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End to ISRO monopoly over space: India’s first private rocket, set to blast off today

India’s private sector is all set to enter the space race, ending the monopoly of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

On Friday, Skyroot Aerospace is set to launch its maiden privately developed rocket, Vikram-S, into space, the first home-grown startup to do so from the ISRO’s launch pad in Sriharikota, said people in the know.

The rocket will be carrying three commercial payloads to be deployed in space.

It will be a sub-orbital test launch, lasting only 300 seconds.

To be launched under the mission named ‘Prarambh’ (the beginning), the rocket — a single-stage spin-stabilised solid propellant one with a mass of 500-550 kilograms — is expected to propel up to an altitude of 101 km and then fall into the sea. The typical velocity of rockets is 8 km per second.

According to NASA, anything above 80 km is space. But “even if we cross 50 km from sea level, the test mission will be deemed success”, Pawan Kumar Chandana, co-founder of Skyroot, told ET. “This mission is to prove our technology works. 80% of the technology will be proven with this. From 5 am on Friday the work will start and then around 11-11.30 am, depending on weather conditions, is the countdown and launch.”

Founded five years ago by two former ISRO scientists, Pawan Kumar Chandana and Naga Bharath Daka, Hyderabad-based Skyroot Aerospace raised $65 million earlier this year. It is backed by GIC of Singapore, Anil Kumar Chalamalasetty and Mahesh Kolli, founders of Greenko; entrepreneur Mukesh Bansal, founder of Myntra and; Laxmi and Aditya Mittal family office; and Solar Industries.

The Narendra Modi cabinet, in June 2020, approved reforms in the space sector aimed at boosting private sector participation in the entire range of space activities. This catalysed ISRO to partner with new, private space-tech companies like Skyroot Aerospace to open up space to a bigger set of players.

Skyroot Aerospace was the first startup to ink a memorandum of understanding with ISRO. Industries from the telecommunications, agriculture, weather forecasting, defence and financial services, infrastructure sectors would benefit from thermal images, optical cameras, radar imaging and multi spectral cameras that would send photographs from space. Nearly 30,000 satellites from around the world revolve around the earth or are in other space missions.

ISRO has propelled India among the top five countries in the world for space faring, but its commercial market share is less than 2%.

Last week, a launch window between November 12 and 16 was notified by the authorities. The final date of launch got confirmed subsequently based on weather conditions.

“We build the vehicles that carry the satellites but rely on private capital," Chandana had told ET in an earlier interaction. “The government is pushing for radical reforms in the sector including a regulatory cum one-stop autonomous agency under the Department of Space called Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre.”

Chandana and Daka chose to build rockets instead of satellites owing to the market opportunity. “There are over 500 satellite companies of scale but only 5-10 rocket companies the world over,” said Daka, also a co-founder of the firm.

Skyroot with its strong India ecosystem connect, imbibing innovative and digital manufacturing processes (first of its kind advanced 3D printing techniques) and optimal material usage (over 15+ advanced materials including usage of high-strength carbon fiber composites in rocket manufacturing) is bringing down launch costs by 50% compared to leading global players. This will further make India an important hub for all private players across industries to access private space launch vehicles and launch their own satellites tailored to specific needs and monitoring purposes.

Leading players include Rocket Labs, Virgin Orbit and Astra Space. In 2002, billionaire Elon Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX), a spacecraft manufacturer, launcher and satellite communications company, with a stated goal of reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonisation of Mars.

Skyroot Aerospace has been ground testing in Hyderabad so far but Friday’s launch will be of a much bigger scale. The components of the first few vehicles were predominantly outsourced but over the years, strategic, indigenous partners have helped custom build vehicles locally. “As we go along, components like propulsions, avionics, structures or actuators will largely be made in India by partners like Solar India and Anant Tech,” said Chandana.

Currently, 80% polar satellite launch vehicles are manufactured locally under the ISRO or Defence Research Development Organisation’s manufacturing programmes.

"Space is as strategic as energy security. Bharti OneWeb’s satellite launches got delayed as OneWeb’s UK satellites were held hostage by Russia, which reacted after western sanctions were imposed on them. Russian refused to launch UK satellites and OneWeb’s schedule got impacted,” said an industry executive, who did not wish to be identified. “Therefore, make and launch in India is absolutely crucial and private capital can really be beneficial.”

“The Indian Space Policy in works will look at how to enable non-government entities to work in the space sector,” S Somanath, secretary at Department of Space and Chairman of ISRO, told ETSatcom earlier this month, adding that the responsibility of the department is to empower new actors.


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