Into a new orbit: Making space for small satellites

November 26, 2020 1:45 AM

Agnikul will be the first Indian startup in the private sector to launch small satellites commercially.

Agnikul Cosmos co-founder & COO Moin SPM (L) & co-founder & CEO Srinath Ravichandran

By Srinath Srinivasan

It is the right time to be in the satellite launch business in India. With the government willing to work with and allowing more private players to operate in various departments in the space sector, startups are coming up in the sector. One such startup incubated by IIT Madras and based in IIT Madras Research Park is Agnikul, co-founded by Srinath Ravichandran and Moin SPM.

“There are launch vehicles for large satellites. But for small ones, especially in the micro and nano segment, the market is big and untapped. There is no exclusivity for them,” says Ravichandran. Today, small satellites are grouped and launched with larger satellites and Ravichandran points out the problem in this. “As the satellites are small, they share the same launch vehicles with larger ones. In some cases, many small satellites are clustered and launched. The makers of the large satellites feel that sharing space onboard a fast moving vehicle is not all that secure for their satellites. The smaller satellites are also put on hold for long time periods because of this. And so we promise the small satellites exclusivity and customisation,” he says.

Given all this demand, Ravichandran and his team along with IIT Madras professors began developing launch vehicles to carry small satellites with a waiting time of a week compared to months typically. “Our launch vehicles are designed from ground-up by a bunch of passionate engineers who have expertise in every part of it. It is just like a car, requires vehicle design, engine and testing many different systems,” he shares.

Agnikul has raised $4 million to date. “We expect to have the first commercial launch in 2022,” he informs. The startup also promises very fast and seamless integration for the satellites with the launch vehicles. “We don’t charge them too high just because we give them exclusivity. In fact the costs could come down to as low as $50,000 depending on the payload,” he explains.

Modern rockets are also made better with the use of software. “As a launch vehicle this is very hardware-oriented but for testing we use software. Our aim before any launch would be to know the various parameters of the hardware inside out. We will be able to tell confidently that the hardware won’t fail from within. There is a little bit of software play during the release of the satellite at orbit. There is no necessity for a predictive software from launch to orbit for our vehicles today,” he says.

According to the Agnikul co-founder, India is at very important point in developing the space and aerospace ecosystem. Agnikul has access to best advisors from Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), vendors who also supply to ISRO and investors who are also ready to invest in the next frontier that is space. “The next one year is important for everyone who wishes to start up in this space. The next decade will open up more opportunities given that the government has opened up the sector to private players,” he informs.

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