INTERVIEW: These former ISRO scientists are hoping for the biggest-ever funding in the Indian spacetech industry
- Cryogenic rocket engines run on propellant that can be stored at extremely low temperatures of less than -150° celsius.
- Skyroot Aerospace is the first Indian companies to work with ISRO.
- The company is currently in talks to raise $40 million funding from new and existing investors.
- Skyroot was founded by former ISRO scientists Pawan Kumar Chandana and Naga Bharath Daka.
AdvertisementIndian space startup Skyroot Aerospace is in talks to raise $40 million from both new and existing investors in the Indian startup ecosystem, in order to fund its commercial operations that are scheduled to launch next year.
The company has previously raised $11 million in Series A round, which is the biggest funding round announced by any Indian spacetech startup. Its rival Agnikul had also announced its $11 million funding round the same date.
Skyroot is backed by Greenko Group founders Anil Kumar Chalamalasetty and Mahesh Kolli. Other notable investors also include former WhatsApp global business chief Neeraj Arora, Graph Ventures, and Worldquant Ventures.
The company had also raised over ₹10 crore from Mukesh Bansal, who had founded Myntra (bought by Flipkart) and Cure.fit, back in 2018.
The company’s previous fundraise of $11 million will be used by Skyroot to complete development of its satellite launch vehicle by mid next year.
When asked about the planned $40 million funding, Pawan Kumar Chandana, cofounder and chief executive of Skyroot, told Business Insider, “New capital [is] to ramp up production for commercial launches in 2022 and 2023.”
Testing India's first cryogenic rocket engine by a private company
The journey of Skyroot Aerospace has been of many firsts. It is the first private companies to formally work with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to test and qualify its small rocket, capable of lifting up to 2,000 kilograms.
The company — founded by former ISRO scientists Pawan Kumar Chandana and Naga Bharath Daka in 2018 — has added another feather to its cap.
Skyroot Aerospace is now the first Indian private aerospace company to successfully test a fully cryogenic rocket engine, named Dhawan-1 in honour of eminent Indian scientist Satish Dhawan.
The engine runs on two high-performance rocket propellants (a combination of fuel and oxidiser to move the rocket) — Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) and Liquid Oxygen (LoX). In this case, LNG is the fuel which is mostly made of methane and LoX is the oxidiser, both of these elements mix and produce energy to drive a rocket.
These propellants can be stored at extremely low — also known as cryogenic — temperatures of less than -150° celsius. Therefore, it is called a cryogenic engine.
Simplifying a cryogenic engine
Rockets usually run on liquid hydrogen and kerosene, which have their own issues when dealing with extreme temperatures in space, Skyroot’s chief executive Chandana explained to Business Insider. Hydrogen is difficult to handle, highly inflammable and starts boiling at higher temperature, whereas kerosene freezes sooner.
Cryogenic propellants like Methane used in liquid natural gas (LNG) and oxygen used in Liquid Oxygen (LoX) are much more efficient to handle and are cleaner. Therefore, they are the propellent for the future. A team of 20 people at Skyroot have been working on this technology for the last two years, and started manufacturing in October 2020.
No company has flown these propellants to space yet, Chandana added.
Skyroot’s cryogenic engines are 3D printed, which is reducing the manufacturing time by 95% and increasing efficiency of the engine compared to conventional methods. “Conventional engines have several components welded and limitations on the contours that can be manufactured,” Chandana added.
These engines give out higher efficiency compared to a conventional alternative engine, he added.
An add-on to boost Skyroot’s in-house developed technology
While there is still time for Skyroot to take this technology to space, it is planning to launch its Vikram-1 next year by incorporating it into the company’s in-house orbital vehicle Vikram series to carry small satellites to space. The Vikram Series has three vehicles to its product line.
|Vikram 1||Orbit vehicle developed in partnership with ISRO. It will be launched to space by next year.|
|Vikram 2||An upgraded version of Vikram-1, would run on a cryogenic engine. It will improve Skyroot’s capacity to carry satellites to space and the cost decreases.|
|Vikram 3||Would have an add-on booster to further enhance efficiency and capacity of a cryogenic engine.|
The company will not be licensing or selling its cryogenic engine technology to any other partners, but will use it to boost its operations. It will partner with other companies that have the capability of manufacturing satellites, mainly in earth observation and communication satellites, and help them launch it to space.
Hyderabad-based Skyroot claims that it will probably be the cheapest satellite launch vehicle in the world.
Skyroot, which competes with Agnikul, another Indian space startup, that makes similar claims about pricing and 3D printing of launchers, will charge a customer based on the weight of the satellite.
Agnikul, like Skyroot, is also working with ISRO and plans to launch its orbit vehicle to space by next year.
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