Spacetech startup Bellatrix Aerospace successfully tests India’s first privately built Hall Thruster
Spacetech startup Bellatrix Aerospace’s Hall Thruster is a highly efficient electric propulsion system that’s ideal for microsatellites weighing 50kg to 500kg and can be scaled up for heavier satellites. Bellatrix is working towards flying this thruster on a satellite mission in the coming months.
In a first in India, spacetech startup Bellatrix Aerospace has successfully tested the country’s first privately built Hall Thruster, a highly efficient electric propulsion system that’s ideal for micro-satellites weighing 50-500 kg and can be scaled up for heavier satellites.
Bellatrix is working towards flying this thruster on a satellite mission in the coming months, which it expects will open the space transportation company’s gateway to the commercial market by the end of this year, the startup said, adding that this thruster also forms a critical technology for the space taxi that it is developing.
“With this addition to our portfolio, we are in a position to offer best-in-class electric propulsion systems. We have designed this thruster with numerous considerations that make it an ideal engine to power the major satellite constellations that will be launched during this decade. Our Microwave Plasma Thrusters offer the highest thrust-to-power ratio for heavier satellites”, says Bellatrix CEO and CTO Rohan M Ganapthy.
The startup had earlier developed the world’s first commercial Microwave Plasma Thruster, which used water as fuel and for which it had bagged an order from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)..
Compared to conventional chemical propulsion technologies, electric propulsion systems offer much higher specific impulse, or mileage, thus allowing satellites to carry more useful transponders and achieve 3X higher return on investment. Initially developed in Russia, the hall thruster technology is, today, the most reliable and time tested electric propulsion system in the market.
“Heaterless cathode technology is the key innovation that sets us apart from the competition by increasing the life and redundancy of the system. We are also the first in the country to have designed it to operate efficiently at very low current levels. The entire team of scientists and advisors at our Electric Propulsion System Division (EPSD) have put in relentless efforts to prove this can be independently done in India by a private company from scratch,” Rohan adds.
Bellatrix, which has been working on this technology in stealth mode for the past four years, said tests for its new thruster, which uses Xenon as fuel, were carried out at its Spacecraft Propulsion Research Laboratory at the Society for Innovation and Development (SID) at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.
The startup is working on other proprietary propellants that can make the propulsion system more compact and cost-efficient, it said.
Rajesh Natarajan, a senior scientist at the spacetech starup’s EPSD division, says “The major challenge around Hall Thrusters comes with the complex plasma physics and precise engineering involved in taming the plasma behaviour. The plasma must be isolated from the walls of the thruster; hence, the smaller the thruster, the more complex it gets. The way to achieve this is less known. We have succeeded in developing the smallest Hall Thruster in the country.”
Founded in 2015, Bengaluru-based Bellatrix is an IP-driven spacetech startup providing full-suite solution for spacecraft propulsion systems. Earlier in the year, Bellatrix had announced collaborations with other spacetech startups such as Skyroot Aerospace, SatSure, and Dhruva Space on its ambitious orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) mission.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX to launch Dogecoin-funded DOGE-1 satellite to the Moon
Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX has announced that it will launch “DOGE-1 Mission to the Moon” in the first quarter of next year.
Dogecoin, which started as a joke and then became a high-yield cryptocurrency thanks to Elon Musk, is now going to the Moon — literally.
SpaceX has announced that it will launch “DOGE-1 Mission to the Moon” in the first quarter of next year. The entrepreneur tweeted that the company’s new satellite will be called Doge-1, and that the mission will be funded by Dogecoin.
“SpaceX launching satellite Doge-1 to the moon next year. Mission paid for in Doge. 1st crypto in space. 1st meme in space. To the mooooonnn!!” Musk wrote in a tweet
Geometric Energy Corporation further shared that ‘DOGE-1 Mission to the Moon’ is the first-ever commercial lunar payload in history paid entirely with DOGE. Geometric Space Corporation (GSC) will collaborate with SpaceX to launch a 40kg CubeSat as a rideshare on a Falcon 9 lunar payload mission in Q1 2022.
The payload will obtain lunar-spatial intelligence from sensors and cameras on board with integrated communications and computational systems.
“Having officially transacted with DOGE for a deal of this magnitude, Geometric Energy Corporation and SpaceX have solidified DOGE as a unit of account for lunar business in the space sector,” said Geometric Energy’s CEO Samuel Reid.
SpaceX Vice President of Commercial Sales Tom Ochinero added that the mission will demonstrate the application of cryptocurrency beyond Earth orbit and set the foundation for interplanetary commerce.
