Articles and Commentaries |
January 4, 2024

Technological Developments in the Space Domain: The Challenges for India

Written By: Amog Nair

The evolving space domain is marked by advanced technologies which pose both opportunities and risks for India’s global economic and national security. Propulsion, satellite, energy, cyberspace, robotics, and surveillance advancements create prospects and challenges. Developments like the Western space startup surge could deepen global economic disparities or offer India substantial gains. Growing space capabilities from influential nations like the U.S., Russia, and China raise concerns for India’s space assets. UAPs (Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena), studied by NASA and the Pentagon, add a cosmic dimension. India’s response to these developments warrants examination, urging proactive engagement to avoid geopolitical regression and loss of autonomy.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENTS

In the pursuit of evolving into a space-faring civilisation, sustained economic activities within the space domain are imperative. The pioneers in this arena are predominantly from North Atlantic countries, with a notable focus on space factories and the recognition of property rights over space resources.

Space Factories

Over the years, the share of global space research and development (R&D) funding from the US government has declined from approximately 70 percent to around 50 percent. Simultaneously, the annual funding of space-related startups has more than doubled from 2010 to 2018. There is a growing trend where commercial funding may surpass government funding within the next two decades. The government is actively embracing this shift and fostering the potential for mutually beneficial public-private partnerships.[1]

Numerous sectors stand to benefit, including semiconductors, health, wellness products, and many more. The unique microgravity and near-vacuum environment in space unlocks novel manufacturing methodologies unfeasible on Earth. Experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have showcased successful ventures in producing human tissues, semiconductors, and new drugs. Recent initiatives by the Biden administration allocated $5 million toward cancer drug research on the ISS.[2] Notably, patents referencing microgravity have shown a tenfold annual increase since 2010.[3] However, the ISS faces a considerable backlog of entities seeking to utilise its facilities, compounded by its impending phase-out. This has prompted countries like China to establish their own space stations.[4]

To reduce dependence on the ISS, startups like Varda Space Industries in the U.S. are pioneering space-based manufacturing. Varda focuses on pharmaceutical development in microgravity. Operating an autonomous space module, the company manipulates materials, improving protein crystallisation processes, potentially enhancing existing drugs and fostering new pharmaceutical innovations.[5] They also earn through a $60 million defence contract that uses their space capsule as a hypersonic testbed.[6]

Space Forge is a British company spearheading semiconductor manufacturing in space, with the European Space Agency as its principal customer.[7] Their vision entails manufacturing semiconductors with challenging materials like Gallium Nitrate and Silicon Carbide in space. This proposition suggests enhanced chip efficiency, potentially increasing from 10x to 100x. Space conditions facilitate optimal large single crystal structure production which improves heat dissipation and electron flow. Currently, they produce 500 chips per flight, with plans to scale to a million.[8]

Space Mining

The initial excitement surrounding space mining has waned recently, marked by the acquisition of ambitious companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries by entities showing minimal interest in space resource extraction. Despite this, interest in space mining persists, albeit accompanied by significant hurdles. Lack of technical advancements in mining tools, exploration modules, logistical concerns, and lingering financial viability questions pose substantial challenges. For instance, missions like NASA’s Osiris-Rex, requiring seven years and $1 billion to retrieve under 1 kg of asteroid sample, highlight the cost-prohibitive nature of asteroid mining.[9] Despite these obstacles, startups like Astro-Forge remain hopeful, drawing inspiration from past achievements, and insisting that the true value in space mining lay with extracting metals, and not water[10] [11]. Initiatives like NASA’s Psyche mission conducting asteroid sciences for resource mapping offer promising insights for prospective space mining endeavours[12]. Asteroid Psyche 16 is believed to have enough raw materials to make every person on earth a multi-billionaire.[13] Yet, NASA is emphasising the moon as a more viable site for mining.[14] This stems from confirmed water presence at the lunar south pole which is essential for energy, hydration, and oxygen. The moon’s proximity, stability and mass make it a more feasible landing site compared to asteroids. This prompts many to view a moon base as an essential logistical hub for an effective asteroid mining value chain.[15]

