Indian Space Progress #16: An unsorted launch market, ISRO’s most powerful rocket, and more

I’m thrilled to welcome PierSight as the latest sponsor of my monthly Indian Space Progress blog+newsletter! 🚀

Ahmedabad-based PierSight Space, which raised $6 million recently and also won the INDUS-X challenge for oil spill detections, aims to build a constellation of synthetic aperture radar satellites for persistent ocean monitoring. 🌏🛰️

Personally, I have learnt much about space and lunar instruments from PierSight CEO and friend Gaurav Seth, and so I’m glad to have his company be part of the organizations supporting my work of independent space writing and journalism.

On the Agnikul launch, and where the company might land

Launch of the SOrTeD demonstrator vehicle on May 30, 2024. Image: Agnikul

After persevering through four scrubbed launch attempts over a month, Chennai-based space startup Agnikul launched its first rocket demonstrator mission called “Suborbital Tech Demonstrator” (SOrTeD) on May 30. Unlike what many national and international media reports have implied though, and which tweets from the company or ISRO don’t actively clarify against, the single-stage SOrTeD vehicle was not intended to reach space. It was not just a suborbital mission but a squarely sub-space one, unlike competitor Skyroot’s 2022-launch of Prarambh, which achieved an apogee of 89.5 kilometers—versus the less than 10 of SOrTeD.

As can be gauged from Sibu Tripathi’s previous report, SOrTeD’s true goal was to demonstrate and learn from a controlled minute-long flight, using a minimal rocket structure powered by the in-house developed 3D-printed semi-cryogenic kerolox engine called Agnilet. The flight was successful at that goal. Having said that, the private company did not livestream the launch nor share even high-level flight parameters. Based on the launch video, which came through unofficial means, the engine burnout seems to have happened about five seconds earlier than expected. Since we don’t know the differences between the achieved and intended trajectory though, including the maximum altitude SOrTeD achieved, it’s hard to gauge discrepancies.

ISRO provided the flight termination system for SOrTeD, which thankfully didn’t need to be activated. ISRO also helped the company with mission reviews, flight tracking, and enabled Agnikul to set up their private launchpad at the Sriharikota spaceport.

The turbulent trajectory ahead

Launch of the second SSLV rocket on February 10, 2023. Image: ISRO

Agnikul will use data from the SOrTeD mission to characterize the performance of their systems and prepare for future launches. The company raised $26.7 million last year to start working towards multiple orbital launch attempts of their customizable Agnibaan small-lift launch vehicle. Agnibaan can loft a maximum of 300 kilograms to a 700-kilometer Earth orbit. While SOrTeD is certainly a positive step for Agnikul, a space-reaching orbital test flight will require hitting or absorbing many more milestones. As such, it’s hard to see the company making an orbital attempt in 2025 as claimed.

Competitor Skyroot is further along in attempting an orbital flight of their small-lift rocket called Vikram-I. The company successfully test fired the rocket’s second stage motor called Kalam-250 in March. The company also recently raised $27.5 million, hoping to launch Vikram-I by end of year. 2025 remains realistic though. Other recent Vikram-I milestones include flight qualifying its Raman-I engine, which will provide roll attitude control, hot firing the Raman-II engine powering Vikram-I’s fourth stage, and the first stage passing pressure testing.

However, the trouble is neither company has announced a confirmed payload customer for their orbital flights, citing only letters of intent and MoUs with potential customers thus far. Furthermore, both Skyroot and Agnikul also need to compete with ISRO’s own SSLV rocket, which not only has had a successful orbital demonstration already but will be productionized via an impending industry handover. As such, my concern is that even after demonstrating successful orbital flights, Indian private rocket companies might find themselves strapped for customers in an already cut-throat market.

It’s hard enough being a rocket company out of US soil; an Indian entity only faces even more hurdles. While the Indian government has opened up approval-less foreign direct investments (FDI) for the country’s private space sector, launch vehicle companies are only allowed to freely seek up to 49% in FDI, likely for national security reasons but which do hamper an Indian rocket startup’s ability to scale. With the nature of the competition laid out above, and without a high launch cadence, it will be an uphill battle for these companies to survive and be profitable this decade—unless they pivot to serving the country’s strategic needs?

Preparing for human spaceflight

ISRO has been doing a comprehensive $240-million upgrade to the second launchpad at Sriharikota in the lead up to indigenously launching astronauts to space mid-decade as part of its Gaganyaan program, U Tejonmayam reports. This includes an egress system and guesthouses for crew. Every major launchpad system will have redundancies, including launch checkout systems.

