It’s Finally SOrTeD! Chennai’s AgniKul Ushers In New Era In Indian Space Tech With Agnibaan Rocket Launch

Manish Pant

May 30, 2024, 10:36 AM | Updated 11:52 AM IST

Agnibaan SOrTeD rocket (Pic Via Twitter)
Agnibaan SOrTeD rocket (Pic Via Twitter)
  • This second successful sendoff of a sub-orbital rocket by a private space technology company comes loaded with several firsts.
  • Chennai-headquartered AgniKul Cosmos’ successful sendoff of its first rocket after several postponements is nothing short of a trial by fire.

    No surprises there, for the company’s name is inspired by the Sanskrit word gurukul (school), which itself translates as the “school of fire.” 

    Therefore, it’s no surprise that the duo of co-founders Srinath Ravichandran, chief executive officer (CEO), and Moin S P M, chief operating officer (COO), decided to go for a quiet launch early Thursday morning (30 May).

    Taking off at 7.15 am (India time) from the company’s launchpad, located at the iconic Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) SHAR in Sriharikota off the Andhra Pradesh coast, the rocket made a safe descent into the Bay of Bengal after reaching nearly 6 km into the low earth orbit (LEO) as intended.

    The launchpad and the mission control centre – a first for an Indian space tech startup – were conceptualised and built with the assistance of the national space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the promotion and regulation body Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe).

    Separated by 4 km, the launchpad and the mission control centre are equipped with state-of-the-art technologies to ensure uninterrupted operations during a mission.

    The mission’s success completes the first phase of the space tech startup founders’ dreams of reaching the final frontier, which was seeded over backyard cricket tournaments in their hometown Chennai.

    Unlike traditional sounding rockets that launch from guide rails, Agnibaan SOrTeD followed a predetermined vertical trajectory to perform a precisely orchestrated set of flight manoeuvres to validate key technologies integral to the success of the company’s upcoming orbital flights.

    The tested technologies included AngiKul’s proprietary autopilot, navigation, and guidance algorithms, as well as gauging the launchpad’s preparedness for more ambitious undertakings during future missions.

    AgniKul was established in 2017 by aerospace engineers Ravichandran (38) and Moin (33), along with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras faculty member, Professor Sathyanarayan R Chakravarthy, and has raised $40 million in funding to date.

    Agnikul Cosmos CEO 	
Srinath Ravichandran (Right) and COO Moin SPM (Left)
    Agnikul Cosmos CEO Srinath Ravichandran (Right) and COO Moin SPM (Left)

    Boost To Reusable Rocket Programme

    The mission not only makes AgniKul the second private Indian player after Skyroot Aerospace to send a rocket into space, but may prove to be a game-changer for India’s space industry in one more way. It takes the company closer to considering a reusable Falcon 9-like launch vehicle currently deployed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

    “The reusability option is possible in our vehicle because we use a liquid fuel propulsion system. However, we would initially perfect the art of going into space before working on the art of coming back,” company CEO Ravichandran told this writer earlier.

    ISRO Chairman S Somanath has been emphatic about the urgency of India developing a reusable launch vehicle to retain the country’s position as a leader in the emerging global space race.

    Incidentally, in December 2020, AgniKul became the first Indian space tech startup to sign an agreement with ISRO to access the national space agency’s knowledge base and resources.

    Plug-and-Play Model

    The Agnibaan is described as a remarkably adaptable two-stage launch vehicle that can haul payloads of up to 100 kilograms (kg) to a 700 kilometre (km) distance in the LEO.

    Experts have especially commended the rocket’s ‘plug-and-play’ design that allows for accurate mission configuration. For instance, payload integration to launch can be done in a fortnight, with the rocket capable of being launched from over 10 launch ports currently. The company is already working to expand this capacity to 25.

    The single-stage launch Agnibaan SOrTeD was powered by the company’s patented Agnilet engine, the world’s first entirely 3D-printed, single-piece, 6 kilonewton (kN) semi-cryogenic engine.

    Following its initial trial in early 2021, it was verified at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in Thiruvananthapuram. The engine is fuelled by liquid oxygen (LOX) or kerosene propellant in all its stages.

    The rocket’s first stage can be powered by anywhere between four to seven engines for a commercial launch, with an optional baby stage available on demand.

    Potential customers from diverse industries were keenly waiting for Agnibaan’s successful test.

    “These customers are into Earth observation, communications, and entities trying to use space as a platform. We also have a few unconventional customers interested in doing protein crystallisation or putting data into space,” informed Moin.

    “Ideally, we hope to get clients from India, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America.”

    The mission’s success is a huge relief to AgniKul founders, who were reportedly under tremendous pressure from investors over repeated delays.

    However, ISRO’s Somanath and IN-SPACe’s Pawan K Goenka will be the happiest over a second private Indian launch vehicle maker registering demonstrable success in the unforgiving world of space exploration within five years of the country commencing wide-ranging reforms in the sector in 2020.

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