Explained: What ISRO’s latest MoUs with startups mean for India’s private space industry 

Written By: Sidharth MP WION
Chennai  Published: Sep 23, 2021, 03:12 PM(IST)

File photo Photograph:( AFP )

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WION spoke to the heads of Skyroot Aerospace and Agnikul Cosmos, the two space startups that are to be supported by ISRO in their respective activities, based on the MoUs.

In recent weeks, India's Department of Space, under which the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) operates, signed Memoranda of Understanding with India’s Private Rocket Startups. This move sets into motion India’s space sector reforms that were announced in 2020 by Chairman ISRO, Dr. K. Sivan.

Simply put, the reforms would enable private industry and startups to perform space activities such as - rocket-building, satellite-building, owning, operating spacecraft, and providing space and ground-based services.

Given that activities in the space domain are capital intensive and technologically not-so-easy to access, ISRO would be enabling startups to use their own facilities to perform various processes and functions, besides offering mentoring support, that would help the fledgling firms get closer to their orbital launch aspirations. 

WION spoke to the heads of Skyroot Aerospace and Agnikul Cosmos, the two space startups that are to be supported by ISRO in their respective activities, based on the MoUs.

According to Pawan K Chandana, CEO of the Hyderabad-based Skyroot Aerospace, the latest MoU was the second step towards working closely with ISRO, the first one being a Non-Disclosure Agreement with the state-run space agency. "This MoU is focused on the legal and working framework, based on which all testing activity of rocket components and subsystems will take place henceforth. This is a green light to move our hardware to ISRO facilities for testing, "he said. 

Explaining the rationale behind testing at ISRO facilities, he says that some engines require sophisticated, one-of-its-kind testing facilities, which only ISRO can offer in India. Even though the testing and other procedures would be done on a commercial basis, the startups manage to save up on costs as ISRO facilities are provided at a nominal fee. However, testing could take a little longer. Depending on the types of tests required, some specific agreements would also have to be signed with the respective ISRO facilities that are located across the country.

"The specific arrangements would deal with which engine is being tested, what parameters need to be tested and the people involved in testing etc. But once this process is complete, we are looking at testing in a couple of months, " Pawan added. 

For Chennai-based Agnikul Cosmos, their MoU with ISRO involved the testing of all avionics packages and engine systems, besides working on various aspects and sub-domains of rocketry. The CEO, Srinath Ravichandran, expressed hope that testing would commence anytime soon and that the major work involved interface-matching (taking their hardware to ISRO facilities and getting it ready). Queried on the benefits of testing at ISRO, he said, "the experience and expertise gained from testing at ISRO is very crucial. It helps us prepare for launch and we also get to explain our design and technology to ISRO and gain a better understanding". "

In an encouraging sign, both rocket companies have resumed their in-person activities at their respective facilities, after months of disruption and working from home amid the pandemic. While the rocket companies did perform design and other remote functions during their WFH phase, now they are gearing up for rocket testing, as industries have also resumed functions in a full-fledged manner and are supplying components. While Skyroot is hoping for their maiden launch by the third quarter of 2022, Agnikul is targeting their maiden launch by the end of 2022. This would mean that the companies have to perform multiple tests of their rocket stages, propulsion systems, structures, subsystems, etc., and qualify them, before the actual orbital launch. 

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