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When space is more than rocket science

The Indian space sector is opening up but private startups are still finding it hard to get technical expertise and sound financial backing

More than 50 years later, as India celebrates National Science Day on 28 February, Isro’s PSLV-C51 launch will mark a new beginning for the country’s commercial and private space sectors. (Courtesy: Isro)

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Space is not easy. In the 1960s, when the Indian space programme was just starting, engineers and scientists at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Kerala were launching sounding rockets assembled in church buildings and payloads were being ferried on bicycles.

By 1969, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) was in place. India’s journey took wing. And in recent times, daring missions to the Moon and Mars have shown the country can hold its own among the global space community.

More than 50 years later, as India celebrates National Science Day on 28 February, Isro’s PSLV-C51 launch will mark a new beginning for the country’s commercial and private space sectors. Isro’s 53rd PSLV mission, the PSLV-C51 is the first dedicated commercial mission of NewSpace India (NSIL), set up in 2019 as a commercial subsidiary of the space agency.

The primary satellite PSLV-C51 will launch is Brazil’s Amazonia-1 optical Earth observation satellite. According to the Isro website, 18 other satellites will hitch a ride too, including four from IN-SPACe, the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre. IN-SPACe, a key nodal agency, was set up in 2020 to act as a bridge between Isro and the private space ecosystem, opening up space technologies to private entities and startups.

Bengaluru’s Pixxel, one such startup, was hoping to be on Sunday’s list. Founded by BITS, Pilani graduates Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal in 2019, it initially planned to send its first, and India’s maiden private commercial Earth-imaging satellite, Anand, on the PSLV-C51. On 23 February, however, the startup announced in a statement that it was pushing the launch by a few weeks, to re-evaluate certain software issues.

This is just one example of the kind of problems space tech startups face—be it finding technical expertise or reliable funding. Today, India has an exciting stable of private space startups backed by young minds, precocious talent and innovative ideas. Yet, experts say, state support has been limited so far when compared to the US and Europe. While access to some key testing facilities has opened up in recent times, a lot still remains to be done.

Srimathy Kesan, founder and CEO of Space Kidz India (SKI), is ecstatic at the prospect of their Satish Dhawan SAT finding place on the PSLV-C51. But she is well aware of the difficulties of being in the space business. “Space utilises a lot of money. Funding is still an issue. It doesn’t flow from the big companies to the small startups,” she says on the phone.

Kesan founded SKI in 2011 with the aim of inspiring young scientists in India. Focusing initially on experiential learning and basic balloon satellites, it moved towards satellite development in 2015. In 2019, it launched KalamSat, one of the world’s lightest and smallest satellites. Now, its team of 10 young engineers and scientists is ready with the Satish Dhawan SAT, a nanosatellite named after the renowned rocket scientist and former Isro chairman. Once in orbit, this 3U, or three-unit, cubesat will study space radiation and the magnetosphere, with an initial mission duration of at least two years.

What makes the nanosatellite more special is the fact that all its components have been designed and built in India. “We wanted to design the structure and build it right here,” Kesan explains. “This time we had to go through a lot of making and breaking. All the components—the printed circuit boards, structure—were 3D-printed. We then had to see if they would be stable in space. So we had to make and break a lot of things.”

Space Kidz India CEO and founder Srimathy Kesan with other members of the team working on the ‘Satish Dhawan SAT’.
Space Kidz India CEO and founder Srimathy Kesan with other members of the team working on the ‘Satish Dhawan SAT’. (Courtesy: Space Kidz India)

This is indicative of another issue that organisations like SKI face: getting hold of affordable space-grade components. Barring a few items, such as solar panels and sensors that are manufactured in India, all other key space-grade materials, like micro-controllers, have to be imported from the US or Europe. The cost, says Kesan, can be prohibitive. “When we have to buy a micro-controller, ideally, if we have the luxury to get two-three of them for testing, there’s more scope for research and development. But for now we have to settle for just one unit,” she adds. A single micro-controller can cost up to 1.5 lakh, says Kesan.

While the domestic electronic components market seems to be playing its part, experts say the manufacturing sector is yet to venture into the area of advanced space grade equipment. “We all know that aluminium is a key component in all space-grade equipment, whether it’s (used for) space launch vehicles, spacecrafts, fighter aircrafts, etc. But the majority of the aerospace-grade aluminium in India is still imported, in spite of (it) being such a large aluminium-producing hub,” says Abhishek Verma, partner, aerospace and defence, KPMG in India.

