intention of providing a level playing field, In-Space made news recently as it authorised two early birds to launch their payloads: Dhruva Space Pvt. Ltd. from Hyderabad and Digantara Research & Technologies Pvt. Ltd. from Bangalore are the first ones to mark this new beginning.

Dhruva Space Satellite Orbital Deployer (DSOD 1U), a technology demonstration payload, was authorised. As a space technology start-up, Dhruva Space focuses on building space engineering solutions necessary for application-agnostic satellite platforms.

For its part, Digantara Research & Technologies develops end-to-end solutions for safe and sustainable space operations through its 'Space Situational Awareness' sensor network, platform and data products. A Proton dosimeter payload, Digantara's 'Robust Integrating Proton Fluence Meter' (ROBI) was also authorised by In-Space.

In-Space is an autonomous, independent, single-window nodal agency under the Department of Space (DoS). Initiated in 2020, the agency aims to popularise, authorise, monitor and supervise the space activities of non-governmental private entities (NGPEs) in India. Pawan Kumar Goenka, former managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra, has been designated as the chairperson of In-Space.

Astro tourism may be understood as an astronaut’s professional pursuit of studying the stars. It may also be a pleasurable pastime of stargazing for anyone, be it through observatories or dedicated dark sky reserves. Space tourism is the actual journey into space, mostly as a recreation activity, leisure travel or a trip for adventure junkies. To date, it has only been the elite few who can afford it: Bezos, Branson, Musk et al. Though many people dream of it and would love to orbit into space, the whopping cost is the primary deterrent. It would be nice if technological advancements would help in lowering costs, though one is not sure if this is possible.

Space tourism is a fledgling industry that could be promoted through awareness and education. A move in this direction could be that In-Space starts planning space courses at engineering colleges and other educational institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs). The media has already been informed that In-Space is in talks with the University Grants Commission (UGC).

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has initiated a 'Technology Development Fund' (TDF) - a scheme to attract new startups in the fields of defence and space. This is under the Make in India initiative. Other government efforts are also underway, such as the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM). Envisioned to foster entrepreneurship and innovation across India, AIM has supported various initiatives and challenges related to space tech over the years.

AIM in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) launched the ATL Space Challenge last September at a national level. Explore Space, Reach Space, Inhabit Space and Leverage Space were among the four challenges. Students were guided through YouTube sessions. Over 2,500 entries comprising 6,500 students participated in the challenge. The Top 75 teams were announced earlier in the year.

Already Indian satellites are orbiting space under various space mission initiatives of the country. Now with space tourism ready to take-off, what comes to mind is space debris, such as small paint flecks and defunct satellites - essentially, space junk. If these objects are left in space, they could obstruct or even collide with active orbiting satellites.

Accumulated orbital debris can also be harmful to the environment. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has enhanced its orbital debris-tracking capability with its new radars and optical telescopes. This is Project NETRA: the 'Network for Space Objects Tracking and Analysis'. The project, estimated to cost Rs 400 crore, aims to give India its own capability for space situational awareness (SSA) like the other space powers, used to 'predict' threats from debris to Indian satellites. NETRA's long-term sustainability measure is to capture the GEO or geostationary orbit scene at 36,000km where communication satellites operate.

Considering the space junk issue, could there be future devices that could sweep up this space garbage and put it into a faraway small orbit, in order to avoid collision with operational satellites? Could something be added to failed and retired satellites to retrofit them to work in this way, at least for some time? Metaphorically, an inactive satellite doing the rounds silently seems eerie. No one would want a rendezvous with such a satellite. In any case, the repair job of a satellite itself could open up many more jobs in spacecraft. Ah, that’s something which probably requires a high-tech bandwidth to fulfill.

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