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Private sector can boost ISRO's space growth story

Skyroot Aerospace's successful launch lays foundation for private firms to enter Indian space sector. Skyroot says their rocket can also be integrated and launched within 24 hours from any launch site.

November 23, 2022 / 11:40 AM IST
Skyroot has indicated their interests in capturing the launch-on-demand requirement that is gaining attraction in an era of competition and conflict. (File image)

Skyroot has indicated their interests in capturing the launch-on-demand requirement that is gaining attraction in an era of competition and conflict. (File image)

Skyroot Aerospace, an Indian private sector space enterprise, created history by launching India’s first privately developed rocket, Vikram-S. This is a moment that many in India’s private space sector have been waiting for, and the expectation is that the success of the Skyroot venture will open doors for many others. The name given to the mission, ‘Prarambh’, means ‘beginning’ in Hindi. Many in the space community believe that this mission is a new beginning for engagement between India’s official space agency, the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), and the private space sector in India.

Congratulating Skyroot Aerospace, ISRO tweeted, “Mission Prarambh is successfully accomplished”. Elated at the success, Skyroot’s CEO and Co-Founder, Pawan Kumar Chandana tweeted that: “Nov 18th 11:30 AM will be etched in history as a landmark milestone in the Indian space sector”. This was definitely a milestone moment in India’s space trajectory. India’s Science and Technology Minister, Dr Jitendra Singh, also applauded the launch and said, “It is indeed a new beginning, a new dawn, and a new prarambh in the journey of India’s space program. It is a major step forward for India in developing its own rockets and a turning point in India’s startup movement. Well done, Skyroot.”

An Overview

Skyroot is a relatively new entity that was set up only in 2018. Following the government’s announcements in 2020 to open up the space sector to private entities, it became the first start-up to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the ISRO to launch rockets. According to Indian media reports, the company has “successfully built and tested India’s first privately developed cryogenic, hypergolic-liquid, and solid fuel-based rocket engines using advanced composite and 3D-printing technologies”, which are no mean achievements for a start-up.

The Vikram-S rocket, which carried three customer payloads, was launched from the sounding rocket complex of ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. Skyroot also stated that the rocket had reached a peak altitude of 89.5 kms and has met all flight parameters. This launch was a sub-orbital mission to test and validate all the different technologies that are used in this rocket. With the success of the mission, the company is getting ready to launch the Vikram-I rocket next year.

Skyroot is producing a series of Vikram satellites, named after Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space programme. The company is producing these rockets with the goal of launching small satellites, which are also gaining in importance in recent years. On its website, Skyroot has stated that, “more than 20,000 small satellites are estimated to be launched in the coming decade, and Vikram series is designed to enable this through unprecedented mass producibility and affordability.” Vikram-I is being developed to carry 480 kilograms (kg) payload to Low Inclination Orbit while the follow on Vikram-II will carry 595 kg to Low Inclination Orbit and Vikram-III will carry 815 kg to Low Inclination Orbit.

Skyroot also states that the rockets will be able to undertake multi-orbit insertion and inter-planetary missions as well as offer “customised, dedicated and ride share options covering a wide spectrum of small satellite customer needs.” Skyroot says their rocket can also be integrated and launched within 24 hours from any launch site, which clearly indicates their interests in capturing the launch-on-demand requirement that is gaining attraction in an era of competition and conflict.

A Key Player: ISRO

What was remarkable about Skyroot’s rocket launch is the role played by ISRO and its associated institutions such as the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Center (IN-SPACe). IN-SPACe was set up with the goal of encouraging larger private sector participation. Major announcements in 2020 regarding the opening up of the space sector to private players was followed by the establishment of institutions such as IN-SPACe, which became a single-window agency to facilitate this engagement. For this mission as well, ISRO provided its expertise as well as its facilities to test Skyroot’s technologies.

As Dr Pawan Goenka, IN-SPACe chairman, mentioned, multiple mission readiness reviews for the launch were also done by ISRO and IN-SPACe along with other outside experts. The role played by ISRO as a facilitator is a big shift that needs to be applauded. Traditionally, India has been reluctant to have private players in the space sector; clearly, this attitude is changing. This has also become a necessity in the face of growing and diverse demands on the Indian space programme. While ISRO and IN-SPACe may have to engage in a bit of handholding for the private sector, the Prarambh mission has demonstrated that with a bit of assistance, India’s private space sector is a capable force that can deliver and expand India’s space growth story.

Private sector participation in the space sector worldwide has brought enormous benefits, and it cannot be different in the case of India. Making space more accessible and making access a lot cheaper and more efficient are some of the immediate benefits. They can also be champions in pushing commercial uses of outer space and bringing in more international customers. In all, the Indian space sector can look forward to an exciting future with the participation of the private sector.

(This article first appeared in the ORF.)

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.
first published: Nov 23, 2022 11:40 am