Things are changing slowly. The regulatory environment is becoming friendlier, with IN-SPACe and the announcement of a draft Spacecom 2020 policy last year, but it will take at least two-three years for the private space sector to attract sustained investor interest, says Verma. “There are some space startups that are into very niche technologies, like electric propulsion systems. The problem with investors is that they want early returns and find it very difficult to support a business model that is yet to be proven in the market,” adds Verma

In a video interview with Lounge before they had to postpone their launch, Pixxel’s Ahmed and Khandelwal spoke of similar problems. “We have raised $5.7 million (around 41 crore) in total and we will be able to do at least three launches with that. It’s expensive, basically,” says Ahmed, on the manufacturing costs involved.

“It’s a very capital-intensive industry. You need to spend a lot to send a satellite up there. When we were raising our first round of investment, we tried talking to a few VC (venture capital) funds. Almost all of them were interested because space is cool. But when it came to pulling the trigger, some of them told us that it was too risky,” Ahmed adds.

Their Anand satellite has attracted considerable interest in the space and Earth imagery sector. It’s expected to provide some of the best high-resolution images of the planet ever seen, and thereby help across a variety of areas: from agriculture, oil and gas, to forestry and climate change monitoring. Pixxel hopes to have 30 such Earth observation satellites in its “Firefly” fleet by the end of 2022. Earlier this month, it signed a contract with the South African company Dragonfly Aerospace for the development and delivery of high-resolution electro-optical imagers, to be used in this planned constellation.

Pixxel's 'Anand' satellite is expected to provide some of the best high-resolution images of the planet ever seen, and thereby help across a variety of areas: from agriculture, oil and gas, to forestry and climate change monitoring
Pixxel's 'Anand' satellite is expected to provide some of the best high-resolution images of the planet ever seen, and thereby help across a variety of areas: from agriculture, oil and gas, to forestry and climate change monitoring (Courtesy: Pixxel)

“Indian space startups have access to good tech talent, a young demographic and the hunger to do things on a shoestring budget,” says Susmita Mohanty, spaceship designer and CEO, Earth2Orbit, one of India’s earliest space startups, founded in 2009. “All that will go to waste if we don’t support them with better laboratories, testing facilities and robust state funding,” she explains on email.

Mohanty cites the example of US space agency Nasa’s Small Business Innovation Research program and generous research grants offered by the European Space Agency and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, which allow small businesses to demonstrate feasibility and commercialise new space tech. India has practically no state funding for space tech startups, she says. “Private fund-raises done by Indian space tech start-ups through friends, family and VCs have in recent years been modestly successful.... But if you compare them to their American counterparts doing similar things, these are paltry sums at best. If we have to compete with the evolved space economies, we need to up our game,” she adds.

There is one area where there appears to be progress: the access startups have been granted to testing facilities like thermal vacuum, or thermo-vacc, chambers. These are used to carry out environmental testing of spacecraft hardware.

Kesan and her team were able to run tests for the Satish Dhawan SAT, including vibration and shock tests, at the U R Rao Satellite Centre in Bengaluru and the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram after a memorandum of understanding with Isro in January. “There are maybe one or two private facilities that have these tests, but they cost a bomb. Here (with Isro), it is economical. It is convenient that you have Isro hand-holding you with all their technical expertise. We never expected them to play such a key role,” adds Kesan.

Emails and phone calls to the offices of Isro principal scientific secretary and associate scientific secretary did not elicit any response. But earlier this week, Isro chairman K. Sivan told PTI the agency would soon announce the details of a “Space Entrepreneurship & Enterprise Development (SEED) programme. The report said SEED is being planned as an early-stage encouragement programme for startups, MSMEs keen on developing products and services in areas of interest to Isro. Isro had already received several proposals from industries and startups, said Sivan, describing startups as Isro’s new-age industry partners.

Kesan points to a different, though related, aspect that could prove pivotal as India opens up its space sector. Going forward, she says, India may need to look at ways to involve students. “There’s no structured planning to promote space in the student sector,” she says. “We need a space path where children can learn. We say that the future is space. For that, we need to tap the young population.”

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