Pixxel, a private satellite-imaging company, will launch its first remote-sensing satellite on the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) workhorse rocket Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) in early 2021. For this, the Bengaluru-based firm has entered into an agreement with NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), a Government of India company under the Department of Space. Earlier, the company’s first satellite was scheduled to be launched towards the end of this year on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
The agreement with NSIL is one of its kind and one of the first since the setting up of IN-SPACe, the authorisation and regulatory body under the Department of Space (DoS) to enable private players undertaking space activities in India.
The DoS and Pixxel will work in collaboration to enhance utilisation and maximise the benefits of space assets for India. This first-of-a-kind private earth-observation mission will help provide solutions to many pressing environmental and agricultural issues, among other things.
“The Department of Space is happy to have one of India’s leading private space startups, Pixxel, on board this mission. We realise the potential that Pixxel’s earth-imaging satellites have to solve some pressing issues of our time and we are looking forward to a positive outcome from this launch,” said DoS Secretary K Sivan. “With the establishment of IN-SPACe, we will also be partnering with other private players that can help India achieve more milestones in the future.”
Founded in 2019 by then 21-year-olds, Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal, Pixxel, is building a constellation of earth-imaging small satellites that will provide global coverage every 24 hours once fully deployed. The satellites will collect high-throughput information-rich data that will be analysed using artificial intelligence and machine-learning models. This would help make organisations more efficient in a plethora of sectors ranging from agriculture to urban monitoring.
“We are very excited to initiate this ambitious journey in association with NSIL/Isro. We are elated with the fact that India’s first commercial private satellite will now launch on an Indian rocket,” said Awais Ahmed, CEO, Pixxel. “This is not only a proud moment for us as an organisation but also as citizens to work with our nation’s capabilities. Many thanks to the Indian government for opening up access to our country’s space infrastructure to the private sector.”
This week, Department of Space (DoS) and Agnikul Cosmos, a Chennai-based launch vehicle startup, signed a non-disclosure agreement under the newly proposed IN-SPACe entity. Agnikul is pioneering 3D printed single-piece rocket engines and building an orbital-class launch vehicle that can take small satellites to space. Their vehicle is - Agnibaan - a rocket that will be capable of carrying up to 100 kg of payload to low Earth orbits up to 700 km with a plug-and-play engine configuration. It will now be able to work with various Isro centres to get access to technical information and facilities necessary to go forward with their launch vehicle development.
“We encourage new players such as Agnikul to explore disruptive technologies and break away from the conventional methods of manufacturing launch vehicles,” said Sivan, who is also chairman of Isro.
With India allowing private companies to operate within the premises of Isro, this is expected to create huge opportunities for the country’s fledgeling aerospace start-ups. These could range from building and launching rockets and satellites to providing space services commercially and even being part of planetary exploration missions, say industry insiders. Valued at around $7 billion, the Indian space industry is just around 2 per cent of the global market that stands at around $360 billion.
However, the participation of start-ups in the space sector has largely been minimal so far. Their participation will be the key towards building India's very own aerospace companies such as Maxar, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Rocket Labs, according to experts.
Pixxel recently signed an agreement with Silicon Valley-based in-space satellite transportation and infrastructure company Momentus Inc, to launch its second satellite into space. The launch is scheduled for next year on top of a SpaceX Falcon-9 to SSO orbit (Sun-synchronous orbit), a particular kind of polar orbit.
Momentus has gained significant traction since its founding in 2017. It has attracted dozens of customers ranging from private commercial space companies to the likes of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and US space agency NASA. It has formed important industry partnerships, most notably with Elon Musk's SpaceX.