Bengaluru startup Pixxel aims to launch a constellation of Earth observation small satellites whose data can have multiple applications in agriculture and other sectors. Its first satellite was good to go on a Soyuz rocket this month, but the launch was put off to March next year because the main satellite riding on the Russian vehicle wasn’t ready.
Makers of small satellites have to piggyback on rockets that have large payloads.
“Since ours is a rideshare satellite, we can’t call the shots on the timeline,” says Awais Ahmed, co-founder and CEO of Pixxel. “Our second satellite is booked for launch on a SpaceX rocket in the latter half of 2021. We have also been in talks with new players like Rocket Lab who have a small-satellite launch vehicle.”
Miniaturization and off-the-shelf electronics, thanks in part to tech developed for smartphones, has opened up the scope for Low Earth Orbit constellations of small satellites. These are emerging as alternatives to large multipurpose satellites, promising to broaden the commercial use of satellite data analytics. But the availability of launch slots on large rockets is a bottleneck.
Small is big
Hence the emergence of dozens of startups developing small-satellite launch vehicles. US-based Rocket Lab has already proved its viability, launching its 15th commercial payload last month with 10 small satellites. Its next mission later this month aims to deploy 30 small satellites.
Two Indian startups in this space are Hyderabad-based Skyroot and Chennai-based Agnikul. Skyroot hit a key milestone in August with the successful test of its launch vehicle’s upper-stage engine which delivers thrust for the last leg of the rocket’s journey before payload deployment.
The test validated the use of new material and 3D-printed design to reduce the engine’s mass and development time. Its propellant makes the engine restartable, allowing deployment of multiple satellites into different orbits in the same mission.
“Our hearts were racing because we were using three new technologies and so many things can go wrong with a propellant system. But the performance was better than expected,” says Pawan Kumar Chandana, co-founder and CEO of Skyroot, who was previously the deputy manager for a launch vehicle project at the Indian Space Research Organization (Isro).
He joined Isro during campus placement at IIT Kharagpur where he did mechanical engineering. He worked on GSLV Mark III, Isro’s heaviest rocket, capable of putting 4-tonne satellites into space. It launched the Chandrayan-2 spacecraft.
The progress of SpaceX and Rocket Lab in privatizing rocket launches and making them more widely available prompted Chandana and his co-founder, Naga Bharat Daka, who was also in Isro, to launch Skyroot in 2018. They also roped in retired Isro scientists, including Gnanagandhi Vasudevan, who pioneered cryogenic rocket technology in India.
Despite their technical capability, it was a huge risk to plunge into space entrepreneurship. There was neither regulatory support for private space ventures in India nor access to funds. “It was a leap of faith that government support would come and we would be able to raise the money to build a product that the emerging small-satellite market needed,” says Chandana.
Isro had already shown the cost advantages of building launch vehicles in India. There is also a vendor ecosystem and experienced human resources that was built over decades, thanks to India’s early commitment to indigenous space technology.
“We will be able to offer attractive price points to customers compared to international players,” says Chandana.
Skyroot has raised $4.3 million in funding so far, an early investors being Mukesh Bansal, co-founder of Myntra and Cure.fit. It is in talks to raise another $15 million before its first launch, slated for end 2021.
The regulatory scene is also clearing up, with the government’s recent announcement of a spacecom policy to facilitate privatization. But it’s a highly competitive environment internationally, with over 100 small-satellite launch vehicle startups at different stages of development, some heavily funded. US-based Relativity Space closed a $140 million funding round last month, and aims to launch “the world’s first entirely 3D printed rocket” early next year.
Chandana admits that a shakedown is inevitable because the market may not support so many rocket companies. US small-satellite launch vehicle startup Vector halting operations late last year shortly after receiving a contract from the US Air Force may be a precursor of things to come. But Skyroot’s early demonstration of its technical capability raises expectations that it will be among the successful ones.
A lot can go wrong with rockets. It’s difficult to test the rocket on the ground because what happens in flight and space may differ. “Even a single bolt being faulty can cause a failed launch,” says Chandana.
Quality control at Skyroot extends to its vendors making components for its rockets. It’s the same vendor ecosystem that supports Isro. “We are working with new technologies and manufacturing methods which the vendors were not in tune with,” points out Chandana.
The way out was to work closely with vendors from the very start of development, providing the necessary training. Despite a culture of paying close attention to detail at the company, things go wrong because of the sheer complexity involved.
Rocket design and writing and debugging all the software for guidance and control occupied the team in the first year. “We spent sleepless nights and then, when we graduated to manufacturing, simple things caused delays,” says Chandana.
The test of Skyroot’s Raman upper-stage engine, for example, was initially scheduled months earlier, but a tiny leak was spotted. It took weeks to figure out the cause and fix it.
Customers for small rockets fall into two broad categories. One lot is building small satellites for Earth imaging data for various purposes. The others are building small communication satellites for use cases like providing internet and IoT from space. “There are over 100 companies building satellites today and most of them are making small satellites. That’s our market,” says Chandana.
The potential is huge with thousands of small satellites being readied for space. But so are the uncertainties over competition, viability and business models. Isro is preparing to test its small-satellite launch vehicle later this year because it wants a share of this fast-growing market.
China is next only to the US in funding of private space ventures. Landscape, China’s answer to SpaceX, raised $172 million in September. Small-satellite launch vehicles have become a focus there too, and China can offer similar price points to India. But US restrictions on using Chinese rockets may be an advantage to Indian startups.