At the end of a public event in Mysore, three young engineers walked up to the chief guest AS Kiran Kumar, chairman of Isro. Rohan Ganapathy and his team had built a prototype of a new propulsion system for satellites and wanted to draw the chairman’s attention towards it. Which they did. A few days later, in late 2015, they got a call from the chairman’s office. The guys surely had the talent to be at the right place at the right time. What followed was no less than a Brobdingnagian step, from India’s space agency towards a little-known startup, Bellatrix Aerospace.
The Isro-Bellatrix association was under wraps until we posed this question: “When will a SpaceX-kind of company come out of India?” The question, of course, implied if Isro was willing to be the anchor tenant for new space startups to grow.
“We have given a developmental contract to a very small company for a propulsion technology which we ourselves have not developed,” said Kiran Kumar. That was an astonishing admission from the head of an agency whose quality is so stringent that it even provides nuts, bolts and washers to its component suppliers.
Satellites need a propulsion system for generating small thrusts to keep them in the orbit. Most of them use chemical propulsion, which means carrying loads of fuel into space and burning it on demand whenever an in-orbit manoeuvre is required. A cheaper and efficient option lies in electric propulsion which Ganapathy and colleagues are now jointly developing with Isro. Instead of carrying heavy fuel, the satellite would rely on its solar panels to generate propulsion.
Why Isro agreed to evaluate an ‘outside’ technology and work with Bellatrix isn’t hard to parse. The space industry is moving towards much smaller satellites. Constellations of such satellites will now fly in formation, which would crucially need electric propulsion. Isro has no time to waste. After almost a decade of dithering on large-scale privatisation, it now has a plan. By 2020, the Indian industry will make a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), a one-tonne satellite — standard low-earth orbit spacecraft that Isro launches — and several smaller satellites. A space consortium framework is in place and waiting for the Cabinet approval. The Prime Minister’s Office is “studying” it.
“We are freezing all the mechanism between now and 2020 so that after the first launch of [privately-made] PSLV, the industry quickly ramps up to meet our as well as the market’s demands,” says Kiran Kumar.
The commercial space race in India has just begun.
The exploding opportunity
In 2012-13 when Neha Satak began calling her former professors at the Indian Institute of Science from Texas, she had already founded two space companies in the US but was determined to start one in India. The cost of micro satellites had been falling. The market had opened up due to a surge in university satellites and Satak wanted to make them.