The US has been advancing private ownership over space resources, evident in the US Commercial Space Launch and Competitiveness Act of 2015. This legislation allows commercial companies operating within its regulatory framework to legally appropriate resources acquired from celestial bodies known as Near Earth Objects. Luxembourg has also followed suit with its Law on Use of Resources in Space Act and the establishment of the Luxembourg Space Agency, aiming to offer a clear legislative framework for space mining activities, thereby reducing uncertainties to attract investment. Furthermore, the UAE’s Federal Law No. 12 on the Regulation of the Space Sector in 2019 covers various space activities, including space mining. Japan’s 2021 Act on Promotion of Business Activities Related to the Exploration and Development of Space Resources also focuses on space mining. However, despite these legal strides, there are notable differences among these domestic laws. Divergences exist in their acknowledgment of the Outer Space Treaty’s appropriation principle, issues of international cooperation, their definition of terms like “space resources”, issuance of property rights, licensing norms, etc. But it is undeniable that despite the legal uncertainties, these countries are clearly trying to lay claim to their stake in the gold rush in space.[16]

Space Logistics

Space logistics stands as a pivotal cornerstone in the burgeoning space sector. Whether facilitating space mining, establishing space factories, or venturing into innovative concepts like space hotels, robust space-based logistics remains vital. DARPA’s Orbital Express, initiated in 2007, marked a foundational attempt in this domain. The program aimed to validate the feasibility of autonomous satellite refuelling and reconfiguration to bolster national security and commercial space endeavours. Refuelling satellites promised improved manoeuvrability, coverage, survivability, and extended operational lifespan, while on-orbit electronics upgrades offered performance enhancements and rapid technology deployment.[17]

Currently, private entities are taking strides in this realm. Atomos Space plans to launch the Quark and Gluon, designed for rendezvous, docking, refuelling, and orbital transfer.[18] Blue Origin is developing the Blue Ring, a versatile spacecraft catering to in-space services, from hosting to transportation, refuelling, and data relay.[19] With a cohort of companies like Impulse Space, D-Orbit, and Momentus in this sector, these innovations mark a shift toward in-space mobility vehicles catering to diverse missions and orbits.

MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS

In an era where space capabilities define global power, military operations in orbit have become pivotal. Espionage via advanced satellites and the unsettling rise of anti-satellite missiles underscore a new frontier of strategic competition. These developments, accompanied by cybersecurity threats, shape a landscape demanding critical analysis and proactive defence strategies.

Cyber Warfare

The year 2022 witnessed a significant stride in space-based espionage as SpaceX propelled the classified US government satellite, NROL87, into orbit. This satellite boasted cutting-edge spying capabilities for overhead reconnaissance missions. However, Russia swiftly launched its own spy satellite, Kosmos 2558, and manoeuvred it in close proximity to the American satellite within the same orbit.[20] The global implications of these manoeuvres became apparent, particularly in the context of the United States’ use of spy satellites to monitor missile and rocket launches across the globe.

This heightened the awareness of vulnerabilities inherent in many space assets. The inadequacy of these assets in considering the nuances of hacking and employment blasts became glaringly evident. Alarmingly, the simplicity with which satellites could be hacked has been demonstrated in YouTube several times.[21] Most satellite vulnerabilities come from the fact that they were not designed with cyber threats in mind. This vulnerability escalated into a global phenomenon, with major powers—China, Russia, and the United States—engaging in frequent hacking attempts aimed at the “deny, exploit, or hijack” objective regarding enemy satellites. In response, countries are pooling expertise to counter these threats. The US military, for instance, initiated hackathons where ethical hackers were incentivised to identify vulnerabilities within American satellite systems, subsequently enabling the rectification of these flaws.[22] Notably, these cyber attacks aren’t confined to space; the 2019 cyber attacks conducted by North Korea on ISRO ground stations serve as a poignant reminder of the broader scope of such threats.[23]

Anti-Satellite (A-Sat) Missiles

A disquieting evolution in space capabilities has emerged with the demonstration of anti-satellite capabilities by major powers including Russia, China, India, and the United States. These advancements allow the targeted destruction of adversary space assets, posing greater risks than mere espionage due to the potential repercussions of the Kessler Syndrome triggered by space debris.[24]

The inherent danger was starkly highlighted by incidents such as the need for the International Space Station (ISS) to execute evasive manoeuvres to evade debris resulting from the destruction of a satellite.[25] Furthermore, missions like the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission elevate concerns as they demonstrate American capabilities to target and potentially attack assets situated far away, accurately using space based platforms.[26] Notably, the limitations imposed by technology prevent the use of anti-ballistic missiles to protect space based assets. This leaves numerous satellites vulnerable to kinetic attacks, thus amplifying the stakes and complexities of space security. Meanwhile, some other nations have joined to pledge to not conduct A-SAT tests in space in an effort to preserve orbital safety.[27]

Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP)

UAPs, a modern reinterpretation of UFOs, denote flying objects linked to non-human (alien) intelligences. Initially met with skepticism, the discourse has evolved in the last five years. It is progressing from acknowledgement of UFOs to the claims of reverse engineering UFOs and encounters with non-human intelligences. This shift was driven by courageous testimonies from military personnel and government insiders.

