STARTUP MANTRA: REVOLUTIONISING PRIVATE AEROSPACE SECTOR
Three youngsters launched the Space Tech start-up, which aims to serve the Indian defense sector as well as educate students interested in astronomy STARTUP MANTRA
A week before the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) ambitious project Chandrayaan-3 made history after the Lander Module (LM) touched the lunar South Pole, three youngsters Suyash Bafna, Mohammed Taj Baba, and Immanuel Louis, all in their late twenties had gathered near Mantarwadi in Pune. On the night of August 14, inside a large industrial complex where the safe-test site was created, a sonic boom-like sound rocked the areas near the site prompting all security personnel, caught off-guard, to rush towards the scene. The trio, congratulating each other while enjoying their happiest and a ‘dream-come-true’ moment, had successfully test-fired a ‘semi-cryogenic engine,’ developed in-house by them using off-the-shelf components. STARTUP MANTRA
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From left: Taj Baba, Suyash Bafna, and Immanuel Louis co-founders, of Astrophel Aerospace
Astrophel Aerospace, founded by Suyash and his cofounders, is a space tech start-up, that aims to serve the Indian defence sector through various applications as well as provide educational services to school and college students interested in space technology. STARTUP MANTRA
Bafna, a graduate of the Pune Institute of Computer Technology (PICT), has no aerospace background nor does one from his family have any defence background. Still, space tech has been an area of interest for Bafna since his childhood. While pursuing his engineering education, he decided to pursue his dream but got it started during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. He met his cofounders Louis and Taj Baba through LinkedIn and met them in 2022 for the first time in person. Taj, who did his BE in aerospace, aeronautical, and space engineering and ME thermal engineering works as a Thermo fluids engineer at a private company in Bengaluru while his friend Louis, M Tech Aerospace, also works in a private company in Chennai. STARTUP MANTRA
Bafna recalls, “I began researching during the lockdown and approached my peers. The aerospace industry reforms were being introduced and I was excited to start something. I used to call other start-up founders, and employees and ask them to let me join their teams. However, they treated me like a kid and rejected my ideas repeatedly since I did not have any formal degree education in the aerospace domain. I was disappointed but never gave up. I started reading books and after a few days, I searched for two terms ‘rocket propulsion’ on LinkedIn. The first name that popped out in the search results for me was Taj Baba. Taj connected but ignored me initially. A few months later I took a bold decision and made him an offer.” STARTUP MANTRA
“Since Taj was into his job, he was not interested in the early days. However, he introduced me to Louis. Taj also set up a meeting with Louis and a group of friends from the aerospace domain and asked me to present. After the presentation, Louis and I bonded well and our team was formed. But we had only paperwork and the goal of firing a cryogenic engine, but there was nothing to show on the ground,” added Bafna. STARTUP MANTRA
Experimentation – STARTUP MANTRA
After teaming up with like-minded professionals, Bafna had to identify a test site for their experimentation. A relative offered a site at Wadki, which required daily 85-km commuting by bus or bike for him from Pune city.
Bafna stated, “We did not have enough funds, resources, team, and equipment. With the help of Louis and Taj, we did a lot of experiments for about a year and a half. Right from model rocket engines to small rockets, completing courses, teaching students, we did all possible things to gather information and components.” STARTUP MANTRA
“It took us two years to get from idea to product stage including several iterations and failures. We had built test equipment in the early days and were planning to conduct the test fire on it. However, we did not go ahead as we were not sure whether it could sustain the load and quality during the engine firing. A lot of friends and relatives taunted us but we decided not to give up and began from scratch. Me, Taj, and Louis decided to meet in person in 2022 at Bengaluru to decide our future course of action,” Bafna said. STARTUP MANTRA
Proprietary Valve Design
Bafna recalls how they learned several things the hard way. “We were using liquid oxygen in one of our tanks (oxidiser) but we did not know how to handle it properly. In the first attempt, the liquid oxygen evaporated entirely while putting it inside the tank,” said Bafna.
Explaining the proprietary design of the valves used in test equipment, Taj Baba said, “Ours is a semi-cryogenic engine as we used liquid oxygen and ethanol as other fuel. Thermally insulated pipes are required to fill the tank with the sourced liquid oxygen and this takes a lot of time for thermal conditioning. We must maintain it in a cryogenic temperature range of minus 186 degrees to keep it in the liquid state and not evaporate. The ball valve which controls the flow of liquid oxygen needs a cryogenic seal within the valve. If we use a normal plastic seal, it may break and leakage may happen. We researched and innovated with the valve design. We have used copolymerized PTFE (PolyTetraFluoroEthylene) or TFM plastic which can hold on to cryogenic temperatures.” STARTUP MANTRA
With all the test equipment components and setup ready, Bafna and his team decided to test the cryogenic engine on the night of August 14. He calls it their freedom of space-technology exploration.
“Preparations for the test were done by August 14. We had asked our interns and other staff to stay far away from the equipment location. We were controlling the system using LAN cables from our office situated a few hundred metres away. We were tense as were our friends and family as they too awaited an outcome, whether good or bad. Me, Taj, and Louis were on a conference call when the auto-sequence and countdown started. I was very excited as I was seeing a cryogenic engine being fired for the first time. When the test was successfully completed, I could not believe it. The highest thrust created during any privately tested cryogenic engine in India is 600 kg (6KN), but our engine has produced 500 kg (5KN) thrust at a very low cost. We are low on resources today and rely on off-the-shelf components. If we get enough funding, we can aim for much more,” claims Bafna. STARTUP MANTRA
Bafna and his team are looking to raise funds to test more powerful engines for a longer duration. He says, “We want to set up a test site in Chennai or maybe our new office location. We can test more powerful engines with more powerful test equipment as compared to the limited tank volumes we have presently. Big tanks can provide constant pressure for a very long time which will enable us to increase the test duration up to 200 to 300 seconds. In such an advanced setup we could get more research and development capability.” STARTUP MANTRA
“If we go and test our engine at ISRO facilities then we will get more attention from investors, but at present, we cannot afford it. However, we are in constant communication with the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), which is established as a single-window, independent, nodal agency which functions as an autonomous agency in the Department of Space (DOS) to facilitate the private sector participation in the entire gamut of space activities,” Suyash claimed. STARTUP MANTRA
Sharing his plans, Bafna further added, “Our present setup gives us 5KN thrust, we can achieve suborbital (meaning not entering space, but to just test sub-systems inflight conditions) launch.” STARTUP MANTRA
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