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Shipping containers as office, 3D printed rocket engine-a Chennai startup is in a space race

Shipping containers as office, 3D printed rocket engine-a Chennai startup is in a space race

  • 8th Aug 2023
  • The Print

Agnikul's offices at the IIT Madras' satellite campus are going to be the 'Uber for satellites', offering easy access to space with ride-sharing options as a means to reduce costs.

Chennai: A cluster of 21 shipping containers with PVC curtains serves as the office for 120 young engineers who want to send a rocket into space. Located on the outskirts of Chennai at the IIT Madras' satellite campus, these shipping containers resemble a regular IT office, but inside, the young engineers are passionately building rockets and 3D printing engines in the race to be the first Indian startup to go to space.

The semi-forested land around Agnikul's offices reflects the startup's ambitious plans. Proudly standing within the shelter of shipping containers is a model of their 18-metre-long rocket called Agnibaan. It's going to be the 'Uber for satellites', offering easy access to space and ride-share options to reduce costs.

Further ahead, makeshift structures house Agnikul's most hopeful product-a fully 3D printed semi-cryogenic engine that can be produced in just three days.

Every fortnight, the engineers at Agnikul create a new iteration of their 3D printed rocket engines, conducting fire tests and carefully measuring the output parameters. During testing days, work can extend up to 18 hours, but the team is exhilarated and dedicated to becoming India's first private company to launch a rocket from their own pad in Sriharikota.

"This is not your typical corporate office; this is our dream. We are starting a new journey of building rockets together, and every engine test fills us with excitement," said Rohith Nair, maintenance and safety engineer at Agnikul.

The startup's love for shipping containers and moveable pipes, rigs and sheets extends to its launch pad as well. Instead of traditional concrete structures, Agnikul has opted for a 'mobile' launch pad called Dhanush, which can be assembled and dismantled within a few weeks. This approach aligns with Agnikul's mission to democratise space so that a rocket can be launched from anywhere.

"What we want to do is equivalent to providing a personal cab, rather than a public bus, for transporting satellites," said co-founder and CEO Srinath Ravichandran.

As luck would have it
While studying in Los Angeles, Ravichandran (38) realised that many people were building small satellites. But there were no rockets to launch them into space. The sheer number of grounded satellites he stumbled upon got him thinking.

"I used to naively ask why it was not in space, and the answer was always that rockets were not available. SpaceX was not doing any private launches at the time and one had to wait for ISRO to plan a launch before finding space in a rocket," Ravichandran said.

According to him, the universe aligned to make things possible for Agnikul. From connecting with the right people who could guide his team, to raising a significant investment just before the Covid lockdown, the co-founder is convinced that luck is on his side.

He describes his educational background as "confused". He first completed a degree in aeronautical engineering, then went on to study financial engineering in the US.

"I was always interested in aerospace, but people kept telling me that there were not enough opportunities in the sector." That was way back in 2006.

But the universe kept beckoning, and unable to resist its pull, Ravichandran returned to aerospace by pursuing a Master's degree a decade later. It was then that he began exploring the possibility of making smaller rockets to cater to the growing market of small commercial satellites. Large satellites can weigh anywhere between 500 and 3,000 kg, but there are also palm-sized models the size of gulab jamuns. CubeSats, which are now frequently used, can be as light as 2 kg.

"I also learned at the time that ISRO and India's space industry is something that people abroad respect."

It was an incentive for him to return to India.

"In any case, the paperwork I would have to do [as an Indian citizen trying] to set up a rocket company in the US would be bigger than the rocket itself," he says with a grin.

From LA to IIT to ISRO
A deep tech start-up to develop rockets required huge capital, which Ravichandran did not have. His best hope, he thought, would be to get onboard an academic partner that had the hardware like 3D printers.

Sitting in LA, he made a list of professors at IITs who work in aerospace research - and began making cold calls. This was 2018, about three years before ISRO began to sign NDAs with private companies. At the time, Ravichandran said that his only aim was to make a rocket. He reasoned that if his product was associated with an IIT, it would get ISRO interested, and eventually he could become a rocket supplier.

But it was easier said than done.

"Many people do not take us seriously. I got a lot of life gyan, that I should get serious about my career and life," Ravichandran said.

But one professor from IIT-Madras, Satyanarayanan R Chakravarthy, realised the scope of Ravichandran's dreams, and became very interested in the idea.

"Agnikul came out of the blue. I did not care who they were as long as they were interested in making rockets," said Chakravarthy, who teaches rocket technology.

"Having worked on jet engines, I had some ideas for rockets too. But these ideas never got tested because rockets are usually very large in size."

Around this time, Ravichandran also connected with Moin SPM, Agnikul's other co-founder. The two hit if off. Moin had an education in aerospace engineering and an entrepreneurial background. Chakravarty, an expert in combustion engines, already worked with scientists at ISRO. Through him, the duo got in touch with Ramanujam Varatharaja Perumal, the former mission director of ISRO's GSLV programme.

"It is hard to find people who were associated with a rocket's first flight - because they have the experience of making compromises and tradeoffs," Ravichandran said.

All the pieces were finally falling into place. Hard work was meeting immense luck. Just weeks after Agnikul raised over $3 million from its second round of investors - including pi Ventures, ArthaVentures, and Globevestors in February 2020-the whole country went into prolonged Covid lockdown.

"Many startups hit a bad patch because investments froze. We would not have survived either if the money had come in any later." The timing of the funding further cemented his belief in his constant alignment with the universe.

