How Different start-ups changed the space industry into profitable private ventures
The words ‘Anirban’ and ‘Chetak’ may not ring a bell in most minds today, but they will shortly. They are small rockets that will be produced and launched by Indian start-ups.
Compared with the GSLV Mk-III, the fat-boy that will be used in the Chandrayaan-2 mission, the Anirbaan and Chetak are dwarfs—less than half as tall—but are just apposite for an emerging market for launching small satellites.
Rockets like these represent the other end of the spectrum, the more familiar end being that of giant rockets, such as the Falcon Heavy or Delta Heavy that stand 70 metres tall and can lift 28 tonnes to low earth orbits. While these dominate the news headlines, a crop of small rockets is coming up globally to cater to the lower but lucrative end of the market.
In India, Anirban, designed by a Chennai-based, IIT-M-incubated start-up called Agnico Cosmos and Chetak, being readied by a Bengaluru-based start-up called Bellatrix Aerospace, shine a light on an emerging trend—a wave of space start-ups. Not everybody makes rockets, though—the space business offers a lot of room for activities such as making satellites and communications systems.
Read also: India’s space start-ups ignite investor interest
Notably, up till now, a play in space has been big boys’ business. The Indian industry has partnered ISRO from the beginning, making several critical components. G K Pillai, Managing Director of Sacandaga Industries, notes that every single rocket launched by ISRO since 1976 has had something made by his company, which, incidentally, will be supplying booster motors for the two strap-on rockets (“S-200”) for the GSLV Mk-III that is to be launched on Monday. L&T and Godrej Aerospace have immensely contributed to various missions; the latter makes the Vikas engines that are used in both PSLV and GSLV rockets of ISRO.
The reason it was a big boys’ game was the belief that only the big had the technical savvy to make mission-critical components. Pillai notes that unlike in the other industries, where a defective component could always be replaced, in the space business it would bring down the entire mission, often disastrously.
But now, things are changing and start-up is proving that they are no less, if not better, in technology. The Anirban rocket, for instance, is to be produced by a 3D printer; Bellatrix also makes electric propulsion systems for satellites, which are more efficacious than the liquid propulsion systems currently in use. (Propulsion systems on satellites are remote-controlled ‘thrusters’ that are used to nudge the satellite into a different orbit by changing the direction of its motion, like a rudder in a boat.)
Another Bengaluru-based start-up called Astrogate Labs has set itself upon revamping the space-to-ground communications systems, from the current radio and microwave technology to optical. Dhruva Space, headquartered in Hyderabad, offers to make satellites for any application. So does Pixel, set up by two 20-year-old student-entrepreneurs Awabis Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal, which wants to 3D prints nanosatellites. There is a big demand. Again, start-ups are mushrooming for providing data on weather, crop growth patterns, vehicle movement, fish migration etc., all of these can use satellites.
Team Indus, also Bengaluru-based, now famous for getting into the final short-list in a Google’s Lunar X Prize, a competition for designing a lunar rover (which ended in 2018 without a winner), is part of a consortium that has a NASA contract for building a moon lander.
Thus, technological might of Indian start-up seems to be a given. Funding doesn’t seem to be a problem either, because these companies have been securing funding. Bellatrix recently raised $ 3 million from a group of venture capitalists; Agni Kul and Astrogate have received money from Special Invest, a seed-stage venture capital firm.
Also read: Bellatrix Aerospace raises $3 million in pre-Series A round
In the last 2-3 years, some 15-20 start-ups have sprung up in India. The question is, what triggered the wave?
Vishesh Rajaram, Managing Partner at Special Invest reasons that earlier the leitmotif of satellite launch business used to be lowering of cost-per-kg of launch. This generally meant gadget-packed, heavy satellites taken up by big rockets.
However, with computational power going up, satellites could get smaller. So, if you had a small satellite that you wanted to be sent up, you’d have to wait until a launcher could spare you some space. There has developed a big market for small satellites, weighing between 50kg and 500kg. Customers were getting okay with paying a premium for quick service. A new industry for providing launch services has emerged.
The government has been helpful. All these start-ups have had a helping hand from ISRO, which sees these new companies as complementary to itself, completion of the ecosystem.
In March, the Cabinet cleared the setting up of a government-owned company, NewSpace India Ltd, meant to facilitate the transfer of ISRO’s technologies to private industries and also help in marketing space-based technologies. ISRO has a tradition of transferring technologies. In August 2018, the Parliament was informed that ISRO had thus far transferred 340 technologies to private companies. NSIL will obtain a license from ISRO and sub-license it to other entities. The technology transfer is to be done through ISRO’s ‘small satellite launch vehicle’ programme.
ISRO’s Chairman, Dr K Sivan, has said that private companies could start mass production of small satellites and launchers and ISRO would then let them use its launch pads, for a fee. He has said he expects 2-3 small rockets a month.