Relatedly, at part of a recent visit to ISRO by the US Ambassador to India Eric Garcetti, the Indian space agency chief S. Somanath discussed an intent to have future Gaganyaan cargo modules provide supplies to the International Space Station. This builds on the interest previously shown by private US companies to leverage parts of Gaganyaan’s technology stack. Chethan Kumar reported last year that Blue Origin and ISRO are keen on using the Launch Vehicle Mark III (LVM3)—India’s rocket of choice for Gaganyaan—to launch capsules to service Blue’s upcoming commercial space station called Orbital Reef. Voyager Space announced similar intentions last year for its upcoming Starlab commercial space station for which it has partnered with Airbus.

Many thanks to the Takshashila InstitutionKaleidEO, PierSightGurbir Singh and Arun Raghavan for sponsoring this month’s Indian Space Progress report. If you too love my work of trying to capture true trajectories of Indian space, join them!

Ramping up India’s most powerful rocket

Liftoff of the Moonbound Chandrayaan 3 by a LVM3 rocket. Image: ISRO

The LVM3 rocket itself is on an interesting inflection point. Long known as the GSLV Mk III, India’s most powerful rocket has launched seven times so far—all successfully. These flights notably include Chandrayaan 3’s launch last year as well as the complex orbital deployment of two sets of 36 OneWeb satellites, which lent ISRO a small but definitive place in the medium-lift global space launch market.

Now ISRO wants to ramp up LVM3’s production rate from two a year to four, and then six, via a public-private partnership with the Indian industry as formally stated on May 10 in a Request for Qualification from NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), a Department of Space company tasked with commercializing Indian space technologies. Citing “substantial demand for launching communication satellites in GTO and satellites for Mega constellations in LEO”, NSIL and ISRO say they hope for 60 to 65 launches of the LVM3 across a decade. This move is the latest in a broader effort to increase production rates of ISRO’s launch vehicle fleet via industry handovers, starting with the PSLV and then followed by the SSLV.

In parallel, ISRO will upgrade LVM3’s core stage to an indigenously built 2000 KiloNewton semi-cryogenic kerolox engine, replacing the existing two Vikas engines. This will increase the rocket’s GTO capacity from ~4,000 kilograms to ~6,000. ISRO is also testing engine restart capability for LVM3’s upper stage cryogenic engine.

If ISRO is successful at increasing LVM3’s production rate as well as payload capacity within the next few years, such a steady flow of this launch vehicle could finally allow the space agency to equitably serve not just its human spaceflight and commercial launch ambitions but its planetary missions too, which have otherwise been deprioritized like in the case of Chandrayaan 3 and Shukrayaan in favor of hitting commercial or Gaganyaan milestones.

Tangent: ISRO has also been making progress in improving the performance of the PSLV’s fourth stage with an additively manufactured engine and lightweight carbon-carbon composite nozzle coming soon down the line. For the latter, Mukunth makes an interesting related comment: Infinity in 15 kilograms.

More private and commercial updates

  • Following the release of India’s much-awaited new space policy early last year, and the government allowing private Indian space companies to get foreign direct investments (FDI), IN-SPACe released new guidelines and procedures for companies conducting space activities, as an implementation of the new space policy. However, Ashwin Prasad points out how the guidelines bring into question IN-SPACe’s ability to be an effective authorizer while the entity also faces conflicts in its paradoxical role of being both a promoter and regulator of private Indian space activities.
  • Bengaluru- and Cupertino-based SkyServe successfully conducted their first orbital demonstration of smart Earth imaging. In mid-April, the company uplinked their edge computing software stack called STORM on European partner D-Orbit’s satellite, which was launched in 2022 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Within a minute of the satellite photographing a large area in the Egypt-Sinai Peninsula, STORM corrected errors in the imagery, detected and masked clouds and water, identified vegetation, and more, after which it sent back memory-friendly image files to Earth. SkyServe is demonstrating that satellites can do more than what they were envisioned for at launch, and that actionable data can be served faster. The company’s next mission in a series of progressive demonstrations will be on another satellite that’s already in orbit as well. SkyServe has partnered with US-based Loft Orbital to have their YAM-6 satellite—launched aboard a Falcon 9 Transporter on March 4—perform automated tasking and sequencing based on the part of Earth it is observing.

More Indian Space

  • The recent aurora-causing solar flares and coronal mass ejections were observed by ISRO spacecraft too, specifically by the Aditya-L1 solar telescope and the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter—which doesn’t just study the Moon’s surface but observes the Sun too. Notably, ISRO’s post about observing these eruptive solar events mentions measurements by all of Aditya-L1’s instruments except the coronagraph VELC and the ultraviolet imager SUIT, which are facing calibration issues the nature of which ISRO has been frustratingly silent on.
  • The third India Space Congress will take place in New Delhi from June 26-28, with an agenda that spans the whole spectrum of the Indian space technology industry. I will be a speaker on a lunar-related panel, and if you’d like to connect with me for a meeting, get in touch.

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