Agnikul Cosmos, the Indian start-up, which is building small rockets to launch small satellites, is aiming for 30 launches a year—for starters. Its mentor, Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala, President, IIT Madras Research Park, where Agnikul is incubated, recently said the company would build 300 rockets a year.

“There is a lot of scope,” says Srinath Ravichandran, Co-Founder and CEO of the space start-up, which is close to conducting its first sub-orbital test. “About 100 tonnes of small satellites go up to orbit per year,” he told Quantum.

Agnikul’s plans flag an increasingly obvious trend: we are witnessing the dawn of the era of small satellites.

Another fact illustrates the trend. In September 2023, when ISRO offered to transfer its small satellite launch vehicle technology to private companies, as many as 23 companies applied.

Small satellites have been around for some time now. Back in 2009, students at the Anna University in Chennai built Anusat, to study gravity and magnetic fields, which was put in orbit by an ISRO rocket. But now, the world is witnessing a big shift with the emergence of high-capacity small satellites. For example, the satellites of Elon Musk’s space internet company, Starlink (which, incidentally, is expected to get approval for Indian operations this week), are equipped with Krypton-powered ion thrusters, autonomous collision avoidance systems and star trackers. They weigh just 260 kg (though the upcoming Starlink satellites are three times as heavy). Sunil Bharti Mittal’s OneWeb has over 600 satellites, weighing about 150 kg, also equipped with items such as automatic collision avoidance systems.

While Starlink and OneWeb’s satellites are meant to provide space-served internet, other small satellites aim to do much more.

EU’s bid for space

By 2027, the European Union aims to have a constellation of 200 satellites to guarantee its sovereignty in space under its IRIS programme (Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite). The project aims at making sure of critical networking infrastructures and facilitate crisis management by governments, to supplement its terrestrial networking infrastructure. “The possibility of cheaper mass production would enable construction of large satellite constellations for entirely new commercial services and scientific applications,” says Prof Frank Schäfer, head of the Space business unit at the Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics EMI, based at Freiburg, Germany.

Prof Schäfer’s institute is also building military grade satellites for the German Federal Armed Forces (Bundeswehr). A military satellite called ERNST, which is about half the size of a beer crate, is being built by the institute to detect missile launches from anywhere in the world. Placed in the low-earth orbit, it features an infrared camera that can sense the heat emitted by a missile engine. But this camera can do much more—it can, for example, detect forest fires, greenhouse gas emissions and measure sea temperatures.

Fraunhofer institute sees ERNST as a platform that can generate “experiential data” for designing small satellites with high-capacity equipment. “These findings are being included in the plans for more such small satellite constellations in the future,” Schäfer told the institute’s in-house magazine.

The future high-capacity small satellites will include technologies such as “beam hopping” by which one antenna can cover multiple areas. These satellites are equipped with ‘modular phased array antennas’ and are flexible because their individual beams can be electronically controlled.

While the early small satellites were mostly one-trick ponies, the modern ones are far more potent, capable of multi-tasking. By the looks of it, their tribe—like Abou Ben Adham’s—will only increase. Launch service providers like Agnikul Cosmos are understandably excited about the prospect.