After the bombshell 2017 New York Times Article, the U.S. Government had reluctantly admitted to the existence of a UFO/UAP issue and began briefing members of Congress on it.[28] Prominent figures in the political sphere, including Barack Obama, the Clintons, John Podesta, John Ratcliffe, John Brennan, James Comey, and others, have confirmed the reality of UFOs. Obama even stated, “when it comes to aliens, there are just some things I can’t tell you on air”, before going on to confirm the UFO reality.[29] John Ratcliffe, the former Director of National Intelligence, publicly stated that the U.S. lacks the capability to defend against these objects.[30] Marco Rubio even felt that it was better for UAPs to be aliens because if they belong to an adversary, Pax-Americana had already ended. The UAPs exhibit abilities that defy our current understanding of physics, including the capability to achieve relativistic speeds, operate in diverse mediums, break the sound barrier without producing a sonic boom, accelerate instantaneously, and execute high-speed manoeuvres without regard to inertia or G-forces. The UAPs also come in various shapes and sizes.[31]

The growing pressure from Congress led to the establishment of the UAP Task Force (now AARO) in 2020, tasked with collecting and analysing UFO reports. They have so far collected over 800 reports to date. While government statements refrain from attributing these phenomena to foreign adversaries, they stress the national security and aviation safety threats posed by UAPs.[32] Bill Nelson, NASA’s Director, initiated a UAP study panel that recently published its inaugural report, followed by the establishment of a permanent UFO office within NASA.[33] This is late compared to France’s CNES which has long maintained GEIPAN for investigating civilian and military UFO reports.[34]

A pivotal moment occurred when David Grusch, an intelligence official with the NGA and the NRO, emerged as a whistleblower. During his congressional testimony, Grusch revealed the government’s involvement in capturing and reverse engineering UAPs. His position within the UAP Task Force and his role in authoring whistleblower protections in the NDAA lent credibility to assertions of UAP possession, reverse engineering, disinformation campaigns, budget misallocation, private contractor involvement, recovery of bodies, and security breaches.[35] Notably, dozens of whistleblowers have now approached Congress and the Inspector General to make protected disclosures.[36] Grusch’s claims aren’t new though. Similar claims have been made historically by figures such as Canadian Defense Minister Paul Hellyer[37] and Apollo Astronaut Edgar Mitchell.[38] Furthermore, the U.S. Navy’s patent filings since 2016, detailing advanced UFO-like technologies were granted following naval intelligence’s citation of Chinese advancements in similar fields.[39] The extent of reverse engineering by Russia and China remains uncertain, with some believing that they might be ahead of the US.[40] It has been confirmed that China has established a UFO task force and employs artificial intelligence for UAP study.[41] Meanwhile, some Canadian parliamentarians have concerns about Canada’s declining role in UFO retrieval programs within the Five Eyes alliance.[42]

A schism exists between the legislative and executive branches in the United States. John Kirby has affirmed the White House and Pentagon’s seriousness of the subject, citing that many of these reports come from restricted areas such as training zones, test sites, and missile bases.[43] Meanwhile Congress, displaying remarkable bipartisan unity, relentlessly seeks answers from the executive. In July 2023, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer introduced the UAP Disclosure Act, an amendment to the 2024 NDAA. This legislation aims to bring transparency to UAP matters, acknowledging undisclosed UAP documents, addressing the misuse of national security provisions, establishing an Expert Review Board for declassifying UAP records, and enhancing witness accessibility. Importantly, it lays claim to “eminent domain” over recovered UAP technology and biological materials, setting specific deadlines for disclosure.[44]

However, in early December, some Congressmen managed to severely dilute the UAP Disclosure Act to the point where its title may no longer be accurate. Notably, the amendment of the lower house takes away the Eminent Domain and Records Review Board clauses, which many considered central to UAP disclosure. The military industrial complex may have won the battle by killing the amendment. However, they may have also just lost the war by making obvious moves through political agents they publicly donate to.[45] The UAP caucus continues to fight by demanding answers from officials in secure facilities, but so far have been told they do not have clearance to know the information.[46] Congressman Andy Ogles had even threatened to invoke the Holman rule to cut finances to the executive if they continue stone-walling Congress[47] But such drastic measures are yet to be seen.

