Rocket engines are difficult to design and much harder to 3D print because all the specifications have to be ‘about right’ for the rocket to operate effectively. But an Indian space startup located in Chennai has taken away this mammothic mission.
Agnikul Cosmos has successfully launched its higher stage semi-cryogenic rocket engine dubbed Agnilet. “This entire engine, Agnilet, is just one piece of hardware from start to finish and has zero parts assembled,” said co-founder and CEO Srinath Ravichandran.
Normally, rocket engines have 100s of various components to be designed separately. This includes things like injectors that inject fuel into the engine, cooling channels to ensure the engine does not overheat, and an igniter that literally ignites propellers to drive the rocket out of the ground.
On the other hand, Agnilet is a three-in-one solution. It takes all three of these modules and places them in one piece of hardware. There is no complicated assembly and the processing period for the whole setup is less than four days.
The rocket engine is capable of delivering up to 100 kilos to a low Earth orbit (LEO), which is approximately 700 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. This is just a fraction of what the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is capable of and likely only enough to accommodate at most a single satellite.
Agnikul was the first Indian space start-up to enter into a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) with the Department of Space (DoS) under the newly formed Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (IN-SPACe).
Hyderabad-based Skyroot Aerospace was founded by former Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) scientists Pawan Kumar Chandana and Naga Bharath Daka. In September last year, they also announced their full 3D printer, a cryogenic rocket engine called Dhawan-I.
Dhawan-I will be used to fuel the Vikram-II rocket that Skyroot is also developing from scratch.
The startup joined the DoS NDA earlier this month on February 2. They will be able to use the ISRO test and launch facility to test their Vikram-I and finally Dhawan-I rockets.
According to Morgan Stanley, the global space market is projected to raise $1.1 trillion or more by 2040—more than triple its current valuation of $350 billion. And emerging space engine technology, such as 3D printed rocket engines, is expected to play a significant role in this value boom.
But also foreign actors like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Ursa Major and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Root are all 3D printing components for rocket engines. This ensures that fitting these engines together and making sure they perform is also a very difficult process.
The only U.S.-based launcher similar to manufacturing a completely 3D-printed rocket engine is Firehawk Aerospace, and they’ve just raised the $2 million required to start their project.