Escaping our atmosphere and going into outer space has always been the privilege of a few. For a very long time, the realm of space exploration was limited to government research institutes like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and others.
In India, until recently, the state-owned Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) was the lone player in the space race. However, with the recent success of private players like SpaceX and Blue Origin in the US, the perception that private organisations and individuals cannot participate in this expensive race is quickly changing.
Space business and space tourism are now a rage. In Bengaluru, India’s “startup hub”, many new companies are coming up in the areas of space exploration and transportation. Among this new crop of startups is Bellatrix Aerospace, which is building new-age satellite propulsion systems and launch vehicles. It has patented an electric propulsion system — the Microwave Electro-thermal Thruster (MET) — which it claims is more efficient than traditional chemical thrusters as it provides a higher ‘mileage’ and lasts longer.
Bellatrix Aerospace has patented an electric propulsion system — the Microwave Electro-thermal Thruster — which it claims is more efficient than traditional electrical thrusters as it provides a higher ‘mileage’ and lasts longer
The scope for private players in India in the area of space research is booming right now, says Yashas Karanam, director and chief operating officer at Bellatrix. “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 a very difficult one to get on. But now, the ecosystem has changed,” he says.
This changing ecosystem has encouraged many private players like Bellatrix to venture into space exploration. There’s Earth2Orbit, which claims to be the first startup to provide launch advisory and consulting services. Team Indus, another startup, secured a funding of $1 million in the first leg of Google Lunar XPRIZE — a competition that invites ideas to land a robot on the moon. Others like Astrome and Dhruva Space are in the fray too. All of them are based in Bengaluru.
Thrusting higher with the MET
Satellites usually have two types of propulsion systems: primary propulsion, which helps the satellite reach its destination once it leaves the rocket, and secondary propulsion, which helps it maintain its position and make minor corrections to its orientation. These propulsions are achieved using thrusters — chemical or electrical propulsive devices that enable satellites to manoeuver in space. Small thrusters attached to the satellite control these two propulsion systems.
“Predominantly, there are two kinds of electrical thrusters that have been traditionally researched and used — the gridded ion thruster and the Hall Effect thruster,” says Ganapathy.
Bellatrix has gone a different way with its 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 electrical thrusters,” explains Ganapathy, about the novel satellite propulsion design. “The thrust generated by 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, MET is designed to be a zero-erosion thruster, which gives it a longer lifespan. “Electric thrusters are usually prone to erosion. Every time they are fired, a small portion of the metal gets eroded. Our thruster does not erode, allowing it to last longer,” says Ganapathy.
The company has received funding from JSW Steel and support from the Hindustan College of Engineering and Technology, Coimbatore, to develop the MET. For its innovative satellite propulsion design, it was also awarded the prestigious Technology Development Board National Award, 2017, presented by President 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.
Bringing down sky-high costs
Satellites are the backbone of modern communication that involves televisions and mobile phones powered by the internet. Putting a satellite into orbit, however, is an expensive affair and only a handful of organisations are able to afford them. Because of prohibitive costs, not many companies have tried launching their own satellites.
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 a low-earth orbit or a geostationary orbit.
“When you launch a satellite, you need to pay per kilogram. Isro offers one of the lowest prices for a launch, but even that stands at around Rs 33 lakh per kg of payload, which is very expensive” — Yashas Karanam, director and COO, Bellatrix Aerospace
“When you launch a satellite, you need to pay per kilogram, and it is very expensive. 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,” says Karanam.
Bellatrix Aerospace hopes to be a game-changer in this space by introducing economically viable solutions. The company says its patented electric propulsion system will bring down the cost of satellite missions significantly.
”The main advantage in electric propulsion is that it requires only around 200-250kg of fuel, as opposed to the two tonnes required for a chemical propulsion system. This reduces the total weight of the payload significantly, which means you can have more transponders on your satellites, making them more efficient, or have more satellites per launch,” reasons Ganapathy.
The thrust generated by the MET thruster for each kilowatt of input power is also much higher than other electrical thrusters. Through a combination of reduced weight, efficient thrusters and longer lifespan, Bellatrix aims to achieve a significant reduction to the cost of each satellite launch.
Bellatrix is also developing its own fleet of launch vehicles. Named Chetak, its two-staged, reusable rocket can launch smaller satellites into the low-earth orbit at a fraction of the cost charged by conventional launch service providers.
Bellatrix is also developing its own fleet of launch vehicles. Named Chetak, its two-staged, reusable rocket can launch smaller satellites into the low-earth orbit at a fraction of the cost charged by Isro.
But what makes launching a satellite so expensive? It’s the earth’s gravity. To counteract the pull of gravity, rockets are filled with a fuel which, when lit, launches them into space along with their payload, much like an enormous firework. But unlike a firework, literal ‘rocket science’ is required to carry the payload safely beyond our atmosphere.
An ecosystem boost
The space race has been gaining momentum across the world over the last 10 years. India recently cheered the successful launch of 104 satellites by Isro with the fervor usually reserved for cricket matches! Now, the public is more enthusiastic and informed about space missions and the technology powering them.
Bellatrix is one of the many players looking to capitalise on this increased awareness.
Currently, the company has moved part of its operations to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, where it has been incubated since 2017. “The 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,” says Karanam.
“Initiatives like ‘Make in India’ and ‘Startup India’ encourage foreign companies to set up their manufacturing units in the country, which also bring in new skills and knowledge. Isro has also been very supportive of the new breed of space-based startups” – Karanam
But how does the local ecosystem support this goal? “Initiatives like ‘Make in India’ and ‘Startup India’ encourage foreign companies to set up their manufacturing units in the country, which also bring in new skills and knowledge. Isro has also been very supportive of the new breed of space-based startups,” says Karanam, talking about the current ecosystem.
The fact that Bellatrix Aerospace was one of the first private startups to have been given a contract by Isro to further develop the MET technology stands as a testimony to this newfound optimism about space missions.
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Updated on July 7, 2017, at 2 pm with two corrections: The words 'traditional electrical thrusters' were changed to 'traditional chemical thrusters' for accuracy. The words 'charged by ISRO' were changed to 'charged by conventional launch service providers' for accuracy. Updated on July 8, 2017, at 1.50pm to remove a reference to the cost of payload per kilogram.