The words ‘Agnibaan’ and ‘Chetak’ may not ring a bell in most minds today, but they will in the near future. They are small rockets that will be produced and launched by Indian start-ups.
Compared with the GSLV Mk-III, the fat-boy that will be used in the Chandrayaan-2 mission, the Agnibaan and Chetak are dwarfs—less than half as tall—but are just apposite for an emerging market for launching small satellites.
Rockets like these represent the other end of the spectrum, the more familiar end being that of giant rockets, such as the Falcon Heavy or Delta Heavy that stand 70 metres tall and can lift 28 tonnes to low earth orbits. While these dominate the news headlines, a crop of small rockets is coming up globally to cater to the lower but lucrative end of the market.
In India, Agnibaan, designed by a Chennai-based, IIT-M-incubated start-up called Agnikul Cosmos and Chetak, being readied by a Bengaluru-based start-up called Bellatrix Aerospace, shine a light on an emerging trend—a wave of space start-ups. Not everybody makes rockets, though—the space business offers a lot of room for activities such as making satellites and communications systems.
Notably, up till now, a play in space has been big boys’ business. The Indian industry has partnered ISRO from the beginning, making several critical components. G K Pillai, Managing Director of Walchandnagar Industries, notes that every single rocket launched by ISRO since 1976 has had something made by his company, which, incidentally, will be supplying booster motors for the two strap-on rockets (“S-200”) for the GSLV Mk-III that is to be launched on Monday. L&T and Godrej Aerospace have immensely contributed to various missions; the latter makes the Vikas engines that are used in both PSLV and GSLV rockets of ISRO.
The reason it was a big boys’ game was the belief that only the big had the technical savvy to make mission-critical components. Pillai notes that unlike in the other industries, where a defective component could always be replaced, in the space business it would bring down the entire mission, often disastrously.
But now, things are changing and start-up are proving that they are no less, if not better, in technology. The Agnibaan rocket, for instance, is to be produced by a 3D printer; Bellatrix also makes electric propulsion systems for satellites, which are more efficacious than the liquid propulsion systems currently in use. (Propulsion systems on satellites are remote-controlled ‘thrusters’ that are used to nudge the satellite into a different orbit by changing the direction of its motion, like a rudder in a boat.)
Another Bengaluru-based start-up called Astrogate Labs has set itself upon revamping the space-to-ground communications systems, from the current radio and microwave technology to optical. Dhruva Space, headquartered in Hyderabad, offers to make satellites for any application. So does Pixxel, set up by two 20-year-old student-entrepreneurs Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal, which wants to 3D prints nano satellites. There is a big demand. Again start-ups are mushrooming for providing data on weather, crop growth patterns, vehicle movement, fish migration etc., all of these can use satellites.
Team Indus, also Bengaluru-based, now famous for getting into the final short-list in a Google’s Lunar X Prize, a competition for designing a lunar rover (which ended in 2018 without a winner), is part of a consortium that has a NASA contract for building a moon lander.
Thus, technological might of Indian start-up seems to be a given. Funding doesn’t seem to be a problem either, because these companies have been securing funding. Bellatrix recently raised $ 3 million from a group of venture capitalists; Agnikul and Astrogate have receiving money from Speciale Invest, a seed-stage venture capital firm.
In the last 2-3 years, some 15-20 start-ups have sprung up in India. The question is, what triggered the wave?
Vishesh Rajaram, Managing Partner at Speciale Invest reasons that earlier the leitmotif of satellite launch business used to be lowering of cost-per-kg of launch. This generally meant gadget-packed, heavy satellites taken up by big rockets.
However, with computational power going up, satellites could get smaller. So, if you had a small satellite that you wanted to be sent up, you’d have to wait until a launcher could spare you some space. There has developed a big market for small satellites, weighing between 50kg and 500kg. Customers were getting okay with paying a premium for quick service. A new industry for providing launch services has emerged.
The government has been helpful. All these start-ups have had a helping hand from ISRO, which sees these new companies as complementary to itself, a completion of the ecosystem.
In March, the Cabinet cleared the setting up of a government-owned company, NewSpace India Ltd, meant to facilitate transfer of ISRO’s technologies to private industries and also help in marketing space-based technologies. ISRO has a tradition of transferring technologies. In August 2018, the Parliament was informed that ISRO had thus far transferred 340 technologies to private companies. NSIL will obtain a license from ISRO and sub-license it to other entities. The technology transfer is to be done through ISRO’s ‘small satellite launch vehicle’ programme.
ISRO’s Chairman, Dr K Sivan, has said that private companies could start mass production of small satellites and launchers and ISRO would then let them use its launch pads, for a fee. He has said he expects 2-3 small rockets a month.
It is not clear whether the Space Activities Bill, 2017, first needs to become an Act for private rocket launches, but the legislation will certainly help because it would put a legal framework in place, touching upon safety and supervision, sharing of liability burden and licensing and authorisation procedures.
Clearly, the space is opening up for Indian start-ups.