In May 2020, the founders of Agnikul got a pleasant surprise from the Narendra Modi government.

"I was just sitting and watching the speech by Nirmala Sitharaman - and suddenly space gots its atma nirbhar moment," he recalled. In May 2020, the Finance Minister announced that ISRO's facilities will be opened up to support private sector companies in the space sector.

"That was again a big stroke of luck. They were very explicit in saying that they were going to encourage private people to come in," he said.

That same day, Ravichandran wrote an email to then-ISRO chairperson K Sivan, listing out the ventures that Agnikul wanted to collaborate with ISRO on. Over a teleconference, Sivan met the team and showed his support. In December that year, Agnikul became one of the first companies to sign an agreement with ISRO.

3D printing rocket engine
At Agnikul's corporate office in the main campus of IIT-Madras, one room documents the journey of the 3D printed engine. The team has stored samples of the past iterations of engine parts as well as a couple of fully printed engines. A giant 3D printer is flanked by shelves stacked with jars of a special nickel alloy, which is used to print the engine.

Agnibaan is a two-stage rocket with semi-cryogenic engines powered by oxygen and kerosene. The first stage can be fitted with seven engines of 25-kiloNewton thrust each, and the second stage's number of engines can be adjusted according to the payload weight and desired launch height.

To power their rockets, Agnikul started 3D-printing its engines. From one every two to three weeks in the early days, it can now print two engines every week. With a successful launch demonstration, they aim to put satellites into low earth orbit every two weeks.

In 2019, Agnikul fired its first rocket engine, a simplistic and small prototype that took about six months to develop. And then Chakravarthy hit upon the idea of 3D printed engines. He was already adapting the technology to jet engines. If 3D printing was good enough for jet engines that run for hours at a time and are started and turned off thousands of times, the same technology could be used in rockets, he explained. Rocket engines get fired during launch, and then in outer space for orbit raising manoeuvres, but very rarely for course correction. On the other hand, a jet engine runs throughout a flight and is fired with every take off.

But the 3D printing exercise didn't stop with just engine parts. At first, the team began printing smaller components, but they pushed themselves to see how much of the engine they could print. Now, they print the whole assembly at once, doing away with the need for additional screwing, welding, etc. It can be produced in just three days.

The birth of Dhanush
The new design needed a change in rocket launching infrastructure. Even if they approached ISRO for the use of its launchpad, it would not have been feasible because the space agency's rocket engines are powered by oxygen and hydrogen fuel.

For Agnikul's kerosene-run engines, the space agency would have to lay another set of pipelines to the rocket launching rig. But a separate launchpad was always part of the start-ups blueprint. Ravichandran pointed out that the biggest rocket Agnikjul was building was still smaller than ISRO's tiniest rocket. "The pipeline that ISRO uses, even for the oxygen line, is four times bigger than what we need," he said.

Moreover, Agnikul's idea is to make it easier for satellites to find rockets to launch them at a convenient time.

"Using ISRO's existing launchpad - even if they let us tamper with it - would mean we would again have to work around the space agency's schedules," Ravichandran said.

This streak of independence resulted in the creation of Dhanush-a smaller launchpad, which can be dismantled and carried to another location. And Agnikul became the first private company to have a launchpad and a mission control room at Sriharikota, which until then was inaccessible to the private sector.

"We built an entirely new rig to suit the smaller size of our rocket and carry out launch rehearsals," said Rohith Nair, the maintenance and safety engineer at Agnikul.

Since the team is yet to have a concrete structure, they have become used to the idea of building structures that can be quickly moved from one area to another. The same philosophy was extended to Dhanush. It is the bow to the arrow (baan) that is Agnibaan.

Clients and customers
Agnikul wants to start offering its services to satellite makers, but doing that in the current scenario is cost prohibitive, and the waiting time can be up to a year.

Companies like SpaceX (of Elon Musk), RocketLabs, and United Launch Alliance in the United States, Arianespace in France, and China Great Wall Industry Corporation in China are already launching satellites into space. But barring RocketLabs and Virgin Galactic, very few dedicate their rocket designs to smaller satellites.

Agnikul is designing something for smaller payloads, for companies that would not want to bear the cost of launching on a big rocket. To put this in perspective: SpaceX's Falcon 9 has a payload capacity in tonnes, and won't launch if it's just a few hundred kgs of payload.

There's a certain level of snootiness and elitism in the satellite launching ecosystem. Some of the more privileged-richer companies with sophisticated equipment-are very particular about who their satellites are sharing the ride to space with.

"For example, one company might want to launch very sensitive instruments into space. They would then require others in that ride to undergo tests for electromagnetic signals. It's like an unnecessary visa application process," said Ravichandran. On the other hand, satellites that may have significant electromagnetic radiations will constantly find it difficult to ride share.

Both the sophisticated and the low-cost instruments thus often look for exclusive rides to space.

Not only that, with seven removable engines in its first stage, the rocket can be customised based on the height that they want to go and the payload they are carrying - a feature missing from current ISRO rockets.

The team at Agnikul is in eager anticipation of the launch. Back in their corporate office at the IIT Madras campus, they sit huddled over the navigation system prototypes, newly printed engines and other rocket parts.

Each day, the team works toward getting to know all the machines and software. But Agnikul's chief of staff, Giritharan Thiruppathirajan, says that there is one machine that they are yet to figure out.

"The coffee machine," he says, as it emanates a screeching noise from the pantry. "That is the most complicated machine here."