The statement added that DOGE has proven to be a “fast, reliable, and cryptographically secure digital currency that operates when traditional banks cannot” and is “sophisticated enough to finance a commercial Moon mission in full”.
“It has been chosen as the unit of account for all lunar business between SpaceX and Geometric Energy Corporation and sets precedent for future missions to the Moon and Mars,” it added
POINTBLANK LLC, Mimir Solutions, and Iteration Syndicate (ITS) will collaborate with Geometric on software and hardware design for the mission.
The announcement came on Monday after Dogecoin showed high volatility over the weekend. The crypto has given almost 10,000 percent returns in the month of May and recovered late Sunday evening after a dramatic fall on Saturday.
Founded in 2013 by software engineers Billy Markus and Jackson Palmer, Dogecoin is an open-source peer-to-peer cryptocurrency.
Key requirements of the Indian spacetech sector to become the next space hub
Until last year, India’s spacetech efforts were headed by national space agency, ISRO. But in 2020, the sector saw a major transformation with new spacetech norms, which opened up the sector for private players.
India’s spacetech sector has come a long way. Headed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which was launched by Dr Vikram Sarabhai on August 15, 1969, ISRO has been at the forefront of driving the space sector till now.
With the demand for space-based applications and services growing in the country, the government decided to open the sector to private players in 2020. The unlocking of the spacetech sector has thus opened up a plethora of opportunities for the private sector, including startups, MSMEs, and academia, among others.
According to a report by PwC, the Indian space economy is valued at $7 billion, and forms two percent of the global space economy. The opening up of the spacetech sector may propel India to grow further and expand its share in the global space market.
However, in order to achieve the goal, the spacetech sector needs ecosystem support. YourStory brings to you a curated list of current needs and requirements in the Indian spacetech sector.
Stakeholders unanimously agree that the Indian spacetech sector needs funding support from the ecosystem. The private investment sector might be wary of investing in spacetech because it is high risk and also needs high investment for innovation.
Ramesh Kumar V, Co-founder of Grahaa Space, tells YourStory: “Access to funding has been a challenge for spacetech startups because it is a high risk business. For example, if a player loses its satellite, then it is gone. There is no tool to go and repair it in the space.”
He explains that investors might also be a little wary because the return on investment might not happen immediately. “Spacetech is rocket science. Space technology is complex and inventions take time. Maybe due to this, investors think a lot before making bets,” he adds.
Last year, during an industry event, Vishesh Rajaram, Managing Partner at Bengaluru-based VC firm Speciale Incept Advisors, said that investing in spacetech startups needs patience as one could not expect startups to complete innovations in a short amount of time.
With the opening up of the spacetech sector to private players, the need of the hour is to come up with transparent policies to drive the public-private partnership.
Awais Ahmed, Co-founder and CEO of Pixxel, says, the spacetech segment needs a policy in place and the government has been working on it since the last year.
According to ISRO, the draft space activity is in its final stage and will be soon submitted before the Union Cabinet for approval.
Apart from this, SATCOM and remote sensing policy are under revision while a new navigation policy is being formulated.
Awais explains that the government also needs to play an important role in helping players get access to capital through grants and sovereign funds, among others.
Last year, Sunil Mittal, Chairman, Bharti Enterprises, said, “It is required to have a light touch and unambiguous policies to facilitate private sectors participation in the space sector, and it should also protect the security and strategic interest of the country.”
Opening up the spacetech sector is not only beneficial for private businesses but also for academia as they can also contribute to space missions. In order to further develop the spacetech sector, there is an urgent need for increasing awareness about the sector among students.
In February, the PSLV C-51 carried four student-made satellites where three were developed jointly by Jeppiaar Institute of Technology, Sriperumbudur; GH Raisoni College of Engineering, Nagpur; and Sri Shakti Institute of Engineering and Technology, Coimbatore; while the other one was made by Space Kidz India.Opening up the spacetech sector is not only beneficial for private businesses but also for academia as they can also contribute to space missions. In order to further develop the spacetech sector, there is an urgent need for increasing awareness about the sector among students.
In February, the PSLV C-51 carried four student-made satellites where three were developed jointly by Jeppiaar Institute of Technology, Sriperumbudur; GH Raisoni College of Engineering, Nagpur; and Sri Shakti Institute of Engineering and Technology, Coimbatore; while the other one was made by Space Kidz India.
Apart from this, edtech startups are also coming forward to build required skills in students. In March, edtech startup WhiteHat Jr joined hands with satellite company EnduroSat to offer applied science opportunities for students.
As a part of this partnership, they will train and enable WhiteHat Jr students to send commands and also access data from an operational satellite.
