CHENNAI: The first privately developed Indian rocket lifted off into the upper reaches of the atmosphere on Friday, in another milestone in the country’s push to become a major space power.
The half-tonne Vikram-S rocket launched before midday local time and travelled in an arc, live footage from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) showed.
It safely splashed down into the sea six minutes later, according to the agency.
The rocket, developed by local startup Skyroot Aerospace, reached a peak altitude of 90 kilometres (55 miles), below the internationally recognised 100-km Karman line that separates Earth from outer space.
“It is indeed a new beginning, a new dawn... in the journey of India’s space programme,” science minister Jitendra Singh said after the launch to a crowd of cheering technicians at the ISRO’s launch facility on the southern island of Sriharikota.
The single-stage, solid-fuel rocket was built with “carbon composite structures and 3D-printed components”, the government said on Thursday ahead of the first Vikram-S mission, named “Prarambh” (“Start”).
India has been bolstering its space programme in recent years, including a crewed mission with Russian backing slated for 2023 or 2024.
Its capabilities and ambitions have grown, highlighted by the success of its rockets and missions beyond Earth.
“I’m happy to announce the successful completion of Mission Prarambh, the beginning,” said Pawan Goenka, who chairs the Indian government agency that coordinates private-sector space activities.
Skyroot, which was started by Pawan Chandana and Bharath Daka, has set a target of cutting development costs by up to 90 per cent versus existing platforms to launch small satellites.
It expects to achieve that cost savings by using a rocket architecture that can be assembled in less than 72 hours with composite materials. It plans launches capable of delivering satellites starting next year.
“Innovation and cost efficiency should be the two drivers for the industry. Cost efficiency has already been achieved, and now we should look at cutting edge technology,” Chandana said.
The Indian government has been pushing to develop a private space industry to complement its state-run space programme known for its affordable launches and missions.
And in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed India as a “space superpower” after it shot down a low-orbiting satellite, a move prompting criticism for the amount of “space junk” it created.
India is also working to boost its two per cent share of the global commercial space market.
In October, ISRO’s heaviest rocket yet successfully put 36 broadband satellites in low earth orbit.
Experts say India can keep costs low by copying and adapting existing space technology, and thanks to an abundance of highly skilled engineers who earn a fraction of their foreign counterparts’ wages.
India is also working on its $1.4 billion Gaganyaan mission, the country’s first manned space exploration.
The country plans a moon landing by July after its previous attempt in 2019 failed. India will launch a rover to analyze crust samples for signs of water and helium-3. The isotope is limited on Earth, but so abundant on the moon that it could meet global energy demands for 250 years if harnessed.
India’s unmanned Mars mission in 2014 cost only $74 million, and made headlines for costing less than the Academy Award winnning film “Gravity”.
Until now, the state-run ISRO has had a monopoly on launching rockets in India.
The Skyroot rockets are named after Vikram Sarabhai, the Indian physicist and astronomer considered the father of India’s space programme.
Built in just two years, the sub-orbital validated the pressure, temperature and vibration in Skyroot’s orbital vehicles, with the first of the series, Vikram I, scheduled to launch next year. It carried a payload from two Indian aerospace startups and a non-profit space research laboratory in Armenia.
Farming out missions to private companies could help India’s push into space exploration. The country plans a moon landing by July after its previous attempt in 2019 failed. India will launch a rover to analyze crust samples for signs of water and helium-3. The isotope is limited on Earth, but so abundant on the moon that it could meet global energy demands for 250 years if harnessed.
Hyderabad-based Skyroot, founded in 2018 and backed by Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC, was the first space startup to sign an agreement to use Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launch and test facilities after the government opened the door to private companies in 2020.
Skyroot, founded by former Indian Space Research Organisation scientists, has attracted investment worth 5 billion rupees ($61 million) from backers including Greenko Group founders and Sherpalo Ventures, started by Ram Shriram, a founding board member of Google. So far it employs about 200 people. Close to 100 people have been involved in its maiden launch project, the company said.