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Private Indian Spaceflight

Thanks to pioneering startups and the encouragement of ISRO, private Indian spaceflight is poised to take off.

ISRO has a number of interplanetary missions and satellite launches lined up. Private spaceflight companies want in on the action too, and like ISRO, are planning their own ambitions interplanetary missions to the Moon and Venus. When it comes to satellites, ISRO cannot possibly meet the escalating demand for space technologies, and is encouraging the participation of the private sector to build up India’s space capabilities.

Bellatrix Aerospace

Probably India’s only company working on rocket launch vehicles and propulsion systems, Bellatrix Aerospace has huge plans for the future. They have applied for a patent on their design of a microwave electrothermal thruster (MET) that uses water as the fuel. Back in April 2018, we’d covered in detail on how the thruster works and the challenges they faced during the entire course of the project until the first successful prototype. This propulsion system is highly scalable and directed towards satellites only because of the low thrust generated. The team is still working out on various components of the system, eventually moving on to testing the MET in its full form.

The MET for CubeSat propulsion. Image: Bellatrix Aerospace. 

Bellatrix has received funding for their MET project while they are still awaiting to raise funds for their secondary projects involving launch vehicles. Currently, they have two designs, Chetak and Garuda, that are capable of carrying a payload of 500kg and 1,010kg respectively. The MET isn’t the only propulsion system they are working on. Working on Hall Thrusters, they are trying to achieve a longer lifespan than the traditional designs. They’re also trying out their hands in developing a cleaner alternative to Monopropellant Hydrazine Thrusters used in chemical propulsion systems. It’s a toxic chemical, so the company is working on the alternative and they are calling it Green Monopropellant Thruster (HAN blend).

ISRO

Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO is actually a private spaceflight company. Antrix provides among the cheapest and most reliable launch services in the world, primarily through its workhorse rocket – the PSLV. It is not a very big or very powerful rocket, but this actually worked to its advantage because of the miniaturisation of satellites. Infact, ISRO is working on developing a smaller rocket specifically to launch nanosatellites and microsatellites. Additionally, ISRO works closely with private industries in the country for sub-systems used in its launch vehicles and satellites. ISRO intends to transfer its technologies to private companies, and privatise at least portions of the rocket and satellite production.

The raw materials, components, sensors, chips, parts and services such as machining, testing and assembly for ISRO satellites are all partially provided by private industries. Some of the industry partners of ISRO include L&T, Godrej and Sure Safety. The collaboration with Godrej goes all the way back to 1985, when Godrej provided the precision machining required for the titanium components of the Vikas engine, which is used in both the PSLV and GSLV rockets.

Ground test of the high thrust Vikas engine at the ISRO Propulsion Complex in Mahendragiri, Tamilnadu. Image: ISRO. 

ISRO wants to take the participation of private companies to the next level. One of the oldest collaborators of ISRO is Bharat Electronics Limited, or BEL. BEL already makes solar panels and microwaves for Indian satellites, and now ISRO wants to outsource the building of entire satellites. Alpha Design Technologies, established as part of the “Make in India” initiative of, is a Bengaluru based company leading a consortium of private companies, tasked with building two complete satellites for India. Alpha Design Technologies was the first private company to co-assemble a satellite with ISRO, the navigation satellite IRNSS-1H. Unfortunately, the payload fairing did not open, and the satellite could not be deployed, despite the PSLV rocket performing as expected. It was the first mission in 24 years to fail, but fortunately they were no secondary payloads piggybacking on the ride. Private industries were responsible for the assembly, integration and testing of the IRNSS-1I navigation satellite, which was successfully launched by the PSLV-C41 mission in April in 2018.

