Long before India’s Space Activities Bill 2017—which will provide for private companies to start space launches in India (the Bill is now in its advanced stages of becoming a law)—was initiated, a motley group of professionals, mostly youngsters, were working to accomplish what was then being touted as a historic project. They were buckling down on the world’s first ‘privately-funded mission’ to not only build and ‘soft-land’ a spacecraft on the moon, but also have a ‘rover’ traverse 500 metres on its surface, sending back high-definition images and videos of the Earth’s satellite. Although missions to the moon have been conducted by five countries so far—the erstwhile Soviet Union, the US, Japan, China, and India—apart from the European Space Agency, only three nations (the US, Russia, and China) have successfully accomplished a soft landing on the moon, as against a ‘crash landing’.
Unfortunately, Bengaluru-based Team Indus had to scuttle the moon mission—a project that the start-up had originally signed up for Google’s Lunar XPrize in 2010—due to financial woes in 2018. Had Team Indus succeeded, India would have been the fourth country on the list of soft landings on the moon.
However, things are looking up now, at least in the space-tech sector. On November 18, Skyroot Aerospace, a Hyderabad-headquartered and national award-winning space technology platform, launched its first rocket into space. The Vikram-S rocket, the first of the Vikram series, took off from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launchpad in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. This is the first private rocket to have been launched in India.
Vikram-S is a single stage fuel rocket meant to test most systems and processes in Skyroot Aerospace’s project ahead of the launch of Vikram-1 scheduled for next year. The launch was also a sub-orbital one —meaning, the vehicle will reach outer space, it will not remain in orbit around the Earth, with the flight time being less than five minutes.
There was an interesting revelation in the Economic Survey 2021-2022 that was released on January 31 this year. It showed that India has witnessed a huge growth in the participation of private firms in the space sector over the past few years—from just one in 2012 to 47 in 2021 and the total number to 101 so far.
“The Economic Survey shows that there was a surge in space tech start-ups starting in 2017. We believe that this was largely due to the release of the Draft Space Activities Bill 2017 by the Government of India. This Bill indicated a strong intent from the government to open space activities for the private sector.
So much so that even in its draft stages, the Bill helped emerging space tech start-ups to raise capital and start building solutions,” say Pawan Kumar Chandana and Naga Bharath Daka, founders of Skyroot Aerospace.
The goal of the start-up, founded by the former ISRO scientists and IIT alumni, both 31 years old, is to have an open space for all by building affordable and on-demand space launch vehicles from India for the world.
The company is building the Vikram series of small launch vehicles that can take smaller satellites to space, the first one of which is Vikram-S. The launch vehicles are named after Vikram Sarabhai, the ‘father of India’s space programme’.
Skyroot Aerospace started in June 2018 with $1.5 million funding from Mukesh Bansal, the founder of Myntra and Curefit. “Within just two years, we became the first Indian private company to develop and successfully test fire a full-scale earth-storable liquid propulsion engine (Raman Engine) in the first attempt itself,” says co-founder Chandana, who has a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a Master’s in thermal science and engineering. At ISRO, he was a scientist in the rocket design centre (VSSC) working on the organisation’s GSLV MKIII heavy-lift programme.
In December 2020, Skyroot Aerospace again became the first Indian private company to successfully test a solid motor engine stage (Kalam-5 Engine) in the first attempt. In December last year, it successfully test-fired India’s first privately built 100% 3D printed fully cryogenic engine (Dhawan Engine) in the first attempt itself. “With this test, we have validated all three types of propulsion technologies,” add Chandana and Daka.
An expensive affair
The US has Boeing, SpaceX, and Lockheed; Europe has Airbus; but India doesn’t have any company of such a stature. That’s the gap Bengaluru-based space start-up Pixxel wants to plug—to build a world-beating space technology company out of India.
“But space is an expensive business and requires access to funds. Since we were starting in our early 20s as students with zero industry credibility, raising funds was a big challenge,” says Awais Ahmed, CEO and founder of Pixxel.
In October 2018, Ahmed convinced a company that Pixxel was working on a pilot to book flight tickets to the US where he participated in a pitching competition organised by BITS alumni. There, he convinced the investors on the basis of the prototypes and pilots that were completed.
Over the course of a few months, in early 2019, Pixxel raised the first round of funding from GrowX ventures and other angel investors. It has in all raised about $35 million so far, including seed round of $8 million and Series A funding of $27 million from the likes of Lightspeed, Blume, Omnivore, Radical, Seraphim and others.
However, the challenge was to hire experienced employees to complement the young team’s passion. “Striking partnerships with companies to manufacture the satellite, to launch the satellite and to operate the satellite also required proving credibility to global companies which Pixxel was able to demonstrate by executing things fast,” adds Ahmed, who co-founded Pixxel with Kshitij Khandelwal in their final year at BITS Pilani in 2019.
