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SOrTeD launch
Agnikul launched a small suborbital rocket May 30 to test technologies for a future orbital launcher. (credit: Agnikul)

Challenges for India’s emerging commercial launch industry

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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 kerosene/liquid oxygen engine called Agnilet. The flight was successful at that goal. Having said that, the private company did not livestream the launch or 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

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 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 achieving many more milestones. As such, it’s hard to see the company making an orbital attempt in 2025 as claimed.

It’s hard enough being a rocket company out of US soil; an Indian entity only faces even more hurdles.

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 this year. That may be difficult to achieve, but 2025 remains realistic. 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 moved into production 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 cutthroat 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. This is likely for national security reasons but does 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.

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