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Defence Notes

Indian industry fills gaps for small satellites

28th May 2021 - 00:57 GMT | by Neelam Mathews in Delhi


Agnikul Cosmos is building and testing a 3D-printed semi-cryogenic engine called Agnilet. (Agnikul Cosmos)

Microsatellites and nanosatellites hold a lot of promise for military users, and Indian private business hopes to get involved in their launch.

Chennai-based start-up Agnikul Cosmos has taken the lead in building and testing a 3D-printed semi-cryogenic engine – called Agnilet – that can power its Agnibaan rocket carrying a 100kg payload into a lower Earth orbit (LEO) of up to 700km.

Defence forces are likely to adopt this disruptive innovation for remote sensing and communication.

With nanosatellites and microsatellites becoming popular due to their lower cost and faster upgraded replacement, Srinath Ravichandran, co-founder and CEO, said his product will complement the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Small Satellite Launch Vehicle with a payload capacity to deliver 500kg to LEO.

There is a gap that small satellites can help partially fill, as they are imperative to air, ground and naval operations. While the Indian Air Force and Navy have dedicated communication satellites, the army is yet to get one.

According to the Observer Research Foundation think-tank, the three forces would benefit from an inventory of Earth observation and remote sensing satellites based in LEO that they do not have at present.

‘Since transmissions from satellites based in geostationary orbit suffer from very high latency or transmission time, creating a large constellation of small satellites in LEO as a supplementary (if not alternative) space-borne C4ISR capability for the Indian armed forces is an attractive prospect,’ said the ORF report.

Ravichandran said: ‘This is an era when large satellites are getting diluted and a lot more can be done in space with smaller satellites. They could be distributed and together address one problem,’ referring to the fact that if one large satellite launch fails, then the satellite is lost.

‘Besides, small satellites are meant to last for around four years. Given today’s fast-moving technology, it is already in the stone age by its fifth year. It can then be replaced by a newer upgraded satellite.’

The time is mature for the private sector to get involved in space. Agnikul is the first start-up to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the Department of Space under the newly established Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre body.

Ravichandran told Shephard, ‘The most time-consuming part of the rocket is the engine. We have simplified the timeline with zero assembled parts and reduced human errors in manufacturing with just one component.’

The 3D-printed engine was tested in the largest combustion chamber in the world at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai. The rocket’s height is 18m and it will weigh about 13t at lift-off by the end of 2022.

‘For small satellites, especially in the micro- and nano- segments, the market is untapped. Today, small satellites are launched with larger satellites in the same launch vehicles. In some cases, many small satellites are clustered and launched,’ Agnikul Cosmos’s CEO pointed out. An independent launcher gives them exclusivity.

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