Published: 21st February 2020
This Bengaluru start-up makes propulsion systems for ISRO. This is their awesome story
We speak to Yashas Karanam to learn more about Bellatrix Aerospace, a start-up that produces efficient propulsion systems for the likes of ISRO
Over the past few years, Bellatrix Aerospace has become a known name in the field of Space Technology, all thanks to Rohan Ganapathy's innovation - Microwave Plasma Thrusters (MPT) - that is in the process of installing in the Indian satellite systems, making them lighter and cheaper. In 2012, when Rohan was studying Aeronautical Engineering at Coimbatore's Hindustan College of Engineering and Technology, he started working on the MPT and was keen on installing this innovative propulsion system in satellites. To this end, he proposed this idea to Sajjan Jindal, the Chairman of JSW Group whom he met at one of the events. The latter was so impressed with the idea that he offered Rohan various CSR grants to demonstrate the Microwave Plasma Thrusters
In 2015, the core team including Yashas Karanam, Saagar Malaichamy, Vivek Murgesan and others decided to start Bellatrix to develop MPT thruster technology and produce advanced satellite propulsion systems. Yashas Karanam who has completed Electrical and Electronics Engineering is part of the Bellatrix team. When we ask him what brought them to Bengaluru, where the company is currently housed, this 26-year-old engineer says, "We realised that we would be getting many experts on board to work with us and through the Society for Innovation and Development (SID), we shifted to the Indian Institute of Science. With money comes the infrastructure, but we were yet to work on the machine itself. Here, we got the equipment and the machinery to work on and test out the propulsion system that we called MPT."
Rohan is working at the company's test facility (Pic: Bellatrix)
Curious to know more about MPT and how it works, we ask Yashas to explain what makes it unique. He says, "Do you know what is the biggest challenge for any country while sending their satellite into space? It is spending money on fuel as well as the weight of the satellite's systems. More the weight, the higher the cost of launching it in a space on a rocket. In satellites, there are two types of propulsion systems, while one is the chemical propulsion system, the other is the electric propulsion system. Traditionally, all our satellites carry chemical propulsion and this requires tonnes of fuel to keep the satellite in Earth’s orbit. We felt that it was not an efficient way as there is little space for everything else. On top of that, paying for the launch of satellite would cost more than it would to design the system."
That's when Rohan and the team thought about coming up with an alternative. Yashas explains, "The space industry is slowly adopting the electric propulsion technology in satellites as it requires less fuel. You need more electricity and less fuel and power can be produced using hi-tech solar panels. What we are doing through MPT is providing an advanced electric propulsion system. Usually, the electrodes in the electric propulsion system get erorded when they are in orbit. This reduces its lifespan. But MPT provides zero-erosion electric propulsion systems that are lightweight and have a long lifespan, which can keep the satellite going for a long time in the space system. It will also decrease the cost spent on fuel and gives more space to fix transponders or what we call communication systems."
While this research was happening, Rohan met AS Kiran, the then Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and explained to him the concept. Intrigued, the team was asked to demonstrate the working of the propulsion system at their office and impressed with their idea, ISRO decided to place an order for their MPT system. With the growing demand of the space industry, Yashas believes that they have to come up with various innovations and constantly improve their system if they want to survive in the market. "The space market has many foreign companies and suppliers too. There is enough competition to survive. To keep up, we keep developing different engines and systems that are required for the satellites to work," he concludes.