Bellatrix Aerospac has patented a satellite propulsion thruster that it claims is more efficient than traditional ones and will make space missions cheaper.
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
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.
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
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.
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