India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle carrying ASTROSTAT, India's first observatory satellite, lifts off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India on Monday. Picture: REUTERS
India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle carrying ASTROSTAT, India's first observatory satellite, lifts off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India on Monday. Picture: REUTERS

New Delhi/Beijing — When India broke an international record for sending the most satellites to outer space from a single rocket, Narendra Modi, prime minister, hailed it as an "exceptional achievement".

The words "world record" trended on Twitter in India, where twitterati used the slogan ‘jai ho ISRO,’ or ‘hail the Indian Space Research Organisation’ to express their pride and patriotism.

Since taking office in 2014, Modi has put huge emphasis on the $1.2 bn space programme. In 2014, India sent a satellite to Mars -a move conceived by the previous government but displayed prominently on new Rs2,000 notes. For many in India, the programme is a proxy for geopolitical might and ambition.

"What the world saw -#ISRO can launch 104 satellites in 1 launch. What CHINA & PAK understood -INDIA can also launch 104 warheads in 1 go," tweeted one user.

But the fanfare masks a more modest reality: India has made a small inroad into the lucrative commercial space industry but headline-grabbing advances such as last month’s rocket launch have been far outstripped by China’s investments into a manned space station and robotic missions to the moon.

"The Chinese space programme operates on a very different scale than the Indian," says Asif Siddiqi, professor of history at Fordham university. "It is much bigger, both in terms of annual launches and annual investments, it does a lot more in terms of actual capabilities and it also has a much more explicit military dimension."

The new Indian record, which tripled Russia’s previous record of 37 satellites from a single rocket, was only possible because most of the spacecraft were extremely small, he says.

India’s space agency received about $1.1bn of funding last year compared with an estimated $7bn-$8bn in China, says Dinshaw Mistry, professor of political science and Asian studies at the University of Cincinnati.

In Beijing, India’s enthusiasm for its world record has been dismissed as overblown.

"China’s opponents in aerospace is not India but the US. However, India always makes China its opponent, and every achievement is made into a victory against China and cheered," ran an editorial in the Global Times, a state-sanctioned tabloid.

"The requirements for Indian rockets are all low cost, so they have a large emphasis on commercial launches, and they are mostly servicing foreign satellites. That is all they are doing," says Lan Tianyi, CEO of the Beijing-based aerospace consultancy Yuxun Technology. Most of the technology needed to pack 104 satellites onto one rocket came from foreign companies while "India only provided the rocket and the launch opportunity", Lan says.

While China has sought to emulate American space achievements and poured resources into high-profile missions like sending a rover to the moon, India has set more conservative targets.

According to Lele, less than 5% of India’s space budget is spent on long-term exploration or international competition. Instead, most is focussed on domestic missions such as environmental and metereological forecasting, or navigation.

India has a 0.6% share of the commercial space industry — compared with China’s 3% — a big growth area for companies that want to send satellites to space for research of commercial purposes, such as mapping or television transmission. The US is the biggest client for the $5.4bn industry, according to data from the Satellite Industry Association, a trade body.

Signs that India could expand its launching capabilities have prompted some anxiety in Beijing. "India’s successful launch of a record-breaking 104 satellites into orbit could serve as a wake up call for China’s commercial space industry," wrote a reporter in the Global Times, the week after the launch. "Of the 104 satellites, 96 belong to the US, which makes India a fierce competitor in the global market for commercial rocket launch services."

"I think the main thing to take away from the launch is that [India’s] rocket is one of the most reliable medium-lift satellite launch vehicles in the world," Siddiqi says. "Very few rockets in the world can claim a record like [it]. Indian engineers should be proud."

© The Financial Times Limited 2017

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