CHENNAI: Dhruva Space founder Sanjay Nekkanti’s obsession with satellites began early. It was 2008 and he was still in college. The country was basking in the success of Chandrayaan-1, India’s first moon mission, which generated a lot of interest in the space programme, especially among students. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) decided to tap into this frenzy and asked universities to encourage students to build satellites. It offered to deploy the student satellites in orbit for free.
Chennai’s SRM University was among the earliest to take up this offer. Nekkanti, who was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in electronics and telecommunication engineering, was drafted into the university team building the satellite, thanks to his unusual hobby, ham radio (amateur radio, involving two-way communication). After many challenges, the SRMSat, designed to address pollution by monitoring carbon dioxide and water vapour in the atmosphere, was ready in 2010. It was put into orbit by ISRO’s PSLV-C18 (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) in October 2011.
The experience of building a satellite set Nekkanti thinking. “I was surprised by the cost arbitrage that existed in building a satellite in India and appalled that no one was tapping this huge opportunity,” he recalls.
Barring ISRO, no other organization was building satellites (or rockets) in India back then. When he graduated in 2010, he reached out to his SRMSat mates with the idea of starting a company that builds satellites. But they were sceptical and declined. Nekkanti put his entrepreneurial ambitions on hold and headed to Europe to pursue a Masters in Space Technology and Spacecraft Instrumentation.
He returned in 2012 and set up Dhruva Space to build satellites. The initial days were tough, with funding hard to come by. Investors questioned Nekkanti on his business plan. Four years later, the market was still unresponsive and he almost sold the company. Things began to change only in 2019, as investor interest picked up.
Today, Dhruva Space is a sought-after satellite maker. On 26 November, it launched two of its own satellites, Thybolt-1 and Thybolt-2, on board PSLV-54. The company now offers end-to-end services—building satellites, launching, tracking and maintaining them. It has raised $8 million in funding so far and has orders to put three satellites in space. Many foreign entities are in talks with Dhruva Space to build and launch their satellites.
Dhruva Space is a part of India’s space odyssey 2.0. The transformation that the country’s space sector is witnessing is not led by ISRO but by the private sector, specifically, by start-ups. Apart from Dhruva, a clutch of space start-ups, including Agnikul Cosmos, Skyroot Aerospace, Digantara and Pixxel, are building and launching rockets, engines, as well as satellites that will do everything from generating high-resolution pictures of earth to tackling space debris. And they have investors making a beeline for India.
To be sure, this is just the beginning, and India has a long way to go to catch up with the likes of the US, Russia and China, but it is an endeavour well begun.
ISRO, long the standard bearer of India’s space ambitions, has played a big role in facilitating this shift. As Pawan Goenka, chairman of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), the regulatory entity facilitating the private sector’s participation in the space industry, put it: “The space sector is transitioning from being ISRO-dominated to being ISRO-enabled.”
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It all began in June 2020, when the government opened up the space sector. It had realised that India would not be able to catch up with other space powers and establish itself as a leading player without involving private players. The reasons were obvious; India’s space budget of $1.7 billion (in 2022) was miniscule compared to the US’s $30 billion and China’s $14 billion (which includes $1 billion from its private players). While the US had 1,650 space assets and China had 450, India’s, at last count, had less than 100.
Also, India remained a marginal player in the commercial space market, which involves building and launching satellites, ground tracking and other applications. “India’s share in the $440 billion global space market is just 2%,” says Goenka. The government wants to increase this share to 10% through the private sector, which will be able to attract large-scale private capital. This rationale sparked reforms in the space sector, and in June 2022, IN-SPACe was operationalized to facilitate private sector participation. A Space Policy is expected soon.
A lot has happened in the last nine months. “Over 100 companies have come up in this sector and in 2022 they raised as much as $110 million, which is more than what private space players had raised cumulatively till 2021,” says Goenka.
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The Space Pack
On 18 November, just days before Dhruva’s satellite launch, Skyroot Aerospace launched Vikram-S, India’s first private rocket, from ISRO’s launch facility at Sriharikota.
“Vikram-S was launched to validate 80% of the technology that will go into Vikram-1, our orbital launch vehicle,” says Pawan Kumar Chandana, co-founder of Hyderabad-based Skyroot Aerospace.
Started in 2018 with an investment of ₹10 crore, Skyroot expects the commercial launch of Vikram-1 by the end of 2023, deploying satellites weighing up to 500 kg in orbit. It has scheduled eight launches in 2024. The company has raised ₹526 crore in funding and counts GIC (Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund) and Mukesh Bansal (founder of fashion e-commerce company Myntra) among its investors.
Like Skyroot, Agnikul Cosmos, located in the IIT-Madras Research Park, wants to dominate the small satellite launch market. It is developing rockets fuelled by its patented semi-cryogenic engines (using liquid oxygen and kerosene as fuel). The company uses a unique method to make its rockets: it 3-D prints them. “This helps us to ready an engine in two weeks, as against months otherwise,” says Srinath Ravichandran, CEO & co-founder, Agnikul Cosmos, which has so far raised ₹105 crore from investors. The company has already built a dedicated launchpad at Sriharikota and its first rocket is expected to blast off in the coming weeks. “Commercial launches will happen by the end of this year,” he adds.
