India Got its Groove Back, Made Progress on Commercializing Space Industry in 2022

When Shri S. Somanath assumed the chairmanship of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) last January, he took over a space agency that had been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. ISRO conducted only four launches in 2020-21, one of which failed. The pandemic had wrecked an ambitious plan to launch Indian astronauts into orbit before the 75th anniversary of the nation’s independence from Britain in August 2022.

As 2022 ended, Somanath could look back on a largely successful year. ISRO’s launch cadence more than doubled. The space agency made solid progress on its Gaganyaan human spaceflight program.

Even more important was the progress that ISRO and private companies made in commercializing India’s largely state-run space program. The year saw the first launch of a privately-built Indian rocket, a commercial company build a launch pad at the nation’s spaceport, ISRO outsourced the manufacturing of launch vehicles, and private investments made in launch providers and satellite manufacturers.

Commercial Activities

We’ll start our look back at India’s year in space in the commercial sector. Key developments included:

  • ISRO signed an $107.9 million contract with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and L&T consortium to manufacture five Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles as the space agency began to privatize rocket manufacturing. [Post]
  • Startup Skyroot Aerospace broke a government monopoly by launching India’s first privately-built launch vehicle. [Post] Skyroot also raised $55 million in rounds of $50.5 and $4.5 million. [Post] [Post]
  • Bellatrix Aerospace announced that it would invest $76 million to establish a research and development center and manufacturing facility to expand its production of spacecraft thrusters.
  • Launch provider Agnikul Cosmos built the first private launch pad and control room at ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Center. [Post] Agnikul also raised $20 million in November.
  • Pixxel launched its first two commercial hyperspectral imaging satellites. The company raised a $25 million Series A round led by Toronto-based Radical Ventures. [Post] Accenture also made a strategic investment in Pixxel through Accenture Ventures. [Post] Pixxel partnered with Rio Tinto to use hyperspectral imaging to monitor mines. [Post]
  • Earth observation company GalaxEye Space raised a $3.5 million seed round led by Special Invest.
  • Dhruva Space validated its Satellite Orbiter Deployer during the PSLV C53 launch, and deployed two nanosatellites later in the year on the PSLV C54 flight.
  • Ananth Technologies opened a satellite manufacturing facility at the Karnataka Industrial Area Development Board Aerospace Park in Bengaluru.
  • ISRO signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Vyom Space Exploration and Services for a privately-built reusable capsule that will transport cargo and eventually astronauts to and from orbit. [Post]
  • ISRO signed a MOU with Social Alpha to launch the SpaceTech Innovation Network, which will be India’s first dedicated platform for innovation curation and venture development focused on entrepreneurial space companies. [Post]

Orbital Launches
2022: 4-1
2021: 1-1

ISRO’s five launches represents an improvement over the previous two years when there were only four launches total. The space agency had launched seven and six times in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Officials talked of raising the launch cadence to once per month before the pandemic hit in early 2020.

Indian Orbital Launches

Launch VehicleSuccessesFailuresPayloads
Launch Vehicle Mk III (LVM III)1036
Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV)3021*
Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV)012
* Included six payloads that stayed attached to a PSLV upper stage

A Launch Vehicle Mk III (LVM III) launched 36 broadband satellites for OneWeb. It was the first of two LVM III launches the London-based company booked after plans to launch the spacecraft on Soyuz rockets fell through after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February. OneWeb also booked three SpaceX Falcon 9 launches.

Small Satellite Launch Vehicle lifts off on its maiden flight. (Credit: ISRO)

The lone black mark was the unsuccessful maiden launch of the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) on Aug. 7. The booster’s first three stages performed as designed, but the fourth stage failed to fire due to a sensor failure and problems with the onboard software. ISRO’s EOS-02 (Microsat-2A) Earth observation and Space Kidz India’s AzaardiSat education satellites were lost in the accident.

SSLV is designed to launch up to 500 kg (1,102 lb) to a 500 km (311 mile) high low Earth orbit or 300 kg to a 500 km (311 mile) high sun synchronous orbit.

Payloads Launched

OneWeb’s 36 communications satellites made up the bulk of the 57 payloads launched. Five spacecraft were dedicated to Earth observation, including one designed to studying the oceans. Three satellites were focused on demonstrating technologies.

Payloads Launched by ISRO

EOS-04 (RISAT-1A) Earth observationISROEarth observation1
EOS-6 (Oceansat-3)ISROOceanography1
DS-EODSTAEarth observation1
NeuSARST EngineeringEarth observation1
Scoob-1Nanyang Technological UniversityEducation1
Anand (Pixxel-TD 1) CubeSatPixxelEarth observation1
Astrocast CubeSatsAstrocast SAInternet of Things4
Thybolt 1, 2 CubeSatsDhruva SpaceTech demo2
BhutanSat (INS-2B) CubeSatBhutan DITT+/ISROTech demo1
INS-2TD CubeSatISROTech demo1
INSPIRESat-1 CubeSatLASP*/IIST^/NCU~/NTU++Ionospheric research1
PSLV Orbital Experimental Module**ISROHosted payloads6
+Department of IT and Telecom
*Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (USA)
^Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology
~National Central University (Taiwan)
++Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)
**Stayed attached to a PSLV upper stage

There were six payloads hosted by the PSLV Orbital Experimental Module (POEM), which stayed attached to an upper stage on one mission. It was POEM’s maiden flight.

India’s GSAT-24 communications satellite was also launched aboard an European Ariane 5 rocket.

Test of Gaganyaan escape motor. (Credit: ISRO)

Gaganyaan Progress

ISRO made solid progress in its Gaganyaan program last year. Major achievements included:

  • 720-second qualification test of Gaganyaan’s cryogenic engine
  • static test of a human-rated solid rocket booster [Post]
  • test fire the motor for Gaganyaan’s crew escape system [Post]
  • drop test of the spacecraft’s parachute system.

ISRO is now planned to conduct an automated test flight in 2024. A three-day crewed flight with three astronauts would follow later in the year.

Suborbital Decelerator Test

A sounding rocket launches the Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator. (Credit: ISRO)

On Sept. 3, ISRO launched an inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (IAD) aboard a RH-300 Mk II sounding rocket from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station.

The folded IAD separated from the the booster and inflated at an altitude of 84 km (52.2 miles). The decelerator then descended with the payload bay of the rocket.

“The IAD has systematically reduced the velocity of the payload through aerodynamic drag and followed the predicted trajectory. This is first time that an IAD is designed specifically for spent stage recovery. All the objectives of the mission were successfully demonstrated,” ISRO said in a press release.

Designed and developed by Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, the IAD is intended for use in recovering spent rocket stages. It can also be used to land spacecraft on other worlds.

“This demonstration opens a gateway for cost effective spent stage recovery using the Inflatable Aerodynamics Decelerator technology and this IAD technology can also be used in ISRO’s future missions to Venus and Mars,” said ISRO Chairman Somanath.