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Published on: Nov. 9, 2020, 8:15 a.m.
Aiming for the stars
  • The sky is no limit for the aspirations of Team Skyroot

By Adreesh Ghoshal

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been launching its own satellites through indigenous launch vehicles for the past several years. Now a bunch of start-ups has joined hands with ISRO to take the technology forward by leaps and bounds.

Right now, the most successful is Hyderabad-based Skyroot Aerospace, that has built and tested India’s first cryogenic rocket engine, the Dhawan-1 that will power the upper stages of their Vikram-II rocket.

The fuel, Liquefied Natural Gas or LNG is similar to what you find in your kitchen, although it’s stored at -150 degrees Celsius for use in the Dhawan-1 engine. Traditionally, cryogenic engines used liquid hydrogen, a volatile and inflammable material that is difficult to operate. LNG, on the other hand, is easily available, and is safer and easier to handle and store. LNG is a clean fuel and has also been favoured by other international space programs, like Japan’s Space Exploration Agency.

Most of the production happens at manufacturing facilities in Hyderabad and the propellant comes from Nagpur. Once the hardware is ready, it is transported to the test stand for developmental testing or the launch pad for assembling and launching. Since the initial tests of the Dhawan-1 engine are promising, Skyroot engineers are in the process of building a dedicated mobile testing rig for further test firings.

The start-up was founded in 2018, in Hyderabad by ISRO veterans and IITians Pawan Kumar Chandana and Naga Bharath Daka. Kumar had worked on the GSLV Mark-3, while Daka was a flight controls engineer and had developed many key systems for multiple ISRO missions. The team has several award-winning scientists, all either from ISRO or the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

Ready to launch

Skyroot Aerospace raised a seed fund in 2018 from Mukesh Bansal (Founder of Myntra & CureFit). They also raised capital from Solar Industries and other angels in 2019 and 2020. As of today, they have raised $4.3 million and are also in the advanced stages of securing more capital for their first few launches. Multiple engine tests are scheduled all the way till December 2021. That is when the Skyroot team is planning its first full launch.

Skyroot Aerospace has developed three launch vehicles – Vikram-I, Vikram-II, and Vikram-III, with payloads ranging from 225kg to 720kg. All the rockets can launch within 24 and 72 hours and are mobile-launcher-compatible. According to Gareeb Scientist, one of the most popular ISRO-centric YouTube channels in India, Skryoot’s rocket engines are more powerful than the ones ISRO uses. Also, at $15,000 per kg per launch, they are less expensive than Virgin Orbit, which charges $40,000 per kg.

A Frost and Sullivan report estimates that the Indian space ecosystem is going to see an explosion in demand over the next 20 years. More than 213 satellites and thousands of microsatellites will be launched as part of new and ongoing mission cycles. The total launch services revenue from regional demand will be $4.56 billion at existing prices throughout the forecast period and $2.86 billion with a reduction in price over the timeline.

Chandana, on the other hand, estimates the figure to be over $10 billion internationally for small satellite launches alone. He is also keen on playing a major role in the new space ecosystem, which is a cohesive environment comprising of space tech start-ups, state-run agencies, and educational institutions that also double up as start-up incubators.

In India, the ISRO is already paving the way for the 120+ start-ups currently operating in the space tech industry. For starters, the 18 per cent GST on using ISRO space assets for launches and space research has been scrapped. ISRO has also formed the Indian Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre or IN-SPACe, which will serve as a bridge between the 50-year-old ISRO and Indian space tech start-ups.

K. Sivan, chief, ISRO said, “The reforms in the space sector are aimed at tapping the potential of the entire country for unlocking its potential by enabling private enterprises and start-ups to undertake end-to-end space activities.”

Chandana, CEO, Skyroot said, “India has been a proud space-faring nation for over five decades, thanks to the great visionary Dr Vikram Sarabhai. From launching little, sounding rockets from the shores of Thumba, we have been growing by leaps and bounds through Chandrayaan, Mangalyaan and now Gaganyaan, proving the sky is no limit to our aspirations.”

We could not have put it better. 

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