India’s first private rocket company aims to cut satellite costs

BENGALURU, Nov 26 (Reuters) – The startup behind India’s first private space launch plans to launch a satellite into orbit by 2023 and expects to be able to do so at half the cost of established launch companies, the founders said from Skyroot Aerospace to Reuters in an interview.

The Hyderabad-based company, backed by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC, says the $68 million it raised will fund its next two launches. Skyroot has interacted with more than 400 potential customers, it says.

Thousands of small satellite launches are planned in the coming years as companies build networks to deliver broadband services such as SpaceX’s Starlink and to power applications such as supply chain tracking or monitoring offshore drilling rigs.

Skyroot faces both established and emerging rocket launch rivals that also promise to cut costs. In China, startup Galactic Energy launched five satellites into orbit last week on its fourth successful launch.

In Japan, Space One, backed by Canon Electronics (7739.T) and IHI Corp (7013.T), plans to launch 20 small rockets per year by the middle of the decade.

But Skyroot, which launched a test rocket last week, expects to cut the cost of a launch by 50% compared to current prices for established competitors like Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit and California-based Rocket Lab USA Inc (RKLB.O).

Pawan Chandana, one of Skyroot’s two co-founders, told Reuters he expected a surge in demand for the company’s launch services if it proved itself with launches for next year.

“Most of these customers have built Constellations and will be launching them in the next five years,” he said.

The Modi administration’s push to increase India’s share of the global space launch market from just 1% has given investors confidence that Skyroot and other startups will get government support for their efforts, Skyroot says.

“Three or four months ago, when we were talking to investors, one of the biggest questions they asked was whether the government was supporting us,” Skyroot co-founder Bharath Daka told Reuters.

India opened the door to private space companies in 2020 with a regulatory overhaul and a new agency to boost private sector launches.

Before then, companies could only act as contractors to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), a government space agency with its own reputation for fuel-efficient engineering. The country’s 2014 Mars mission cost just $74 million, less than the budget of the Hollywood space movie “Gravity.”

Building on India’s track record in cost efficiency will be critical, Chandana said. Founded in 2018 when Chandana and Daka quit their jobs at ISRO, Skyroot has set a goal to develop missiles for a fifth of the current industry cost.

The Skyroot rocket, which reached 89.5 kilometers during last week’s test launch, used carbon fiber components and 3D-printed parts, including the thrusters. That increased efficiency by 30%, the company says, reducing weight and procurement costs, though it meant Skryoot engineers had to write the machine code for suppliers who manufactured the rocket, as few had experience working with carbon fiber .

With 3D printing, Skyroot believes it can build a new rocket in just two days as it moves toward reusable rockets, a technology developed by SpaceX.

Chandana and Daka believe the launch cost per kilo for a satellite could be reduced to nearly $10, from thousands of dollars currently, a big goal that could shake up the space trade economy and one that draws inspiration from their idol: Elon Musk.

“SpaceX is a symbol of great innovation and great market validation,” said Chandana, who added that they haven’t had a chance to talk to Musk.

“At this point, we think he’s probably busy with Twitter.”

Reporting by Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Ashish Chandra; Edited by Kevin Krolicki and Edmund Klamann

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.

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