OPPORTUNITIES & THREATS FOR INDIA

Economic Developments

India has chosen a more slow and pragmatic approach to their space programs that focuses on learning from others to improve its own efficiency, while adding value to space research. This was demonstrated with the Chandrayaan, Aditya L1 and Mangalyaan missions. ISRO has plans to put independent astronauts on the moon by 2040. ISRO has underscored the technological gaps hindering the feasibility of asteroid mining, thus diverting its focus toward lunar endeavours after joining the Artemis Accords.[48] [49] While the moon offers opportunities, asteroids remain rich in precious resources crucial for burgeoning industries. To avert potential economic vulnerability, ISRO must vigilantly monitor developments and strategise for future mining operations.

Space mining will be driven by demand for critical metals essential in electronics, solar panels, wind power, and electric car components. While some companies consider extracting metals from the seafloor, asteroids offer an alternative with abundant reserves, avoiding environmental concerns tied to wildlife harm during extraction. Asteroid mining emerges as a pragmatic avenue for future resource exploration.[50] Pioneering nations stand to reshape geopolitics by monopolising extraterrestrial resources, potentially leaving India economically disadvantaged if we remain tardy in entry.

Simultaneously, India’s support for space startups signals progress in nurturing the space value chain. With India’s space economy projected to reach ₹35,200 crore ($44 billion) by 2033, IN-SPACe’s vision prioritises ‘Made in India’ space products, emphasising co-development and co-production for private sector growth.[51] India must strategically incentivise startups for innovative space logistics solutions, aligning with the success of its satellite launch program. By offering cost-effective services, India enhances competitiveness, enabling broader utilisation in diverse space ventures, solidifying its pivotal role in the global space community. It is crucial that India bring in its own domestic space law that reduces uncertainties for investors. Like the US and Luxembourg, an easy regulatory and tax regime will greatly incentivise the growth of the space industry.

Military Developments

India’s military advancements include the successful 2019 anti-satellite weapon test and its first table-top space warfare exercise – IndSpaceX, demonstrating integrated satellite communications and reconnaissance for enhanced intelligence and firepower.[52] In 2019, India established the Defense Space Agency (DSA) and the Defense Space Research Organisation (DSRO). The DSRO, resembling a U.S. fighter command, coordinates space assets across military branches. The DSA, a research organisation, integrates civilian space technology for military applications. Some suggest India create a Space Force, mirroring the U.S., to strengthen satellite network defence and take  assertive actions against adversary networks in the evolving space security landscape.[53] There seem to be some indications of such a move being underway. Meanwhile China, since privatising its space industry in 2015, autonomously developed space warfare capabilities thanks to billions worth of investments in recent decades by the CCP.

To catch up, experts have proposed advancing dual-use technologies and expanding the Navigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC) satellite system. The Space Policy 2023, though discreet about the military aspect, prioritises enhancing space capabilities for socioeconomic development and security. It strategically aims to bolster India’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, with implications for both civilian and military applications due to the dual-use nature of these technologies.[54]

India must advance its space capabilities by developing sophisticated space-based weaponry including hard kill guided missile systems, jamming devices, directed energy weapons, and electromagnetic pulse systems for space-to-space operations. Both soft and hard kill systems, such as jammers and directed energy weapons, are crucial components for Outer Space Warfare. This emphasises the need for India to invest in cutting-edge technologies to bolster its defence capabilities in the vast expanse of outer space.[55]

To achieve a comprehensive security framework for space, India needs integrated Space Forces but the idea faces a significant challenge in the form of budgetary constraints. The current commitments of the three services are already strained by existing allocations, and the outlook for a substantial increase in funds is bleak, given the current trend of defence budget relative to GDP. This financial limitation raises concerns about India’s ability to effectively respond to potential overt offensive actions by China.[56]

The Government of India has made substantial strides in cybersecurity, earning the 10th global rank in the 2020 UN International Telecommunication Union Global Cybersecurity Index. The National Security Council Secretariat, led by the National Cyber Security Coordinator, aims to integrate cybersecurity policies and architecture. However, the draft National Cyber Security Strategy lacks a focus on space security, despite concerns raised by the Data Security Council of India about potential attacks on critical infrastructure, including space agencies. Integrating space into the strategy is crucial, given its role in security, military functions, and communications. It has been noted that ISRO defends against more than 100 cyberattacks each day.[57]