TeamIndus

None of the teams met the deadline for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. The competition has now been modified. The Lunar XPRIZE initiative is exploring its options, which includes finding a new title sponsor, continuing the competition as a non cash prize, as well as promoting and celebrating the achievements of the teams. TeamIndus is still very much working on the mission to send a spacecraft and a rover to the moon. Currently, there are plans to launch the mission in the second half of 2019, and the final dates will be announced once the launch services provider is decided. The launch services provider here means the organisation that will provide the rocket for the launch. 

The extended mission timeline means that TeamIndus has more time to pack in even more experimental payloads on the lander. The lander will not only demonstrate the technical capabilities of private Indian spaceflight, but will also be doing real science. Sheelika Ravishankar, Marketing Head of TeamIndus elaborates on the scientific payloads on board, “Our first lunar mission is carrying multiple scientific and commercial payloads. CNES (French Space Agency) is providing stereo HD cameras for our rover and we are also carrying Hakuto’s rover Sorato onboard our lander. In terms of scientific payloads, we have three science experiments onboard the spacecraft. INFN has their MoonLIGHT-2 instrument that will use lunar ranging techniques to perform General Relativity tests. The Indian Institute of Astrophysics has their LUCI ultra-violet telescope onboard, while the InSTEM institute has an experiment studying regeneration of planarial worms in micro-gravity. Additionally, two student-built experiments are onboard, EARS and ZOI. EARS is a radiation shield tech demonstrator and the ZOI experiment aims to study radiation effects on cyanobacteria.”

The TeamIndus rover. Image: TeamIndus. 

But that is not all. At the moment, everyone in TeamIndus is working dedicatedly on the first mission to moon. But TeamIndus definitely has plans to continue to be a pioneering Indian spaceflight company beyond the first mission. They plan to use the expertise and experience gained in the first mission, for multiple future missions to the moon. Ravishankar explains, “Over the course of seven years, we have successfully completed qualification tests of our Spacecraft and rover ECA. At this point we can put together our flight ready Spacecraft in less than nine months and we will be ready to launch once the new launch provider is finalized. We are already a private space company building lunar landers for space exploration. We are addressing the key elements of affordability, reliability and repeatability to make Space more accessible. We continue to enhance our capabilities and build capacity that will enable us to get to the Moon multiple times over the next 5 years. In the process we send back amazing science data from beyond the Earth-orbit.”

The others

Several other companies are contributing to India’s emergence in the private space sector. A handful of others including Applied Research & Development Laboratories (ARDL), Astrome, Dhruva Space, Earth2Orbit Analytix and Xovian are also working towards the same goal of pushing the technological boundaries of what our country is capable of. For instance, ARDL has branched itself into four divisions including one, Antariksha Lab, dedicated to space research. They’ve come up with an entire kit for building a model satellite capable of being launched at a certain altitude as well. The company’s objective is to establish an R&D presence related to various aspects of space technology.

Astrome Technologies is currently working on building very high bandwidth microsatellites to beam down internet from space. Using their patented “MM-Wave transponders”, the company is aiming to deliver high speed broadband internet by 2020. Dealing primarily in small satellite launch systems and devices, Dhruva Space has collaborated with AMSAT India for the HAMSAT-II satellite launch, and they have also collaborated with international organisations. Earth2Orbit Analytix takes care of advisory services to solve social, business and environmental problems and provide “location-aware, large-area analytics”. Finally, Xovian takes care of providing “low cost sustainable solutions in satellite fabrication”. Of course, there will be more companies which are already working towards building and researching space technology. Owing to ISRO’s consistent success, far more companies will definitely see the light in the coming future.

Abhijit Dey

Abhijit Dey

While indulging deep into conspiracy theories surrounding comic book movie plots, he can be found rewatching them looking for easter eggs. Otherwise, his weekends are spent on gaming and browsing memes.

Aditya Madanapalle

Aditya Madanapalle

An avid reader of the magazine, who ended up working at Digit after studying journalism, game design and ancient runes. When not egging on arguments in the Digit forum, can be found playing with LEGO sets meant for 9 to 14-year-olds.