Indian entrepreneurs make a breakthrough in rocketry: A milestone for private space ventures

The vision of Agnikul is to bring space within everyone’s reach, aiming to enable launches from anywhere, anytime and affordably. 

Col Anil Bhat (retd) Jun 21, 2024
Agnibaan launch

In 2014, two Chennai based colleagues, Moin S P M and Srinath Ravichandran, while talking about their favourite common subject of rockets, toyed with the idea of actually making one. In 2017, with the support of IIT, Madras they formed an aerospace company named Agnikul Cosmos and on May 30, 2024, they

launched their first sub-orbital test vehicle powered by the world’s first single-piece 3D-printed rocket engine named Agnibaan SOrTeD (suborbital technology demonstrator). A suborbital rocket is one  which can go into space, but with a path or trajectory, carries them back to the earth.

At 7.15 am on May 30, 2024 Agnibaan SOrTeD  lifted off from a private launchpad the company had set up in Sriharikota. Named Dhanush, meaning a bow, this is the first private launchpad and a mobile one, set up at Sriharikota, Tamil Nadu. Agnibaan means a flaming arrow.

This feat is considered remarkable because it has been achieved entirely through indigenous design and development and is also India's first semi-cryogenic engine-powered rocket launch. Agnibaan is a single stage launch rocket powered by an Agnilet semi-cryogenic engine, i.e., an engine fuelled by a combination of liquid and gaseous propellants. A semi-cryogenic engine remains at temperatures higher than cryogenic but colder than traditional liquid rocket engines.

Significant development in space

A semi-cryogenic engine also can provide more thrust to rockets, helping carry higher payloads than cryogenic engines running on only gaseous propellants. So, Agnibaan paves the way for heavy-lift capability rockets, marking a significant development in India’s space sector. Moreover, semi-cryogenic rockets are environment-friendly and cost-effective.

The key purpose of this mission, which is also Agnikul Cosmos’ first flight, is to serve as a test flight, to demonstrate the in-house and home-grown technologies, gather crucial flight data and ensure optimal functioning of systems for this company’s orbital launch vehicle, the ‘Agnibaan’

The launch was witnessed by various luminaries including Dr. S. Somanath, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Dr. Pawan Goenka, Chairman of IN-SPACe ((Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre), Mr. Rajeev Jyoti, Director (Technical), IN-SPACe, and Mr. A Raj Rajan, Director SHAR (Sriharikota Range)The Agnikul’s core team members present at the launch included Prof. Satyanarayanan R Chakravarthy, Founding Advisor, Agnikul Cosmos and Faculty, Department of Aerospace Engineering, IIT Madras, Mr. Srinath Ravichandran, Co- Founder and CEO, Agnikul Cosmos, Mr. Moin SPM, Co-Founder and COO, Agnikul Cosmos, Ms. Saraniya Periaswamy, Vehicle Director, Agnibaan SOrTeD, and Ms. Umamaheswari. K, Project Director, Mission-01and Agnibaan SOrTeD.

Somanath, Chairman, ISRO, said, “The Department of Space and ISRO congratulates Agnikul Cosmos on the successful launch of 'Agnibaan - SOrTeD'. The success involving many firsts including 3D printed semi-cryogenic engine, flight control systems etc. demonstrates the prowess of indigenous design and innovation. It motivates ISRO to support the Space startups and non-governmental entities for innovation and Atmanirbharata (self-reliance-one of PM Narendra Modi’s popularised national aims) to create a vibrant space ecosystem in the country.”

Power of entrepreneurship 

Lauding the efforts of the Agnibaan Launch, Goenka, Chairman of IN-SPACe, said, “The successful launch of the Agnibaan SOrTeD is not just a milestone for Agnikul Cosmos but marks a significant moment for private players who are contributing to growing India's space sector. Today it is the power of young innovators and entrepreneurs who are leading from the front, innovating with cutting-edge technology such as the world's first 3D printed semi-cryogenic engine, that is driving the transformation of India’s space sector. At IN-SPACe, we are committed to support these young pioneers as they help to propel India to a leadership position in the global space arena.”

The vision of Agnikul is to bring space within everyone’s reach, aiming to enable launches from anywhere, anytime and affordably. Agnikul is committed to developing launch vehicles that are both affordable and customizable according to customer needs.

Highlighting the significance of this historic achievement, Prof. V. Kamakoti, Director, IIT Madras, said, “Sky is no more the limit for our startups. Very innovative, first time in the world, deep core technology demonstrated today by Agnikul –is a great inspiration for all young students to boldly take the entrepreneurship route and become employers.”

Speaking about the next steps, Prof. Satyanarayanan R Chakravarthy, Founding Advisor, Agnikul Cosmos and also the Head of National Centre for Combustion Research and Development (NCCRD), IIT Madras, said, “We are proud to present India’s first semi-cryo rocket engine, which is also the world’s most integrated single shot 3D printed piece. It signals the ability to rapidly assemble rockets that is unparalleled.”

Director General, Indian Space Association (ISpA), A.K. Bhatt said the successful test launch was “nothing short of a historic milestone since India launched its maiden rocket in 1963 from the Thumba launch station in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram. This is a huge boost and a proud moment for India’s thriving private space industry and just a glimpse into what the future holds for us.”

The Agnikul team consists of over 200 engineers and is associated with NCCRD (National Centre for Combustion Research & Development) at IIT Madras. Additionally, the team is guided by 45 former scientists from ISRO who bring invaluable expertise to the endeavour of democratising access to space.

Agnibaan can be configured to accommodate payloads ranging from 30 kg to 300 kg, ensuring versatility across a wide range of mission requirements. The startup is looking at flying an orbital mission towards the end of the financial year 2025-26 and is working with customers on flights starting regularly from 2025

ISRO acknowledged the Agnibaan’s launch as significant milestone for private space ventures in India. This achievement marks the second test flight of a private Indian launch vehicle following the Vikram-S launch by Skyroot Aerospace in November 2022. The Agnibaan rocket's journey was not without challenges as Agnikul Cosmos initially attempted to launch the Suborbital Technology Demonstrator (SOrTeD) test flight two days prior. However, these attempts were aborted twice due to irregularities detected during the pre-launch procedures.

(The author, a military affairs analyst, is a former Defence Ministry and Indian Army spokesperson. He can be contacted on )  

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