It is not clear whether the Space Activities Bill, 2017, first needs to become an Act for private rocket launches, but the legislation will certainly help because it would put a legal framework in place, touching upon safety and supervision, sharing of liability burden and licensing and authorisation procedures.
Space is opening up for Indian start-ups.
With the COVID-19 situation occurring worldwide, many are focusing on keeping locked down and safe inside. The last thing you may think of is anything around travelling, especially specifically, space travel.
However, for the last few years, space tech has made huge advancements.
From sending 3D printers to the International Space Station to more innovative approaches to satellite communication, we’ve made advancements into space tech more than ever before.
Arguably leading this charge has been the involvement of venture capital funds within the industry.
SpaceX is an example of a company that proved (although Elon did a lot his own money initially) you don’t need to be NASA or a government space body to not only successfully commercialize space aircraft but make them reusable through external funding.
This has raised awareness for many newer space tech start-ups’, especially increasing their access to capital which otherwise, would have never allowed some of their innovation to ever exist in the first place.
Let’s take a look at some of these start-ups.
Focusing specifically around aerospace manufacturing, Relativity Space is looking to disrupt this industry by creating an entirely new process in building and flying rockets.
This involves creating the world’s largest metal 3D printer to 3D print their rockets and launch satellites into space, as seen in the picture above.
“We’re building the future of human space,” he says. “Everyone is on board with this vision of 3-D printing on Mars.” — Ellis (co-founder of Relativity Space)
Having raised a fresh $140 million for their Series D in 2019 has helped fund and build out their ‘Stargate Factory’, which will be a semi-autonomous production facility to help build out their first rocket, Terran 1 and house their 3D printers.
According to Relativity Space, using their tech, they can help slash the time to develop a rocket from design to launch by up to two years. This means manufacturing can be done in 60 days for vehicles with a payload of 1250 kilograms (around 2755 pounds).
Their ultimate goal is not only launching their first rocket but also the grand plan of actually printing and launching rockets from Mars.
Founded in August 2010, this company focuses on offering commercial lunar transportation and exploration. The goal was to eventually create a pathway for frequent access to the Moon for science, research, and even potentially mining.
The company was also a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize. This prize was focused on awarding a team $30 million to be the first to help land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon and then provide data back to Earth by a deadline (March 31st, 2018).
The competition ultimately resulted in no actual winning competitors, which made Moon Express pivot to focus on joining the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program of NASA.
“The goal of the [NASA program] is to have multiple vendors that the government can turn to get payloads to the lunar surface and that has been what Moon Express has been working toward for quite a few years,” said Dale Ketcham, vice president of government and external relations at Space Florida.
Founded in 2006 in New Zealand by Peter Beck, the company has now since moved its HQ to California. The company focuses on providing reliable and frequent access for companies, students, scientists, and such to get their ideas into space with its launch vehicles such as its ‘Electron Rocket’.
Having done its 11th commercial flight overall, it recently launched its first payload for 2020 earlier this year from New Zealand to orbit. It has also launched 48 satellites to space, focusing on delivering smaller satellites to low Earth orbit.
Rocket Labs claims to become the first private company in the Southern Hemisphere to reach space since its November 2009 launch. Although the payload was not recovered, this was still a momentous achievement.
Kieta is a satellite communication company looking to develop next-generation technology utilizing metamaterial-based satellite antennas.
What are meta-materials?
If you think about old antennas, they were these metal ones that you had to go up and reconfigure yourself, and if the signal wasn’t clear, you would have to move them around physically.
To put it simply, those antennas were designed for radio waves that were cm or meters in length. These materials are now meant to respond to visible light of tiny wavelengths around 400 to 700 manometers (1cm = 10 million nanometre’s), by changing the micro or macrostructure of a single material or multiple ones.
Through this new tech, Kieta is helping develop antennas that can help lock and steer the beam towards the satellite rather than typically reflecting microwaves.
Although all of this is confusing (it took me a while to understand what they were doing!), it’s important to note that Kieta is the first to commercialize meta-material-based products successfully.
This opens up the potential to help create the new generation of lightweight satellite antennas, which can result in a variety of things including cheaper launches and new frequencies.
Accion System is helping redefine in-space propulsion with its flagship product TILE (Tiled Ionic Liquid Electrospray).
Leveraging a non-toxic, ionic liquid propellant and postage stamp-size thrusters (yes, it’s that small), they focus on bringing electric propulsion for small satellites than other options like gas-related systems.
Founded by two MIT engineers, Accion is looking to do many launches in 2020 and 2021 has just raised their Series B in Feb this year.
Accion was recently one of fourteen companies selected by NASA for its partnerships to work within NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This project is to help replace the cold gas propulsion system with the more efficient electrospray system that Accion Systems is known for.
Having received $3.9 million for this project, the launch is anticipated to be in 2021.