India’s first privately built rocket launched on Friday, heralding a new era for the country’s space sector that opened up to private companies in 2020.
Shown live on national broadcaster Doordarshan with excited commentary and a nail-biting countdown, the rocket blasted off at 11.30am from the Indian government-run space center in the eastern seaside town of Sriharikota.
The rocket flew to an altitude of 81.5km, before splashing down in the Bay of Bengal.
The Vikram-S, named in tribute to the father of India’s space programme, physicist Vikram Sarabhai, was built by Hyderabad-based start-up Skyroot Aerospace.
The firm’s co-founder Pawan Chandana hailed the successful launch as a “small step for a start-up and a giant leap for the Indian space industry”.
The rocket carried three payloads weighing a total of 80kg, from customers Space Kidz India, N Space Tech India and Armenian education non-profit space lab Bazoomq.
The Vikram series of rockets can launch up to 800kg payloads to an altitude of up to 120km from the earth.
“This is a new beginning for Indian private sector in space,” said Pawan Goenka, chairman of Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), minutes after the launch.
IN-SPACe is an autonomous agency under India’s Department of Space.
Minister of State for Science and Technology Jitendra Singh, who was at the launch, congratulated Skyroot’s bespectacled founders, who stood in their start-up chic black T-shirts alongside the formally dressed government officials.
Engineers Naga Bharath Daka and Chandana set up Skyroot in 2018 after quitting their government jobs at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), India’s national space agency.
The start-up’s leadership is dominated by former staff from ISRO, which had been India’s only space research and development institution since 1969.
After India opened its space sector to private corporations, Skyroot was the first private company in India to tie-up with ISRO to tap the government agency’s expertise and facilities.
It now builds rockets to help launch small commercial satellites, as it designs and tests multiple rocket propulsion systems.
Having raised US$68 million (S$93 million), Skyroot is the best-funded aerospace manufacturer in India.
Its biggest funder is Singapore’s sovereign fund GIC, which invested US$51 million in September this year for a stake of just under 25 per cent.
India makes up only 2 percent of the global space market, but its space industry is often lauded for its low-cost space missions.
ISRO often achieves ambitious missions at a fraction of the budgets countries like the United States and China spend.
The global space industry is expected to be worth about US$1 trillion by 2040. India hopes to tap into this increasingly lucrative market by fostering cost-efficiency and innovation through private players.
“Public funded space programmes the world-over have set the precedent and enabled the private sector to take the baton forward,” said Chandana, adding that he looks forward to “innovation in business models that private space companies bring in for commercialization of space technologies”.