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India's SpaceX is on the horizon

With India's new space policy in the works, we examined the scene for private space start-ups in the country.

July 03, 2022 / 01:04 PM IST
As India's space reforms are rolled out, several things are likely to change: we can expect better technology, more private payloads, sharing of infrastructure, knowledge and technology. (Representational image: SpaceX via Unsplash)

As India's space reforms are rolled out, several things are likely to change: we can expect better technology, more private payloads, sharing of infrastructure, knowledge and technology. (Representational image: SpaceX via Unsplash)

Globally, companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab have shown us the advantages of opening up space to private enterprise. India, which currently accounts for about 2 percent (roughly $7 billion) of the global $450 billion space economy, is now paving the way for its space start-ups to reach for the stars - and take payloads hundreds of kilometres out of this world.

If the 2 percent share seems discouraging, consider that there are significant developments gaining momentum in this sector.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Indian Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (In-SPACe), an autonomous body under the Department of Space, on June 10, 2022. Its mandate: to promote innovation and investment in space activities, and to monitor and supervise the space-related activities of non-governmental entities (NGEs) in India.

In a matter of weeks, on June 30, 2022, Dhruva Space Pvt. Ltd, Hyderabad, and Digantara Research & Technologies Pvt. Ltd, Bengaluru, became the first two Indian start-ups to launch a payload into space - they had been authorised to do so by IN-SPACe on June 24.

Giving the required trajectory velocity for space dreams is the new upcoming space policy, which has got everyone from the Principal Scientific Adviser Ajay Kumar Sood to ISRO Chairman S. Somnath conjuring a grander picture with infinite possibilities: ‘Maybe our own SpaceX’, noted Sood at an event. ‘Maybe a larger share in the global space economy’, Somnath had said.

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Space: A new frontier

This set of events is, of course, a break from business as usual. Historically, space-related programmes have largely been led by governments. The global space industry is already witnessing a robust transformation wherein private enterprises are playing significant roles – from rocket launches to giving joyrides to space travellers.

India’s space reforms, according to In-SPACe Chairman Pawan Kumar, will “enable greater private sector participation and allow the country to increase our share in the global space economy”.

Also read: IN-SPACe hopes to bump up India's space economy to $40 billion: Chairman Pawan Kumar Goenka

Private sector companies, which hitherto served more as vendors for ISRO’s missions, have reason to be optimistic about what comes next.

“Yes, the gates have been opened by the government to enable a SpaceX to be born in India,” said Srinath Ravichandran, co-founder and CEO of Agnikul Cosmos Pvt. Ltd.

Ravichandran had spotted a business idea in space in 2017, when visiting Los Angeles universities where there were satellites ready for launch but not enough launch vehicles. Agnikul’s launch vehicle, Agnibaan, is a customizable vehicle currently under development, capable of placing a 100kg satellites into a 700km orbit.

According to its website, Agnikul visualizes the future of space thus: ‘Launches should be customer-driven but when we look around, we find them mostly launch-vehicle driven. We want to turn it around, completely and make it customer-centric.’ In other words, booking a launch vehicle to send something into space will eventually become like sending a courier - get the package ready, call the delivery service and sit back and wait for the package to reach its destination.

Watch: Space industry likely to reach $1trillion by 2040: Pawan Kumar Goenka

Private milestones

Excitement in the industry is growing. After Dhruva Space and Digantara were authorised by IN-SPACe to launch their own payloads. Others are also creating their own milestones.

Pixxel, a space data company started in 2019 by Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal, launched a low-orbit imaging satellite into space with the help of a SpaceX rocket recently. This is the first of the many satellites that the company plans to launch to track earth phenomena.

Agnikul, too, has similar plans for the next decade. “We will scale to launching 25 - 30 missions a year in small satellite launches,” Srinath said. “We would also do margin enhancing techniques such as reusing spent stages and so on.”

Pawan Kumar Chandana and Naga Bharath Daka, co-founders of Skyroot Aerospace, say their mission is to “open space for all” and are currently building the Vikram launch platform to deliver cost-effective and on-demand launches for small satellites. “Over the coming decade, we expect to build more solutions towards our vision to enable more enterprises and people to have improved access to space,” Pawan Kumar said.

Unlike the rest of the world, where moguls like Elon Musk and Richard Branson regularly feature in headlines on space odysseys, India is seeing space start-ups that have more humble origins, often founded by colleagues, college alumni and ex-roommates. The founders of these companies are also a relatively younger, mostly in their 20s and 30s.

In a TEDX Talk, Pawan Kumar talked of reusable spaceships, orbital habitats, creating infrastructure for a permanent settlement and visiting Mars in this lifetime. “Mars isn’t new for India,” he said in an email interview. “ISRO has already put an orbiter around Mars in 2014 and humans on Mars is maybe 10 years away if government and private sector work hand-in-hand under the new reforms.”

How soon would they expect to send people for joyrides out of the earth's atmosphere? Industry watchers are optimistic about the possibilities. “We have the technical capabilities, the space reforms are being advanced rapidly, the supplier ecosystem is mature and we see strong support from ISRO in terms of infrastructure and knowledge sharing,” Pawan Kumar said.

As the space reforms are rolled out, several things are likely to change. Better technology, more private payloads, sharing of infrastructure, knowledge and technology which will enable space companies to reduce capital expenditure, lower risk and get to the market quickly with their solutions.

Srinath Ravichandran of Agnikul likens it to buying a laptop with different specifications. Soon, anyone who has a payload should be able to "select the mass, orbit and altitude and boom! the rocket will be ready”. Agnikul has already 3D printed an entire rocket engine in one single block in 72 hours, and successfully tested it.

Buoyed by the favourable conditions prevailing in the space sector, investors are putting more money than ever into space technology. In 2021 alone, space start-ups received $67.2 million (according to Tracxn). Pixxel has recently raised $25 million, which will help get the commercial phase of its operations started. Dhruva Space secured $2.5 million, Agnikul received $11 million last year and Bellatrix secured $8 million.

Industry watchers predict more satellites and rockets built by private space companies, and in a decade or so, commercial space travel will be feasible if not routine. It seems like all the stars have aligned for the hundred-plus space companies in India, and no one wants to be left behind on earth.
Jayanthi Madhukar is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist.
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