The Indian space industry that was restricted to public sector is now witnessing a sea of change, with many private players and start-ups at the forefront of some successful missions. One such milestone was achieved by Agnikul Cosmos start-up that ‘SOrTed’ India’s first launch from a private launchpad (Dhanush) at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh on May 30, reported News18.

SOrTeD (SubOrbital Technological Demonstrator) is a single-stage rocket fuelled by a semi-cryogenic engine. Developed in India, the vehicle was assembled at Agnikul’s facilities at IIT-Madras.

After previous four attempts were called off, Agnikul has now successfully demonstrated the country’s first semi-cryogenic engine-powered rocket launch and utilised first single-piece 3D-printed engine designed and built domestically to power a launch vehicle.

IN-SPACe, India’s private space regulator, chairman Pawan Goenka, who witnessed the launch, said, “The successful launch of SOrTeD marks a significant moment for private players who are contributing to India’s growing space sector with cutting-edge technology such as the world’s first 3D printed semi-cryogenic engine.”

About The Mission

Agnikul Cosmos’s Agnibaan SOrTeD rocket is designed to be compatible with the mobile launchpad called ‘Dhanush’, allowing for launch flexibility regardless of location. The 18-metre tall Agnibaan rocket is designed for small satellites and can accommodate payloads ranging from 30 kg to 300 kg.

The key purpose of the mission, Agnikul Cosmos’s first flight, is to gather crucial flight data and ensure optimal functioning of systems for the startup’s orbital launch vehicle, Agnibaan.

Agnibaan used India’s first semi-cryogenic engine, which uses a mix of liquid and gas for propellant. Liquid propellants can be used and reused and are safer than solid propellants.

Semi-cryogenic engines help increase payload capacity, reduce launch costs and improve the overall reliability and performance of the launch vehicles.

The start-up's team comprises about 200 engineers and is associated with National Centre for Combustion Research and Development at IIT-Madras. Additionally, the team is guided by 45 former scientists from ISRO.

The start-up is looking at flying an orbital mission towards the end of this financial year and is working with customers on flights starting from 2025.

How Govt Opened Space For Private Companies

On May 16, 2020, in the fourth ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’ stimulus worth ₹20 lakh crore, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the creation of IN-SPACe to allow the private sector to benefit from ISRO’s assets including testing centres, launch site, technologies, and launch vehicles. She also unveiled a new liberal geo-spatial data policy and opened up planetary exploration and outer space travel to private companies.

In April last year, the Union Cabinet approved Indian Space Policy 2023 to encourage private investment in the space sector. The policy authorises IN-SPACe, to act as the single-window agency for clearance of space activities by government entities as well as non-government entities.

The government gave another boost to the private sector by allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) in space in February this year.

Earlier, FDI in space was allowed up to 100% for satellite establishment and operations through government route only. The government changed the policy to allow up to 74% FDI under automatic route in satellite-manufacturing and operation, satellite data products, and ground and user segments. Beyond this limit, government approval will be required in these areas for FDI.

Further, up to 100% overseas investments are permitted under the automatic route for manufacturing of components and systems/sub-systems for satellites, ground, and user segments.

How Private Players Are Involved

Some older companies like Godrej, HAL, Ananth Technologies and Data Patterns mainly provide space components to ISRO. HAL provides structural parts of several space components, like heat shield assembly, nose cone assembly, fuel propellant tanks, and cryogenic engines for launch vehicles. Godrej Aerospace manufactures Liquid propulsion engines, complex fabricated assemblies for antennas, pods, satellite thrusters, actuators, valves, and pumps, according to a report by The Hindu.

Technological firms like Ananth and Data Patterns are the core manufacturers of ISRO’s ground stations, nano satellites, automated test equipment, printed circuit boards (PCB) for various controllers (digital, analog, radio or microwave frequency, laser, power), sub-systems of satellites – telemetry, communications, altitude & orbital control units, sensors, payloads, launch vehicle control units for navigation, power, stage integration, servo controls and inertial sensors, according to a report by The Hindu.

India’s first military-grade spy satellite manufactured in the private sector, by Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL), was successfully deployed into space in April. A wholly owned subsidiary of Tata Sons, TASL is a significant player for aerospace and defence solutions in India.

Which Are The Few Space Start-Ups?

Dhruva Space is based in Hyderabad and was founded by Sanjay Nekkanti in 2012 to design customised satellites, ground stations and launch services from ground or space. Dhruva Space’s indigenously developed 1U, 3U and 6U Satellite orbital deployers have been successfully tested and launched in ISRO’s PSLV missions in 2022 in 2023, after being authorised by IN-SPACe.

Skyroot was founded in 2018 by Pawan Chandana and Bharat Daka in Hyderabad and specialises in manufacturing space launch vehicles. It became the first private Indian start-up to successfully test liquid propulsion engines as well as a 3D printed cryogenic engine in 2020. It has test-fired its own rockets Vikram-S and Vikram-I. In November 2022, it launched India’s first private rocket, Vikram-S, from Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh on a suborbital flight.

Agnikul Cosmos was founded at the Indian Institute of Madras by Srinath Ravichandran and Moin SPM in 2017. It inaugurated India’s first private mobile launchpad ‘Dhanush’ and the Agnikul mission control centre at Sriharikota in 2022.

How Space Companies Are Regulated?

IN-SPACe was set up as a single-window, independent, nodal agency to authorise, promote and supervise space activities of private non-governmental entities. It ensures India’s strategic or security interests are not compromised, and allows private entities across various categories and functions. IN-SPACe also provides technical incubation for start-ups in their infancy and promotes space tourism, facilitates the start-up ecosystem and boosts student participation.

National Geospatial Policy was unveiled in December 2022 that provides a framework for the development of a geospatial ecosystem, allowing democratization of data and centralization of all digital data. It promotes private sector participation in collection of the data.

What Is The Size of Indian Space Start-Ups?

The number of space start-ups has gone up from just 1 in 2014 to 189 in 2023, as per government data. The investment in Indian space start-ups increased to $124.7 million in 2023.

The current size of the Indian space economy is estimated at $8.4 billion (around 2-3% of global space economy) and it is expected to reach $44 billion by 2033.

Union Minister Jitendra Singh said had said in December that Indian space startups have attracted over Rs 1,000 crore of private investment since April 2023, adding that the country has the potential to reach a $100 billion space economy by 2040.

So far, the Indian Space Research Organisation has launched over 430 foreign satellites with more than 290 million euros as earnings from European satellites and over $170 million from American satellites, the minister had said.

Google parent company Alphabet announced $36 million of investment in Bengaluru-based space start-up, Pixxel, in June 2023. It was the first major investment in the Indian space sector after the privatisation policy of the government.

(With Reporting by News18)