India successfully test launches its first privately developed rocket

November 21, 2022 at 2:24 PM

India tested its first privately developed rocket on Friday with a successful suborbital launch that marks a step forward in the country’s push to develop a commercial space industry.

The Vikram-S rocket, which was developed by the startup Skyroot Aerospace, blasted off at around 11:30 a.m. local time from the Sriharikota spaceport off the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It reached an altitude of 89.5 kilometers (55.6 miles), with all of the rocket’s systems working as planned, the company said.

Space experts said the launch was a crucial step forward for the country’s space industry, which has been dominated for decades by India’s national agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation.

“It’s an important milestone,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a New Delhi-based space expert and director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation. “This is hopefully the beginning of a new phase in India’s space program where the private sector can actually be more active.”

Ms. Rajagopalan said that the ISRO was traditionally cautious about working with the private sector, with the government tightly controlling the industry and funding. But the agency has felt the need to bring in private partners in recent years as global demand for research and commercial satellite launches has grown and other countries like the U.S. and China have embraced private-sector companies.

In 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman introduced major reforms aimed at opening the Indian space sector to the private sector.

Hyderabad-based Skyroot, founded in 2018 by two scientists formerly with ISRO, was the first private Indian company to sign an agreement with the space agency to use its testing and launch facilities after regulations were loosened.

The test launch paid homage to India’s space history. The rocket was named after Vikram Sarabhai, an Indian physicist known as the father of the Indian space program. The mission was dubbed “Prarambh,” which means “a beginning” in Sanskrit.

The Vikram-S tested technologies that Skyroot plans to use next year in launching an orbital vehicle called Vikram-1, including carbon composite parts and 3D-printed engines, the company said.

A live stream of the launch on YouTube showed the rocket lifting off, trailed by a plume of smoke, while spectators cheered and clapped. The Vikram-S reached a maximum velocity of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, according to the video.

Skyroot said about 100 people worked on the project over two years. It employs about 200 people and has raised 5.26 billion rupees (about $64 million) in capital.

India has been lagging behind other major countries in developing its space industry because private companies for years weren’t given opportunities to research, develop or test its own equipment, said Dr. Chaitanya Giri, space domain consultant at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a think tank in New Delhi.

But Dr. Giri said he expects Indian startups to soon start competing with space companies in Europe and the U.S.   Skyroot’s test launch checked off the first of three key technologies that any successful private space company has to develop: space launches. Next up are building satellites and the ability to use satellites for commercial applications.

“A lot of untapped potential has been now unleashed,” he said. “This will make India more competitive in the world space market.” (WSJ)