Thus, India needs to emulate the US and prepare satellite hacking sandboxes that can be experimented with to find system vulnerabilities. There is a need to integrate critical cybersecurity safeguards into India’s national space policy, aligning it with the National Cyber Security Strategy and National Security Strategy. Also, India needs to implement a Purple Revolution, incorporating cybersecurity red and blue teaming exercises under the Ministry of Defence and Home Affairs to enhance offensive and defensive capabilities. India must encourage a whole-of-nation approach, where Chief Information Security Officers allocate two percent of their productivity to National Critical Infrastructure and space cybersecurity. We must urgently increase the space budget allocation from 0.04 percent to at least 0.5 percent of GDP to boost research centres and space standards. Finally, India must enhance space supply-chain resilience and security within QUAD’s space cooperation, establishing a central Indian space resilience agency for joint monitoring and incident response exercises.[58]

UAP Issue

India’s response to UAPs remains inadequate, evident in the silence from both the executive and Parliament despite regular ITBP encounters[59] and a notable incident above the Prime Minister’s residence in 2018.[60] RTI requests yield limited information, with ISRO and the Embassies claiming ignorance, while the ITBP and Airforce have claimed national security exemptions from answering queries. The UAP report by NASA suggests the ISRO collaborated NISAR platform as valuable in studying UAP events. This shows the paradoxical approach by ISRO on the subject. Given the potential decades-long UAP reverse engineering efforts by countries like the US, Russia and China, India’s lag could jeopardise its strategic autonomy and pose threats from traditional adversaries, necessitating immediate action. Notably, these issues exist even if we ignore the elephant in the room – alleged contact with non-human intelligences.

Despite the current disadvantage, India can swiftly become a leader in the UAP domain. Leveraging its ancient history, India may discover crashed UAPs, expediting reverse engineering. Like Japan[61], France, and the US, India must introduce protocols for military and civilian aviators’ reporting of UAPs while synchronising her land, sea and space surveillance capabilities to give her eyes across domains. Establishing a dedicated public-facing UFO office, akin to the French GEIPAN, helps collect and analyse reports from civilians and the military which improves flight safety and domain awareness. Covert and overt data collection from international partners can offer valuable insights into adversary programs. Participation in global UAP conventions, along with support for San Marino’s Project Titan – aiming to establish a permanent UAP office under the UN[62], can position India as a leader in UAP research and benefit sharing, ensuring our strategic advancements in this field. India must also leverage the expertise from universities and create UAP research programs akin to the Galileo Project at Harvard[63]. Interestingly, many UAP researchers consider India to hold a treasure trove of information regarding the historical and ‘supernatural’ aspects of the phenomena which are often clubbed under the heading of ‘high strangeness’. Thus, India may actually hold crucial pieces of the puzzle that will eventually help the human species unlock the secrets of this enigma. The nullification of the UAP Disclosure Act must be seen as a major opportunity to catch up to other nations before “catastrophic disclosure” pushes us into a paradigm where our autonomy isn’t secured.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, India stands at the crossroads of both threats and opportunities presented by cutting-edge technologies. Joining the Artemis Accords and gearing up for increased lunar activity by the decade’s end places India at the forefront of outer-space advancements and provides the nation with expertise and adaptability for swift program implementation. The introduction of the Indian Space Policy and the establishment of the Defense Space Agency (DSA) and Defense Space Research Organisation (DSRO) signal commendable strides toward enhancing space asset security.

However, there are areas demanding improvement. Notably, fostering growth in space manufacturing through incubating start-ups is crucial. Space-based manufacturing of pharmaceutical ingredients and semiconductors could substantially reduce India’s import reliance. Allocating funds to space logistics, monitoring space mining developments, and leveraging public intellect to identify and address cyber vulnerabilities in space assets are imperative. The realm of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) demands immediate attention, as a delay in proactive measures may risk compromising India’s strategic autonomy. India needs to greatly expand on its all domain awareness to prevent airspace incursions. A transparent and public-facing approach on the issue which actively involves data from diverse sources, is essential to reversing this trajectory and ensuring a secure and thriving space future for India.

Author Brief Bio: Amog Nair is a researcher with an MA in Space and Telecom Law from Nalsar University. Concerned with Indian backlogs in the field of UFOs, he founded uapforindia.online, a UFO reporting center and blog that offers an Indian perspective on UFO-related matters.

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