Escaping our atmosphere into the outer space has always been the privilege of a few. Research institutes like National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), European Space Agency (ESA), Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and others have been in the realm of space exploration for a very long time. In India, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the state-owned organization, was seen as the lone player in the space race. However, thanks to the recent success of private players like SpaceX and Blue Origin in the US, the perception that private organizations and individuals cannot participate in this very expensive race, is quickly changing. In fact, space tourism is now a rage.
In India, Bangalore, famously called the ‘start-up hub’, boasts many start-ups in the areas of space exploration and space transportation. Earth2Orbit claims to be the first such start-up to provide launch advisory and consulting services. Team Indus secured a funding of 1 million USD at the first leg of Google Lunar XPRIZE -- a competition that invites ideas to land a robot on the Moon. Other start-ups like Astrome and Dhruva Space are in the fray too, marking the entrance of private players in space exploration. Among these new crop of start-ups is an award winning start-up called Bellatrix Aerospace that builds new age satellite propulsion systems and launch vehicles.
“The scope for private players in India in the area of space research is blooming right now. Around 10 years ago, it would have been very difficult since the ecosystem wasn’t very mature. Although ISRO has been making efforts towards hand holding private players, the stage was very difficult one to get on. But now, the ecosystem has changed”, remarks Mr. Yashas Karanam, Director and Chief Operating Officer at Bellatrix Aerospace. This changing ecosystem has encouraged organizations like Bellatrix Aerospace to be ambitious with their goals.
Thrusting higher with MET
The company has patented an electric propulsion system that promises to reduce the cost of satellite missions in the future. Satellites have two types of propulsion systems. The primary propulsion helps the satellite reach its destination once it leaves the rocket, while the secondary propulsion helps it maintain its position and make minor corrections to its orientation. Smaller thrusters attached to the satellite control these two propulsion systems.
“Dominantly, there are two kinds of electrical thrusters that have been traditionally researched and used -- the gridded ion thruster and the Hall Effect thruster”, says Mr. Rohan M Ganapathy, CEO and Director of Bellatrix Aerospace. With funding from JSW Steel and support from Hindustan College of Engineering and Technology, Coimbatore, Bellatrix Aerospace went a different way for their thruster. “We have been working on a different kind of thruster called the Microwave Electro-thermal Thruster (MET), which is much more efficient than other chemical thrusters”, explains Mr. Ganapathy about their novel satellite propulsion design. “The thrust generated with electric thrusters is very low, as little as pulling two sheets of paper. But since there is no friction in space, this is enough to move the satellite”, he adds.
In addition, the newly built thruster is designed to be a zero erosion thruster, enabling a longer lifespan. “The thrust generated by the thruster for each kilowatt of input power is much higher than other electrical thrusters”, remarks Mr. Ganapathy. For this innovative satellite propulsion design, Bellatrix Aerospace was recently awarded the prestigious Technology Development Board National Award – 2017 presented by the President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee.
Apart from the MET, the team is also working on other types of thrusters like the Hall Effect thruster, a nano-thruster for nano satellites and a green monopropellant thruster -- a chemical propulsion system that is environmentally friendly too.
Beating the cost with innovation
Satellites are the backbone of today’s communication arena that involves televisions and mobile phones powered by the Internet. Putting a satellite into orbit, however, is an expensive affair with only a handful of organizations able to afford the costs involved. Though the communication sector is quite mature, not many companies have tried their hand at launching their own satellites. Here is where Bellatrix Aerospace hopes to be the game-changer by introducing economically viable solutions.
But what makes launching a satellite so expensive? It’s the Earth’s gravity. To escape the pull of gravity, we use rockets filled with a fuel, which when lit, launches into space carrying its payload, much like an enormous firework. But unlike a firework, literal ‘rocket science’ is needed to carry the payload safely beyond our atmosphere. In India, currently ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) are the only options to carry satellites into either low-earth orbit or a geostationary orbit.
“When you launch a satellite, you need to pay for every kilogram. ISRO and SpaceX offers one of the lowest prices for a launch, but even that is very expensive”, reasons Mr. Karanam. “So, generally, one needs to wait until a launch vehicle is completely full or look for a smaller rocket, if one wants to put a satellite in space”, he reasons.
Bellatrix Aerospace is looking to provide an economical alternative by developing its own fleet of launch vehicles. Named ‘Chetak’, the two-staged, reusable rocket can launch smaller satellites up to low-earth orbit at a fraction of the cost.
The way forward
The space race is gaining momentum all over the globe since the last decade, which has seen commendable success of new players like SpaceX. India recently cheered the successful launch of 104 satellites by ISRO with all the fervor usually reserved for cricket matches! Now, the public is more enthusiastic and informed about the technology and missions to space. Bellatrix Aerospace is one of the many players looking to capitalize on this increased awareness to strengthen the goals of the organization and move forward. Currently, Bellatrix Aerospace has moved part of their operations to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), where they have been incubated since 2017. “IISc is helping a lot. We are getting support in terms of using lab facilities and support of faculty, apart from the mentorship gained by being incubated here”, remarks Mr.Karanam.
But how does the local ecosystem support this goal? “Initiatives like ‘Make in India’ and ‘Start-up India’ encourage foreign companies to set up their manufacturing units in the country, which also bring in new skills and knowledge. ISRO also has been very supportive of the new breed of space-based start-ups”, says an optimistic Mr. Karanam talking about the current ecosystem. The fact that Bellatrix Aerospace was one of the first private start-ups to have been given an order by ISRO for further development of the MET technology stands out as a testimony to the new found optimism.