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Skyroot plans two monthly rocket launches from 2025

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“Our next launch will take place within the next year, and it will carry client payloads and deploy them to orbit. We want to achieve a consistency of making two launches every month, at least, by the end of 2025, “Pawan Kumar Chandana, chief executive of Hyderabad-based Skyroot Aerospace, said in an interview. Skyroot’s first launch last week was that of a suborbital rocket, in which the spacecraft reaches outer space but is not fast enough to escape Earth’s gravity.

Satellite launches are typically done by orbital rockets that achieve the required velocity to escape Earth’s gravitation to reach at least the low-earth orbits (LEOs) at altitudes of around 200km.

According to Chandana, the launch of the Vikram-S suborbital rocket on 18 November “will give global investors and clients confidence in India’s space sector, since only a handful of companies globally have managed to cross 80km into space, let alone in the first attempt”. Skyroot is also working to develop reusable booster stages for its ‘Vikram’ series of rockets, he added

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The booster stage of a rocket is the engine that helps it achieve ‘escape velocity’, following which the booster detaches from the main rocket, re-enters Earth, and uses small motors to land. The engine, or the booster, thus can be reused for future missions, saving costs for a rocket launch services firm. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the only firm to have managed this feat.

To be sure, SpaceX made its first orbital commercial spaceflight in October 2008, carrying private satellites into orbit. Today, after 14 years and over $10 billion in funding, the company does an average of over five launches every month—having completed 56 successful launch missions as of 20 November.

In comparison, Skyroot Aerospace was incorporated in 2018. Skyroot Aerospace’s first launch, four years in the making, took place from the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro)-maintained Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota on 18 November. Vikram-S, the rocket with 3D-printed engines designed and built entirely in India by Skyroot, reached a peak altitude of 89.5km—higher than the targeted altitude of 80km—before splashing back into the Bay of Bengal in a six-minute mission. The rocket did not carry any actual payload but bore three mock ones.

Chandana said that even as the private sector develops, Isro and government-backed space entities will continue to play an important role. “The transfer of technology clause in India’s upcoming space policy will be crucial since this would allow firms like us to use the decades of expertise and research that Isro already has. It will also allow us to continue using infrastructure and facilities built by Isro,” he said.

In the long run, Chandana expects a public-private partnership model to be in place for the space sector, which could see Isro license specific missions for homegrown space firms to conduct. “The model would be similar to the US— the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) regularly sanctions projects for private space firms to work on,” Chandana said.

Skyroot would also look to emulate the reusable booster-stage feature that has helped SpaceX recover a part of its launch vehicles and reuse them to scale cost and increase the affordability of space missions. “We definitely plan to develop reusable booster stages and are in the early stages of building them,” he said.

But where will Chandana get the money for these launches? Skyroot Aerospace has raised $68 million in two funding rounds. In the latest round, it raised $51 million in a Series A funding round led by Singapore’s sovereign fund, GIC, in September. However, experts said the cost factor would be critical for homegrown space ventures to become successful in the long run.

While Isro does not disclose its official cost for deploying payloads, the space agency reportedly charges anywhere between $10,000 and $15,000 per kg of a satellite payload for launch services using its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV)—India’s most used satellite launcher till date. However, at the Bengaluru Tech Expo on 7 September, Isro chief S. Somanath said the agency plans to bring this cost down to $5,000 and, subsequently, to $1,000 per kg. In comparison, SpaceX advertises a launch cost of as low as $5,500 per kg of payload.

Skyroot did not disclose how much it would charge clients to launch satellites on its future rockets.

Chaitanya Giri, a consultant at policy think tank Research and Information Systems for Developing Countries, said that several private ventures in the US and EU are eyeing demand for satellite launches, making it crucial for Indian space startups to get their costing right.

Sheetal Bahl, a partner at early-stage venture capital firm GrowX Ventures, said the success of Skyroot’s first mission could open up access to larger, global investors for the Indian space sector. “Skyroot’s recent funding round had a sovereign fund invest in them, which is a big validation for the work being done here. The first launch for Skyroot, coupled with Pixxel launching India’s first privately built commercial satellite in April this year, would definitely boost investor confidence, and a number of other homegrown ventures are also expected to make key launches through 2023,” Bahl said.

Bahl’s GrowX Ventures is an investor in homegrown space startups such as Bellatrix Aerospace and Pixxel.

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