Bengaluru startup Pixxel aims to launch a constellation of Earth observation small satellites whose data can have multiple applications in agriculture and other sectors. Its first satellite was good to go on a Soyuz rocket this month, but the launch was put off to March next year because the main satellite riding on the Russian vehicle wasn’t ready.
Makers of small satellites have to piggyback on rockets that have large payloads.
“Since ours is a rideshare satellite, we can’t call the shots on the timeline,” says Awais Ahmed, co-founder and CEO of Pixxel. “Our second satellite is booked for launch on a SpaceX rocket in the latter half of 2021. We have also been in talks with new players like Rocket Lab who have a small-satellite launch vehicle.”
Miniaturization and off-the-shelf electronics, thanks in part to tech developed for smartphones, has opened up the scope for Low Earth Orbit constellations of small satellites. These are emerging as alternatives to large multipurpose satellites, promising to broaden the commercial use of satellite data analytics. But the availability of launch slots on large rockets is a bottleneck.
Small is big
Hence the emergence of dozens of startups developing small-satellite launch vehicles. US-based Rocket Lab has already proved its viability, launching its 15th commercial payload last month with 10 small satellites. Its next mission later this month aims to deploy 30 small satellites.
Two Indian startups in this space are Hyderabad-based Skyroot and Chennai-based Agnikul. Skyroot hit a key milestone in August with the successful test of its launch vehicle’s upper-stage engine which delivers thrust for the last leg of the rocket’s journey before payload deployment.
The test validated the use of new material and 3D-printed design to reduce the engine’s mass and development time. Its propellant makes the engine restartable, allowing deployment of multiple satellites into different orbits in the same mission.