You have, for sure, heard of mid-air re-fueling. Now, welcome to mid-space re-fueling.
That is what Manastu Space, a Mumbai-based start-up, wants to do.
A satellite, one put into its orbit around a body, say, earth, should be circling the body due to gravity for a limitless period of time—except that they are always subject to ‘pulls’ from other objects. There is heavy traffic in space and every object out there exerts a pull on every other object. Thus, a satellite, left to itself, will swerve from its path and drift away to oblivion.
To prevent this from happening, they put engines (motors) on board the satellites. These engines, remotely operated from the earth, course-correct the satellite if it swerves from its orbit. But the engines are powered by some fuel; therefore, the amount of fuel in the engines determines the ‘life’ of a satellite. When the fuel dries up and the satellite gets pulled away, an object that could be worth millions is lost for good.
Now, through the next decade, anywhere between 55,000 and 1,00,000 satellites are registered to be launched—by telecommunications companies, internet broadband providers, weather companies and so on. Imagine losing all of these after 5-10 years and needing to replace them all over!
Manastu Space, started in 2017 by two IIT-Bombay alumni, Tushar Jadhav and Ashtesh Kumar, intends to fix this problem by keeping a ‘fuel tank’ up in space. Any satellite who’s onboard ‘course-keeper’ engine is in danger of running out of fuel, can be refueled by this fuel tank. This, of course, requires mastery over ‘docking’, but Jadhav and Kumar are confident of getting there.
“Re-fueling-as-a-service” and “in-space-service” are the terms that keep knocking about when you talk to Jadhav and Kumar. They say that the space re-fueler system is targeted for 3-4 years from now. “The technology is there, it is only a matter of finding the resources,” Jadhav told Quantum.
Manastu Space has been funded by Shell’s ‘E4 program’, which aims to accelerate India’s energy transition by financially supporting start-ups. Manastu is now “2-3 months away” from another round of funding raising.
While the start-up is ambitious about in-space services, it has gotten into business in some other areas of space. It started by developing a fuel that is a green alternative to the currently most-used hydrazine-based rocket fuels, which are toxic. The fuel – basically, hydrogen peroxide spiced with some (proprietary) additives – is a third lighter, 40 times less toxic and 25 per cent more efficient than conventional fuels, while costly only 60 per cent as much. However, instead of producing just an alternative fuel, Manastu Space is now making the entire propulsion systems for satellites. Indian government-owned defense research organization, DRDO, has placed an order for such systems and has provided finance out of its ‘technology development fund’ for executing the order. (Manastu does not wish to divulge more details about this sensitive order.)
MoU with UK firm
Recently, the start-up has met with another success. The UK-based Black Arrow Space Technologies Ltd has signed a MoU with Manastu to “mutually obtain capabilities, expertise and assistance” to develop hardware, software, data and operating strategies”. But essentially the MoU will translate into orders for Manastu’s propulsion systems, which will be used in the upper stage of Black Arrow’s rockets.