Is India looking towards space-based resources?

As American and other companies seek to access space resources, what role will India play? (credit: Bryan Versteeg/Deep Space Industries)

Harvesting resources in space is one of the key critical areas animating futuristic space policy and goals. In 2015, the US Congress enacted legislation that facilitated US citizens to commercially explore and recover space resources, without harmful interference. Significantly, the legislation stated:

A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.

Luxembourg has enacted similar legislation that enables property rights in space, especially towards space mining. The Luxembourg legislation guarantees private companies ownership of resources mined in space. In its 2016 White paper on space, China prioritized asteroid exploration as one of its key goals in the next five years. There is debate about a similar legislation like the 2015 US act to enable private actors to take up space exploration and exploitation in China.

So why is there a growing push towards mining resources on the moon or asteroids? The answer is not hard to find. Asteroids are rich in mineral resources like platinum, gold, titanium, iron, nickel, and, most importantly, water. Precious metals like titanium and gold sell for anything between $30,000 to $50,000 per kilogram. Scientists infer that a small asteroid, 200 meters in diameter and rich in platinum, could be worth USD 30 billion. For instance, asteroid 2011 UW158, worth $5 trillion in platinum, sailed at a distance of 1.5 million miles from earth in July 2015. In a report in April 2017, Goldman Sachs specified that “Asteroid mining could very quickly supply an emerging on-orbit manufacturing economy with nearly all the raw materials needed.”

Given this critical focus on space resources to include growing investment in developing technology to harvest it, we were curious to examine whether India, one of the leading spacefaring nations, was focusing on a similar path. Subsequently, we conducted a month-long field study (July–August 2017) in India to assess the current status of India’s attitudes and aspirations related to current policy questions regarding space expansionism, territoriality and resource nationalism. We conducted numerous presentations, round tables, and interviews with Indian thought leaders and policymakers to better characterize Indian views regarding privatization, space property rights, lunar and asteroid mining, space solar power, space settlement, India’s space goals, and their linkage to larger strategy and strategic culture.

Our literature review had uncovered statements that led us to think that India might be positioning itself for leadership with regard to space resources and space industrial development. For instance, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairperson A. S. Kiran Kumar stated in September 2016 that India will be investing on launching vehicles to Venus or to asteroids. Then, in February this year, ISRO Professor, Dr. Sivathanu Pillai had stated that by 2030, India may be able to meet its energy requirements from helium 3 mined from the Moon. Earlier, former Indian President Abdul Kalam had presented a “World Space Vision” where he championed Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) as a potential source of renewable energy for India, and resource usage of asteroids.

However, in our interviews—covering a large diversity of organizations with experts studying space from a policy, legal or future policy perspective—exploitation of space-based resources did not appear as a major Indian space priority.

Beyond this most basic finding, we offer the following insights:

First, despite India’s history regarding the non-aligned movement and its closeness to the USSR during the Cold War, India today is unlikely to challenge the US position on outer space resources. India is in a very different position than immediately post-independence when a classic weak power strategy of legally restraining those ahead made sense. Today India sees a future where it will be among the largest economies with one of the most vibrant tech bases. India is keenly aware of “clubs” and tech denial regimes, and knows it very much prefers to be in such clubs. India as a spacefaring power perceives that it would be one of the states that is most likely to benefit from a future of space resource exploitation. As a result, it sees little interest in attempting to restrain other space powers blazing the trail, and is unwilling to foreclose its own options.

Second, however, Indian space policy is not postured at present to enable India to take leadership regarding space-based resources. Unlike China who has established the fundamental research for SBSP as well as identified asteroid exploration as an area of priority in their 2016 white paper, and have identified the settlement of the Earth-Moon space as sustaining the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, such a cogent articulation of space ambitions is missing from the Indian national discourse.

Third, with regard to law, our assessment is that India is significantly behind UAE and Luxembourg in their national legislation regarding exploitation of space resources. We wanted to examine India’s responses to the 2015 US Commercial Space Launch Competitive Act, especially its Title IV on Space, Resource Exploitation and Utilization. For instance, in our interviews in China in November 2016, Chinese space lawyers and space experts stated that China is working towards establishing a similar national legislation. We enquired as to whether India is crafting its own space legislation to regulate activity in outer space regarding space-based resources. Several interviews with space lawyers and experts revealed that while India has drafted a law to regulate its private industries’ relationship with ISRO, the law is not ambitious enough to encourage private players to invest in exploiting space-based resources. The current space national draft does not address space resources, and we did not see any sense or urgency to establish a similar national legislation. Most conversations suggested that the world is unlikely to see an Indian space law of any kind sooner than five years from now, or 2023. A similar time prognosis was given for the creation of the rumored aerospace command apparently also under consideration.

Fourth, however, to the extent that lunar and asteroid mining becomes profitable, India will bandwagon for purposes of profit. Most conversations stressed the contingent view of the topic—that it would deserve serious attention if and when it was demonstrated, and did not at present require a competitive or proactive response. In the event it did, our conversations suggested that India would have a solid desire to compete should such activities become clear and present.

Fifth, the Indian civil space program is focused on satellite services for national development, and associated launch vehicles to support these satellite services. India is making initial attempts to commercialize both satellite production and satellite launch. At present, a human spaceflight program is not a priority right now. ISRO is interested in and working on reusable launch vehicles but its efforts are unlikely to bear fruit till the mid-late 2020s. A minority of India’s civil space resources are directed toward traditional science and exploration space goals. However, near-term activities toward which India has committed include a second Mars mission and a mission to Venus, as well as Chandrayan 2 to the Moon and Aditya, a mission to study the Sun.

Despite these and high-profile accomplishments such as the record of the highest number of satellites launched on a single rocket (104), the Indian space program is not focused on or justified as prestige-seeking. Motivations for exploration and science missions appear to be different at the national level versus internal to ISRO. At the national level, showcasing India’s capacity is definitely conceptualized with regard to national standing. Internal to ISRO, motivations appear to be based upon science and an opportunity for ISRO scientist to showcase their capabilities.

Sixth, the real exciting development is NewSpace, with the emergence of a highly activist and entrepreneurial companies like SATSURE, ReBeam, Bellatrix, Astrome, and others. One of India’s new space startups, Team Indus, is competing for the Google Lunar X Prize. We visited seven start-ups as well as one established space engineering firm, and were impressed with the sense of empowerment, risk-taking, technological leadership, and desire to address a global market.

India’s space activities, to include its Chandrayan Moon missions and its Mangalyaan Mars mission, prove its status to be a major spacefaring nation with capacities to show for it. For the near future, India’s space activities will be mostly state funded dominated by ISRO. However, with the growth of the activist and enthusiastic NewSpace enterprises, the need to establish regulatory standards for private actors and to meet international treaty obligations will be felt. The lack of a serious narrative on space-based resources will, however, result in nations like China taking the lead in establishing norms of behavior, and India may be left to deal with the after effects with little advocacy role left for it to play.