In order to encourage students to take interest in this field, Amity University has also launched an Earth and space exploration training programme called Mars Amity Research Station.
Increased awareness among students and academic participation has the potential to further strengthen the public-private partnership in the spacetech sector.
Collaboration and partnership between ISRO, private players, and international players are one of the main reasons behind the opening up of the space sector.
Last year, during the announcement of the spacetech reforms, the government explained that private players and ISRO need to be co-travellers for space exploration.
As part of the new reforms, private players will be allowed to carry out end-to-end activities such as providing space-based services, designing satellites, and launch vehicles using a suitable enabling mechanism, thereby enabling ISRO to focus on advanced researches.
Recently, for India’s maiden mission, Gaganyaan, ISRO collaborated with Russia’s ROSCOMOS and France’s CNES.
India is also seeing spacetech startups such as Pixxel, Agnikul Cosmos, and academic institutions such as Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology, Nagpur; Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology, Bhopal; and National Institute of Technology, Rourkela; among others, enter into partnership with ISRO for collaborative space efforts.
In 2020, several space missions got delayed due to the COVID-19 breakout.
However, Yashash Karanam, Co-founder of Bellatrix Aerospace, believes the Indian spacetech sector might see at least five unicorns in the next five years.
“Till date, hundreds of small satellites have being launched from India every year, but going forward, after the opening up of the spacetech sector, thousands of satellites may be launched every year,” he says.
The government, ISRO, and private players have indeed come together to further develop India’s space efforts. With the availability of adequate resources such as funding, policy support, and an increasing number of space businesses, India has the potential to place itself as one of the leaders in the global space market.
India, France sign agreement for cooperation on Gaganyaan mission
As a part of this agreement, equipment developed by France space agency, CNES, and aboard the International Space Station (ISS) will be made available to Indian astronauts of Gaganyaan mission
Space agencies of India and France on Thursday signed an agreement for cooperation for the former’s first human space mission, Gaganyaan, a move that will enable Indian flight physicians to train at French facilities.
French space agency CNES said under the agreement, equipment developed by it, tested and still operating aboard the International Space Station (ISS) will be made available to Indian crews.
The CNES will also be supplying fireproof carry bags made in France to shield equipment from shocks and radiation, it said.
“Under the terms of the agreement, CNES will train India’s flight physicians and CAPCOM mission control teams in France at the CADMOS centre for the development of microgravity applications and space operations at CNES in Toulouse and at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany,” the CNES said.
The training of astronauts is a critical aspect of the human space mission project. Flight physicians or surgeons are responsible for astronaut’s health before, during and after the flight. Currently, all space physicians are from the Indian Air Force.
France has a well-established mechanism for space medicine. It also has the MEDES space clinic, a subsidiary of CNES, where space surgeons undergo training.
The agreement provides for CNES to support the implementation of a scientific experiment plan on validation missions, exchange information on food packaging and the nutrition programme, and above all, the use of French equipment, consumables and medical instruments by Indian astronauts.
“This cooperation could be extended in the future to parabolic flights operated by Novespace to test instruments and for astronaut training, as well as technical support for the construction of an astronaut training centre in Bangalore,” the CNES said.
The Gaganyaan orbital spacecraft project was kicked off in August 2018. It originally intended to send astronauts from India to mark the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence in 2022.
However, the mission has been delayed due to the restrictions imposed in view of the coronavirus pandemic.
ISRO is targeting the first unmanned mission under the Gaganyaan project in December. This launch was to take place in December last year. This mission will be followed by another unmanned mission. The third leg is the main module.
France and India share robust ties in the area of space cooperation. The first space agreement between France and India dates back to 1964. Existing partnerships between the two nations cover almost all areas of space activity. ISRO will also be launching the joint Oceansat 3-Argos mission this year.
In March 2018, India and France had unveiled a joint vision for space cooperation. The two nations have also agreed to work on inter-planetary missions to Mars and Venus.
India has already signed an agreement with Russia for the training of four astronauts who have been shortlisted for the Gaganyaan mission. Additionally, it is also in talks with Australia to have a ground station at the Cocos Islands for the Gaganyaan mission.
Why India’s public and private spacetech players are betting on small satellites
Government agencies and spacetech startups are increasingly opting for the deployment of small satellite constellations, which can do the same job as conventional large-sized satellites but at a lower cost.
The race to win space began in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1 into an elliptical low Earth orbit (LEO). Today, there are about 3,372 satellites in space, of which 2,612 are in LEO.
Like any machine, satellites have evolved since then. The last few decades have seen a boom in the development of small satellites (smallsats) along with large-sized geostationary satellites, which are time-taking innovations that need high investment. This is why small satellites have been attracting attention, from public and private players since 2012.
