Down To Earth catches up with Pawan Kr Chandana, co-founder of Skyroot Aerospace, whose Vikram-S became the first privately made rocket to launch in the country
Vikram series satellites are named after Vikram Sarabhai, founder of the Indian space programme. Photo: Skyroot.in
On November 18, 2022, Hyderabad-based Skyroot Aerospace scripted history by becoming the first private Indian organisation to launch a rocket from Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s launchpad in Sriharikota.
Down To Earth catches up with Pawan Kr Chandana, co-founder of Skyroot Aerospace, to learn more about their technology, collaboration with ISRO and other private players, challenges in the Indian space sector and how they plan to compete with international players, including SpaceX.
Rohini Krishnamurthy: Vikram-S is a part of Mission Prarambh. What do you plan to achieve with it?
Pawan Kr Chandana: ‘Prarambh’ is a Sanskrit word, which means the beginning. So we wanted to call this mission the beginning of a new era or dawn in India’s space industry.
Vikram-S was our first launch. It is a sub-orbital rocket, which reached outer space and then splashed into the sea. Our next launch will be Vikram-1, an orbital vehicle that puts satellites into orbit. We plan to launch Vikram-1 a year from now.
We also have orbital vehicles Vikram-2 and 3 in the pipeline. All of them are 80 per cent the same, but Vikram-2 will have a higher capacity than Vikram-1.
RK: Could you briefly walk us through the stages between lift-off and splashdown of Vikram-S?
PKC: It all starts with a lift-off at T0. The rocket is ignited and it takes 100 milliseconds for the entire plume to come out.
Read more: Destination moon: Half a century
After lift-off, there are four spin thrusters, which will generate the rocket’s spin. This gives stability so that it doesn’t deviate much from the trajectory. It experiences Max-Q during the lift-off, which is the maximum stress on the rocket. Many rockets get broken at this point that is 15 seconds down the flight.
At around 23 seconds, the rocket motor or the engine burns out. During this time, it just lofts to space and achieves five times the speed of sound or Mach 5.
It descends after reaching the maximum point called ‘Apogee’ and then it falls back and splashes down into the sea. So, it takes around two and a half minutes to reach the Apogee and another two and a half minutes to splash down.
RK: Can you speak about the technology and how you’re keeping it so keeping it low-cost?
PKC: We have two mandates. One is cutting-edge innovation and the other is to keep it very cost-effective. Vikram-S is a symbol of both: It uses advanced technologies like carbon composites and 3D printing.
Traditionally, metals such as steel and aluminium are used to build the structure of rockets. When we started, we wanted to use carbon composites, a porous structure made of carbon and carbon fibre and four times lighter than steel. It also has higher strength than steel. The lighter the rocket, the more payload we can use.
The biggest advantage of 3D printing is that it reduces the cycle time by 90 per cent compared with traditional methods. Cycle time is the time required to manufacture a component. Using this technology, you can build any complex shapes.
Three things come into play to keep the rocket cost-effective. The first thing is the technology — we make the rocket more efficient. This means lowering the cost of putting a kilogram of payload by using carbon composites and 3D printing.
And number two is utilising the existing infrastructure of the government. We are not building anything new but are using what already exists in the country. So we are not burning cash on that ground.
And number three is the cost efficiency of operating out of India. For example, the space sector gets a similar advantage as the Information Technology industry.
RK: Have you started bookings for Vikram-1 and do you plan to serve the international market as well? Do you see yourself competing with Elon Musk sometime in the future?
PKC: We have two customers who have already signed up with us for Vikram-1 and will be flying on our first maiden launch. There are a few more slots left. We hope to close them a few months before launch.
Read more: What’s the mysterious light up above? A supermassive black hole ripping a star apart
Vikram-1 has a capacity of up to 300 kilograms. We plan to only use 50 per cent of its capacity as payloads as it’s our maiden orbital vehicle launch.
We’re building the product for the international market mainly. However, we also want to be a significant player in the Indian ecosystem as it grows. In the future, every space launch has to compete with each other. And so we’ll also be competing with all the space launch companies, including SpaceX.
RK: You work closely with a few private companies. What are some of the collaborations you have forged?
PKC: We have partnered with several space start-ups, such as Bellatrix Aerospace, Dhruva Space Private Limited and Manastu Space. We’re trying to partner with almost every company that wants to launch satellites into space.
For example, Bellatrix Aerospace is building orbital transfer vehicles. So our job at Skyroot is to take any payload or satellite from earth to space and Bellatrix is working on in-space transportation, which is moving a satellite to the required destination. It’s like a last-mile delivery within space.
We will launch their orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) into space. And then, from there, they will put satellites in their best-end locations as last-mile delivery.
RK: You have also partnered with ISRO. Do you plan to serve and enter into similar partnerships with ISRO?
PKC: We have a different kind of partnership with ISRO. We utilise their test facilities, launch facilities, and, whenever required, some technical expertise. We built Vikram-S, but ISRO provided the launch pad and the range systems for tracking the rocket.
It is too early to say anything about serving ISRO. The space agency has its own set of launch vehicles which can meet its requirements. They have a self-sufficient ecosystem.
However, in future, it depends on how the government wants to utilise the private sector to launch its payloads. It’s too early to say, but it could be possible.
RK: Rocket launches come with a hefty carbon footprint. How do you plan to make them more sustainable?
PKC: We understand that the fuel we use is not green and want to make the shift. There are two ways of doing it, the first being using a green propellant. Vikram-S used solid fuel-ammonium perchlorate, which is not a completely green fuel.
With Vikram-2, we plan to use liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is greener compared with traditional kerosene fuel. We want to demonstrate the technology, build the capability and slowly shift towards LNG fuel as we go further with future vehicles.
Read more: Artemis: Why it may be the last mission for NASA astronauts
The other way to achieve sustainability is reusability. That means we don’t throw away the rockets in the sea and land them for reuse instead. We are a few years away from it, but begun the process as we want to see the change in five years.
RK: Does India have enough skillset to support the private space sector? How difficult has it been to secure funding?
PKC: Both talent and capital are our biggest challenges. We raised almost $68 million, which was never seen in the Indian space sector before. Raising that kind of capital was difficult because no private vehicle had been launched before.
We had to meet many investors, convince them and give them faith that it’s a sustainable business.
As for talent, most of it is within the government. We have had many very experienced retired ISRO scientists with us to fill the talent gap.
We have also hired freshers with the proper fundamentals and trained them in rocket technology in the first few months. We also hired talent from allied organisations or other industries such as aircraft or other aerospace industries.
We believe this first rocket launch from India to space will inspire many youngsters to join the space sector and ISRO will not be the only avenue. Companies like Skyroot are also coming up, which can provide more opportunities.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.