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Fourth time unlucky as space startup aborts rocket launch

Chennai-based AgniKul Cosmos had to put a hold on scheduled demonstration test just seconds before lift-off

AgniKul Cosmos, an Indian spacetech private startup based in Chennai, canceled the scheduled launch on Tuesday of its single-stage rocket powered by a 3D-printed semi-cryogenic engine, the fourth such attempt to be called off. 

The mission, called ‘Agnibaan SOrTeD’ (Suborbital Tech Demonstrator), was aborted just seconds before lift-off. This latest postponement of AgniKul’s maiden rocket launch continues has a series of technical issues that has plagued the project. 

The rocket, weighing 575 kilograms (about 1,270 lbs) and standing 6.2 meters or just over twenty feet tall, was supposed to lift off from Sriharikota, an island in the Bay of Bengal, and then to plunge into the bay, the area being a key site for India’s satellite-launching activities. 

Incubated at IIT-Madras, AgniKul Cosmos was founded in 2017 by two young aerospace engineers with a vision to create a place “where people learn to use fire,” according to its website. With the operationalization of Agnibaan rockets, the company aims to offer launch-on-demand services, putting into orbit satellites of up to 300 kilos (about 660lbs).

Srinath Ravichandran, a co-founder of the startup, was quoted by NDTV as saying ahead of the latest test: “This launch is significant since it is India’s first launch from a private launchpad and the rocket has the world’s first single-piece, 3D-printed engine designed and built indigenously.” 

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FILE PHOTO. PSLV-C48 lifting off at the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, India, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019.
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Tuesday’s test was expected to last two minutes and to showcase the new semi-cryogenic engine, which uses a mix of liquid and gas for propellant. Notably, the technology is a next step for India, as even the country’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), has not yet fully implemented it, Indian media reports noted. ISRO is developing a 2000-kilonewton-thrust semi-cryogenic engine that works on a Liquid Oxygen (LOX)-Kerosene propellant combination, with its latest test conducted earlier this month. 

AgniKul has received approval to build a special launchpad near a coastline of Sriharikota Island, featuring its own dedicated control room. This development is part of ISRO’s initiative to open its facilities to Indian space companies, streamlining business operations.

The startup first attempted to launch its rocket on March 22 this year, but this was aborted during the countdown. On April 6 and 7 the startup canceled the launch for a second and third time. The reasons for the cancellations were not specified.

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