Chennai Start-Up's Rocket Launch, Game-Changer For Space Tech, Called Off

This marks the fourth postponement for the AgniKul Maiden rocket launch, which has been beset by a series of technical issues.

Chennai Start-Up's Rocket Launch, Game-Changer For Space Tech, Called Off

The first attempt was made on March 22 this year and was abandoned during countdown.

New Delhi:

Agnikul Cosmos, a pioneering private space start-up in India, faced yet another hurdle today as the test launch of their rocket, Agnibaan SOrTeD (Suborbital Tech Demonstrator), was called off just seconds before lift-off. This marks the fourth postponement for the AgniKul Maiden rocket launch, which has been beset by a series of technical issues. 

Despite the setbacks, the Agnikul team remains undeterred, demonstrating remarkable resilience and commitment to their mission. Their rocket is powered by an advanced engine, which even the seasoned Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) continues to master.

The team, comprising many engineers in their 20s, has shown exceptional patience and determination in the face of four such postponements. 

Such delays are not uncommon in the field of space exploration. Historical precedents, such as the numerous delays faced by Boeing's Starliner launch with astronaut Sunita Williams, illustrate that even the most experienced teams encounter obstacles. 

Agnikul's cautious strategy aligns with industry best practices, emphasising the principle of "safety first."

The first attempt was made on March 22 this year and was abandoned during countdown. The last attempt was made on April 7 and was called off less than a minute before lift-off.

Incubated at IIT-Madras, this was the first test flight for the start-up, founded in 2017 by two young aerospace engineers with a dream to create "a place where people learn to use fire".

The rocket, which weighs 575 kg and is 6.2-metre long, was supposed to lift off from Sriharikota before plunging down into the Bay of Bengal.

The Agnibaan SOrTeD is powered by a semi-cryogenic engine that uses commercially available aviation turbine fuel, essentially kerosene and medical-grade liquid oxygen, says Moin SPM, co-founder of Agnikul Cosmos Private Limited.

ISRO has never flown a semi-cryogenic engine. It is developing a 2000 kN thrust semi-cryogenic engine and the first ignition trial was conducted successfully on May 2. So, the Chennai-based start-up has achieved what no other Indian private firm did.

Srinath Ravichandran, a co-founder of the space start-up, had said ahead of the launch, "This launch is significant since it is India's first launch from a private launchpad and the rocket has the world's first single piece 3D printed engine designed and built indigenously."

ISRO tested its first-ever 3D-printed engine in ground tests on May 9.

Before the planned launch, the start-up had said in a statement, "Agnibaan SOrTeD (Suborbital Tech Demonstrator) is a single-stage launch vehicle driven by Agnikul's patented Agnilet engine - an entirely 3D-printed, single-piece, 6 kN semi-cryogenic engine. Agnibaan SOrTeD will lift off vertically and follow a predetermined trajectory. The trajectory, manoeuvres and various flight events that will occur during the mission have been configured to validate tech integral to the success of our upcoming orbital flights. We are excited to be attempting this flight from our own launch pad [named Dhanush] at Sriharikota."

Explaining how Agnibaan's special 3D printed engine can prove to be a game-changer, Mr Moin told NDTV that it is a single-piece equipment and the quality testing time for such engines is highly reduced by using 3D printing technology.

The engine is powered by commercially available aviation turbine fuel and liquid oxygen. This makes for a cheap and easily available non-corrosive fuel which can be sourced easily, he said, adding that this also makes it easy to launch rockets from multiple locations with minimum facilities.

In another first, Agnikul has got the go-ahead to build a special launchpad near the sea on the Sriharikota island with its own dedicated control room. This is part of ISRO opening up its facilities for the ease of doing business for Indian space companies.

"This will be the first controlled flight of a rocket by a private company, and all precautions are being taken to make sure nothing goes amiss. If things go awry, then the self-destruct mechanism provided by ISRO can be activated by the Range Safety Officer," Mr Moin said ahead of the launch.

Agnikul follows up on the first launch by an Indian space company, Skyroot Aerospace Private Limited, which in 2022 flew a solid fuelled sounding rocket from Sriharikota. Once Agnibaan rockets become operational, Agnikul hopes to undertake launch on demand and launch 30 to 300 kg satellites into space.

"We hope to build dedicated, fully customisable and transportable launch vehicles for small satellites to Low Earth Orbits (LEO). The launch vehicle Agnibaan is powered by a single-piece 3D-printed engine that can be made in 72 hours without any human intervention. It is compatible with the mobile launch pad called 'Dhanush' which makes the launch location agnostic and, most importantly, it could be configured to fly with 4/5/6/7 [engines] which makes the launch cost the same across the spectrum of mass - 30 kg - 300 kg," the company said.

Agnikul has already attracted an investment of 40 million dollars and has a team of 250 members. "The average age of employees at Agnikul is 23 years and all are fired up to innovate," says Mr Moin, underscoring that India can become a hub for small satellite launches as more and more global companies are opting for constellations of satellites placed in low earth orbits.