Last September, during an industry event, NITI Aayog member and former Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief V K Saraswat said small satellites would dominate the global space sector and revealed that 7,000 small satellites were expected to be launched by 2027, with a total value of $38 billion.
Small satellites draw stakeholder attention
Speaking to YourStory, Anirudh Sharma, Co-founder, and CEO of SID, IISc-incubated Digantara Research and Technologies Pvt Ltd, explained that small satellites can do “the same job” as conventional satellites but at a “much lower cost”.
“Almost everything from our daily life such as GPS and communications depends on satellites. With technological advancements, smallsats have been replacing conventional large satellites, which are not only expensive but take two to three years development time. These reasons have led government and private players to move towards deploying smallsats,” Anirudh said.
While large satellites can weigh over 1,000 kg, he explained that small satellites are mainly classified as minisatellites, weighing between 100-500 kg; microsatellites, weighing between 10 and 100 kg, and nanosatellites, which weigh between 1 and 10 kg. There are also picosatellites that weigh less than 1 kg.
Awais Ahmed, Co-founder, and CEO of spacetech startup Pixxel, explained that the shift towards small satellites is mainly because they take lesser time investment for development. He added that instead of launching one large satellite, a constellation of small satellites helped reduce the risk of mission failure.
“With small satellites, we can deploy a constellation of satellites instead of one large-sized satellite, ensuring wider coverage. It also means that even if a couple of satellites fail and stop working, we will still have other satellites in the constellation to complete the mission, which is not possible in case of one single large satellite,” he said.
He added that the smaller the satellite, the lesser is its launch cost.
Applications of small satellites
Awais said small satellites could be used for enabling IoT networks, ensuring communication and internet reach, and for earth observation.
“Earth-observation satellites are broadly classified under two areas: radar imaging, which is deployed for weather surveillance; and optical imaging, which captures data for solving issues related to ground conditions. Pixxel operates in the optical imaging segment,” he says.
Bengaluru-based Pixxel is building the highest resolution hyperspectral satellite constellation that will provide 24-hour global coverage and high-quality remote sensing data. Such imageries can be used to identify problems related to agriculture, environment, natural disaster response, urban infrastructure, gas leak hazards among others.
Meanwhile, Bengaluru-based Grahaa Space is developing a cluster of earth-observation nanosatellites, which will be programmed to stream near real-time high-resolution space videos.
Apart from this, small satellites can also be deployed for ensuring communication and internet connectivity. For instance, Elon Musk’s Space X has built Starlink, a constellation of small internet satellites in the LEO, to ensure internet access across the world. According to reports, as of now, there are 1,300 Starlink satellites in the LEO.
Sanjay Nekkanti, Founder and CEO of Dhruva Space, says: “Small satellites enable rapid deployment of new technologies for a better understanding of the world around us. Using technology to augment traditional process and on-ground sensors in the fields of agriculture and weather would greatly help us maximise output and serve the needs of the country. This could also be supplemented with satellite-based IoT communication to provide improved business intelligence.”
The market and outlook
All stakeholders unanimously agreed that the sector is expected to grow exponentially, especially with the opening up of the spacetech sector to include private players.
Ramesh Kumar V, Co-founder of Grahaa Space, feels the spacetech ecosystem might see around five to six unicorns in the next five years. He said the opening up of the space sector will mean not only spacetech startups but academia and students could also plan their own space missions and innovations.
Yashash Karanam, Co-founder of Bellatrix Aerospace, which is building in-space propulsion systems and orbital launch vehicles, said maybe hundreds of small satellites were being launched from India per year till now, but going forward after the opening up of the spacetech sector thousands of satellites may be launched every year.
“Launch vehicles and satellites are two different markets, but they are interdependent on each other. With the sudden boom in the small satellite sector, the demand for launch vehicles has also increased. But more satellites means more space traffic,” Yashash said.
According to data from MarketsandMarkets, the global small satellite market size is projected to grow to $7.1 billion by 2025 from $ 2.8 billion in 2020 at a CAGR of 20.5 percent. It revealed that the growing demand for LEO-based services, Earth observation imagery, analytics, and increasing number of space exploration missions are driving the growth of the small satellite market.
The increasing number of satellite deployment in space again has raised concerns regarding overcrowding and the formation of space debris — non-functional and malfunctioning satellites.
Digantara’s Anirudh said while the number of smallsats is increasing, there is a need to ensure space monitoring to keep track of space debris.
However, one thing is clear: the opening up of the sector will bring more players into the arena, helping India increase its contribution to the global space economy.