Splash back: On test flights of private rockets, the prospects

Test flights of private rockets herald prospects more valuable than commercial fortune.

Updated - June 01, 2024 08:32 am IST

Published - June 01, 2024 12:10 am IST

On May 30, a start-up named Agnikul Cosmos successfully conducted the first test flight of its rocket ‘Agnibaan’ in a mission called ‘Suborbital Tech Demonstrator’ (SOrTeD). The flight was Agnikul’s fifth attempt after the first four were called off owing to suboptimal launch conditions. ‘Agnibaan’ is a two-stage, 14-tonne launch vehicle designed to lift small satellites to low-earth orbits. Both stages are powered by bespoke semi-cryogenic engines. The test flight flew a ‘minimal’ version of the rocket with one engine (or stage). Notably, many of the vehicle’s components, including the engines, are 3D-printed, and Agnikul has said it will be able to build one rocket a month. With the test flight, Agnikul took ‘Agnibaan’ on its first steps towards being a full-fledged launch vehicle, which will expand India’s commercial launch services offering in keeping with the expanding market for small satellites and the services they can provide. The roster is currently dominated by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and will soon be joined by the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, both of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). One blip Agnikul will have to address is the subpar communication of the parameters of the test flight. This is one area in which ISRO has not distinguished itself and it is important for new space startups to steer clear of the same mould.

This said, the flights of ‘Agnibaan’ — and Skyroot’s ‘Vikram’ in 2022 — herald two prospects more valuable than commercial fortune. ISRO and/or scientists trained there have shared technical know-how and provided physical systems for many private missions, which these startups are now testing, cutting short the time and expenses required. Likewise, these startups are poised now to light the way for ISRO and others, potentially accelerating innovation in the sector. For example, ISRO has been testing a semi-cryogenic engine of its own that could draw from lessons learnt at Agnikul. The government must ensure that the corresponding bureaucratic and legal frameworks encourage the free flow of knowledge. Second, in April, ISRO said it had developed engine nozzles made of a carbon-carbon composite to replace the Columbium alloy nozzles on the PSLV’s fourth stage. The switch increased PSLV’s payload capacity by 15 kg — a significant amount for an already technologically mature launch vehicle, made possible by education and research opportunities that allowed know-how accrued in some sectors to disperse in others. This privilege is currently most pronounced in India’s spacefaring enterprise. As more innovation enters the fray, it is hoped that the resulting solutions and insights will benefit everything, from aerospace to zoology.

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