Pixxel is building a constellation of some of the world’s most advanced earth imaging hyperspectral satellites to provide global, real-time, and affordable satellite imagery. The mission is to use cutting-edge artificial intelligence to analyse highly accurate space data in order to predict effective solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems like monitoring air and water pollution, crop and soil health, climatic changes, and endangered ecosystems around the world.
“While we rely on earth-imaging satellites to monitor the globe, access to what’s currently poor-quality images requires billions of dollars and a team of experienced engineers to make only baseline sense of the data. To be able to accurately view the Earth’s health at any given moment, this data needs to be recent, accessible, affordable, and provide more information to make sense of it all,” explains Ahmed.
That’s where Pixxel’s hyperspectral data capabilities come in. “Our earth-imaging satellites will provide 8x more information and 2x better resolution than the best open-source data used for agri/climate use cases today,” adds Ahmed.
The timing of the vitalisation of the private space sector has been integral, considering there are many small satellite requirements globally. The projections are estimated to be in the tens of thousands in number, and in order to meet any of those demands, the global supply chain needs to be robust and strong. “The start-ups that exist in the ecosystem along with 400-odd companies that build small components for the Indian space programme are gearing up to benefit from this sudden ‘space rush’,” says Sanjay Nekkanti, CEO of Dhruva Space, a full-stack space engineering company specialising in small satellites, as well as ground station/s and launch services as integrated solutions or individually as a technology solution to power space-based applications on and beyond Earth.
Founded in 2012, Dhruva Space is the first Indian private company to secure an order for end-to-end design and development of space-grade solar arrays for satellites. It is also the only Indian private entity with deployers compatible with ISRO launch vehicles PSLV and SSLV, apart from other international launch vehicles.
The company’s first revenue-generating financial year was 2021, where it generated turnover of Rs 50 lakh. “We hope to grow to about Rs 100 crore by FY 24, by which time we wish to have our own production facility up and running,” says Chaitanya Dora Surapureddy, CFO of Dhruva Space. In October 2021, Dhruva Space raised Rs 22 crore in funding led by Indian Angel Network (IAN) Fund and Blue Ashva Capital. Till date, the company has raised close to Rs 27 crore.
On November 26, Dhruva Space successfully launched two amateur radio communication nanosatellites—Thybolt-1 and Thybolt-2—as part of ISRO’s PSLV C54 mission. Earlier in June, the company had successfully space-qualified its satellite orbital deployer on board PSLV C53.
“With a strong focus on amateur radio (ham radio) communications, the Thybolt mission is supported by various ham radio clubs across India including National Institute for Amateur Radio (NIAR), Indian Institute of Hams, Aniruddha’s Academy of Disaster Management, West Bengal Amateur Radio Club, Indian Academy of Communication and Disaster Management, and SSM College of Engineering,” says Nekkanti of Dhruva Space.
“This will be a landmark mission for a few reasons; the two primary ones being it marks the launch of the first privately-owned satellites in India to be in-orbit, and it also observes 10 years of Dhruva Space,” he adds.
Pixxel, too, launched Anand—its third hyper-spectral satellite—into space on November 26 using ISRO’s PSLV. The company became the first Indian company ever to launch a commercial satellite to space when it launched its satellite Shakuntala earlier this year with the SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket. Being Pixxel’s first full-fledged satellite, Shakuntala hosts one of the highest resolution hyperspectral commercial cameras ever flown to space.
Currently, Pixxel’s plan is to achieve its vision of building and launching a constellation of the world’s most advanced earth imaging satellites that can beam down data at a level of detail that hasn’t been attempted before. “The recent government announcements have also come at the right time, giving a fertile platform for the private space players like us in India,” says Ahmed, adding: “The availability of experience, infrastructure and talent will be a major boost to every space tech company starting up here ,” adds Ahmed.
As of 2020, India’s space sector was valued at $7 billion or 2% of the global space economy, valued at more than $370 billion, as per a report published by PwC India in 2020. The government opened the domestic space sector in June 2020 to the private sector with a target of growing India’s space economy to more than $50 billion over the next five to six years.
“Over the coming years, we expect to see significant participation from the private sector, both in the sector’s upstream (launch services, satellite manufacturing, and satellite operations) and downstream segments (enterprises building communication and imaging-based products out of satellite data). In this regard, the government has been very supportive. It is great to see that the policies are being rolled out and institutional arrangements are set up rapidly. Given that this is the first time the sector has opened, there are a few things such as licensing and insurance that are still being fleshed out,” says Skyroot Aerospace co-founder Daka.
Initially, Indian players such as us would be catering to predominantly international markets, says Daka. “As costs of accessing space and associated solutions are reduced over time, we expect domestic demand to rise rapidly as new innovative solutions in areas of satellite broadband Internet, Internet of things, telecom backhauling, optical imagery, hyperspectral imagery, radar imagery, etc, are explored by downstream enterprises,” adds Daka.