There is no dearth of confidence in these young Indian space entrepreneurs. Awais Ahmed, co-founder & CEO of Bengaluru-based Pixxel, wants to build a constellation of 24 hyper spectral micro satellites, which will act as an “MRI scanner” of Earth. They will monitor deforestation, track air and water pollution, check forest biodiversity, as well as coastal and marine health apart from changes in the urban landscape. It launched three demonstration satellites in 2022.
“Our customers are very happy with the images. We are already in commercial business,” says Ahmed. The company, which has raised $35 million, plans to launch six satellites in 2023.
Another Bangalore-based aerospace company, Digantara, wants to address the problem of space debris and has developed an in-orbit device that will track it. Though space agencies monitor debris from the ground, tiny bits (less than 1cm in size) are difficult to track. There are estimated to be 130 million such pieces in space. Travelling at 18,000 miles per hour, they pose a threat to satellites in orbit. Digantara plans to launch a constellation of 40 satellites to gather data on space junk in low-earth orbit (LEO).
Digantara is also looking at monitoring the weather in space. It recently launched two satellites (ROBI & Pushan-Alpha) to set up the world’s first commercial space weather monitoring system. It plans to have eight such satellites by 2024. This, too, is a critical need. According to reports, in February 2022, a solar storm cost SpaceX 40 satellites.
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The advent of start-ups in the space sector would not have been possible but for significant technological changes in recent years. As Agnikul Cosmos’ Srinath put it: “Big gave way to small, few became many, far changed to near and long life became short.” He is referring to how satellites have changed.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX demonstrated this with its Starlink satellites. Earlier, satellites used to be huge. They weighed over three tonnes and were put in faraway geo-synchronous orbits (where they moved in tandem with India as the earth rotated).
SpaceX showed the world that instead of one large satellite, a constellation of satellites could do a better job. The shortcoming of coverage (smaller satellites cover a smaller area) is thus tackled with a constellation. SpaceX launched 4,000 small satellites in low-earth orbit instead of 10 big ones in a geosynchronous orbit to provide its internet services.
Airtel-backed OneWeb is in the process of launching 648 small satellites in LEO mode to provide its high-speed satellite internet service.
Smaller satellites have distinct advantages over large ones. They can be built quickly. Being closer to earth, they offer better latency (less delay in receipt of a signal). “Today, a 3 kg satellite can take pictures with 3-metre resolution. A few years ago, it required a 300 kg satellite,” says Skyroot’s Chandana. The life of smaller satellites is just around three years — unlike 15 years for large ones — but that is not a worry as technology is evolving rapidly and older satellites can be replaced by those with newer tech.
“We can’t wait 15 years as the technology will become obsolete” says Dhruva Space’s Nekkanti. Unlike in the case of a large satellite, a constellation of satellites can continue to offer services even if a few malfunction.
“They will still be cheaper than a single large one,” says Agnikul Cosmos’ Srinath. This is because smaller satellites use industry-grade rather than space-grade components (as they are parked closer to earth, where radiation is lower and have a shorter lifespan). Moreover, while an Insat class satellite will cost at least ₹400 crore, smaller satellites can be built for just ₹10 crore, says Pixxel’s Ahmed. Also, smaller satellites are placed in low orbit and at the end of their lives they can be lowered into the atmosphere to burn out (using onboard fuel) leaving no space junk.
There is no need for large launch vehicles such as the PSLV or GSLV (geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle), which cost ₹300 crore and ₹450 crore, respectively, to launch small satellites. The rockets that Skyroot and Agnikul Cosmos are building will cost a fraction of that, at around ₹20 crore. “It is this reduction in cost that has made the private sector’s entry in the space sector possible,” says Srinath. No investor would want to support a private player who needs ₹400 crore to build just one satellite or launch vehicle, he adds.
According to European Space Agency data, since the beginning of the space age (in 1957, when the USSR launched the Sputnik satellite), 14,710 satellites have been put into orbit. Experts estimate that anywhere between 70,000 to 100,000 satellites will be launched in the next 15 years and over 80% will be small satellites weighing less than 500 kg. It is this market that Indian space start-ups are looking to take advantage of as they are nimble (they can launch quickly unlike ISRO, which needs months to ready a launch vehicle) and can deploy satellites at specific locations—a critical requirement when it comes to a constellation.
So, where does all this leave ISRO? “It will play a leading role in enabling the private sector to come in, through IN-SPACe,” says Goenka. The private sector will rely on ISRO for infrastructure—be it launch facilities, tracking systems, technology transfers and capacity building. India’s space agency will focus on scientific missions, passing on the commercial business to the private sector, he adds.
ISRO, whose accomplishments to date include 121 spacecraft missions, 87 launch missions and 385 foreign satellite launches, will focus on deep-space missions, and putting an Indian in space through its Gaganyaan mission. It is also working on a small satellite launch vehicle, a reusable launch vehicle and an air-breathing propulsion system.
ISRO has set up NewSpace India Ltd (NSIL) to handle the commercial end of the business. In September, HAL and L&T bagged a ₹860 crore contract for the manufacture of five PSLVs over four years from NSIL.
Private space players, on their part, are eagerly looking forward to India’s space policy, which is due soon. They expect a policy that is clear and liberal. “The draft policy is encouraging,” says Pixxel’s Ahmed. Many call the recent policy changes the Indian space sector’s ‘1991 moment’. Going by the giant leap space start-ups have made in such a short period, that certainly appears to be the case.