Making space taxis and paisa vasool satellite launches a reality

Making space taxis and paisa vasool satellite launches a reality
(From left) Co-founders Rohan M Ganapathy and Yashas Karanam  |  Photo Credit: Bellatrix Aerospace
22 Feb, 2021

If you Google Bellatrix, what would you expect to see? Pictures and articles of Helena Bonham Carter personifying Harry Potter antagonist Bellatrix Lestrange, of course? Well, not entirely true. 

Today, allow TechCircle to tell you the story of the spacetech startup that has replaced Voldemort’s most loyal follower on our browsers. 

First, let’s set the scene. 

Do you remember how, in a pre-pandemic world, you’d come out of a cinema hall, raving about how paisa vasool a movie was? How that dinner at that Japanese restaurant was so expensive, but was worth every lip-smacking bite? It’s the same for companies . It can cost an organisation anywhere between $10 million and $400 million to send a satellite to space, and its primary aim would be to obtain maximum returns. 

For instance, when a spacecraft from the European Space Agency hitchhikes on the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) ride-sharing mission to low-Earth orbit, ESA would want the full benefit of the payload being delivered, which translates into more revenue.

While the best way to increase output from a satellite is to increase its data-gathering capabilities, this solution comes with a big hurdle -- weight capacity. The propulsion technologies usually used to help satellites manoeuvre in space and maintain proper orientation require a huge amount of fuel, which not only increases the launch cost but also restricts the number of useful instruments the spacecraft can carry.

“Traditionally, satellites used to have chemical propulsion wherein the required thrust is provided through a chemical reaction, usually by burning (or oxidising) fuel. It worked like a mini rocket. But in such cases, the amount of fuel you require is very large,” Yashas Karanam, co-founder and COO of Bengaluru-based Bellatrix Aerospace, told TechCircle.

In a bid to find an alternative, the spacetech startup that Karanam co-founded with CEO Rohan M Ganapathy in 2015, is working on novel electric propulsion systems that require much less fuel to function.

“It is a new way to help satellites move in space, where you have electricity available on the satellite through solar panels. It can be used to ionise fuel and send it out at extremely high velocities, which pushes the satellite in the required direction,” the 26-year-old said, adding that the change would significantly cut fuel usage. 

For instance, if a chemical propulsion satellite weighing three-and-a-half tonnes requires about two tonnes of fuel, an electric satellite of the same size would just need about 200-250 kg of propellant.

An analysis by the University of Colorado Boulder shows that the launch mass of electric satellites could come down to only 45%, compared to a satellite with conventional, chemical propulsion. This, if attained, would reduce operational costs, while allowing plenty of payload space to put in additional revenue-generating transponders and electronics on the spacecraft.

Stage 1: the liftoff

In 2012, future co-founder Ganapathy was an aeronautical engineering student at Coimbatore's Hindustan College of Engineering and Technology. This is where he ideated the electric propulsion system, a novel concept back then. 

Subsequently, he presented the project to Sajjan Jindal, managing director of JSW Group, at an event and received a grant from the company in 2014. With this, the engineer set up the small core team of Bellatrix Aerospace, which included family friend Karanam and college juniors Saagar Malaichamy and Vivek Murugesan.  

By 2015, the team was working on an electric propulsion system called Microwave Plasma Thruster (MPT). A year later, the company was incubated at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), through the Society for Innovation and Development (SID). This gave the startup a 2,000-ft facility, with full access to machines and advanced equipment, to set up a dedicated propulsion lab and advance the system. 

MPT, Ganapathy said, delivers the key benefits -- less cost and more space -- of electric propulsion without suffering from erosion. Electrodes in electric thrusters face the risk of erosion in harsh orbital environments. However, MPT’s design dodges the issue and ensures an orbital life three times longer than that of the satellite. Plus, the system uses water as fuel, making the whole experience far cleaner and eco-friendly.

Through the years, Bellatrix has expanded that technology to set up four types of thrusters, which include not just electric but hybrids combining electric and chemical systems, to cater to different mission requirements. 

“As we grew, we realised that one product cannot serve the entire gamut of operations required for a satellite. There will be satellites as small as nanosatellites and as big as heavy satellites. To cater to the entire class of satellites, it was important that we, as a company, try to focus on multiple products that can meet all complex mission requirements,” Ganapathy said.

Stage 2: the journey 

In 2016, the startup won a contract from ISRO for the MPT-- this was significant for Bellatrix, Karanam said, as the space agency usually develops technology in-house and offered contracts only to a few local players.

In 2017, it received the TDB National Award from the president of India for its novel technology. 

In 2019, it raised $3 million in a funding round, dubbed a pre-Series A round, led by IDFC-Parampara, StartupXseed, Karnataka Semiconductor Venture Capital Fund and Survam Partners. Actress Deepika Padukone also participated in the round through KA Enterprises, along with GrowX Ventures, IIM-A’s Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship, and IIT-B’s Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Commenting on Bellatrix’s work, Manish Gupta, principal for investing at GrowX, said, “Our investment was owing largely to a high-quality team that had racked up non-trivial technological progress and an imminent inflection point we anticipated in the Indian spacetech industry. In a short period of time, they had built a very strong body of work (IPs), which in our eyes was truly impressive.”

Stage 3: the orbit

The company is currently gearing up to send the propulsion systems to space and test how it fares in the harsh environment, Karanam said. Once the technology meets the quality standards both in lab and orbit, it will be commercialised, meaning that the company will sell it to satellite manufacturers looking to cut the cost and increase payload space on their spacecraft. 

“Right now, the focus is mainly on getting our propulsion system to space and getting into actual sales,” Karanam said. Without specifying how much the startup plans to charge for the technology, the co-founder added: “2022 will mainly be about going global, going commercial on the propulsion technologies.”

For the financial year ended March 2019, Bellatrix posted total revenue of Rs 42.50 lakh, according to VCCEdge data. The company’s FY20 earnings are not available yet.

Along with the propulsion system for satellites, Bellatrix also looks to manufacture unconventional satellites and orbital transfer vehicles (OTVs) to grow its business.

Expanding on the plan for unconventional satellites, Karanam said the company plans to contract manufacture specialized satellites for highly demanding missions. It is a completely new area, he said. It has currently only partnered with Satsure to manufacture dedicated satellites for advanced Earth imaging, he said. 

Additionally, the company is developing a dedicated OTV that would be able to carry multiple satellites at a low cost. It will be a space taxi of sorts, capable of deploying one payload in a particular orbit and taking all the passenger satellites to their respective orbits, he said.

Bellatrix plans to conduct the first OTV mission in 2023 and has partnered with Skyroot Aerospace, a homegrown rocket manufacturer, for launch services. 

The company is also developing its own reusable launch vehicle, with a new cycle of methane LOX engine, but that is currently on the back burner and going slowly, Ganapathy said.

“Rocket side, we are optimising our engines’ limits of performance to make it best-in-class. The company will invest more funds to fast track the rocket work after further funding,” he said.

Karanam added that the startup plans to raise funds this year, but added that nothing has been finalised yet. 

The co-founder remains optimistic about the potential of the developing private space sector in India, as do its investors. 

According to GrowX’s Gupta, “We see Bellatrix continuing to produce breakthrough new technologies for their propulsion systems. At the same time, we also see them converting their technologies into innovative products for brand-new use cases, across the spacetech spectrum. We are seeing demand from across the globe for different products and expect Bellatrix to take the lead around green and clean propulsion, working with market leaders and creators.”

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