Indian Startup’s 3D-Printed Engine Propels Rocket to an Impressive Four Miles High

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Many firsts: The Agnikul mission was packed with multiple firsts that have significant implications both for India and the world. It marked the country’s inaugural rocket launch from a privately owned facility, as well as the first-ever launch powered by a semi-cryogenic engine. But the real deal was that Agnibaan’s engine was 3D-printed in a single piece – a world-first for rocket engines.

Chennai-based startup Agnikul Cosmos successfully conducted a sub-orbital test launch of its unique 3D-printed semi-cryogenic rocket called Agnibaan. The launch took place on May 30 from the company’s own launch pad located at Sriharikota.

Agnikul fabricated this engine using an advanced 3D metal printer in just 72 hours, showcasing how additive manufacturing could enable on-demand launch capabilities for small satellite operators in the future. Conventional rocket engines involve lengthy manufacturing timelines followed by rigorous qualification tests. In contrast, Agnikul 3D-printed this engine from a high-performance nickel-chromium alloy in just three days using a printer from German firm EOS.

Assembling the full rocket with the 3D-printed engine, meanwhile, took an additional couple of weeks. Still, this is much quicker than conventional rocket engine manufacturing methods which usually take about 12 to 16 weeks.

Other rocket companies like Relativity and Rocket Lab employ 3D printing too, but Agnikul’s approach is unique in that it printed the entire engine as one component rather than assembling it from printed parts. The simpler procedure and quick production could potentially enable low-cost, responsive launch services compared to the long wait times for rideshare opportunities on larger rockets.

During the test on May 30, the single-stage Agnibaan rocket took off from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in the state of Andhra Pradesh. It climbed to an altitude of 6.5 km (4 miles) before ditching into the ocean as planned. That isn’t any higher than commercial passenger planes, which typically fly at an altitude of 8 to 11 kilometers (4.9 – 6.8 miles). But that was never the goal in the first place – the launch still served as a critical tech demo validating all the key subsystems required for an orbital flight.

This was the startup’s fifth attempt at the mission. Previous attempts were called off because of technical problems, including one earlier this week that was canceled just five seconds before launch.

Agnikul nailed the performance target of 6 kilonewtons of thrust and even tested advanced capabilities like real-time trajectory adjustments to counter windage effects. More importantly, the launch gave the startup valuable experience in both rocket production and launch operations.

Seeing that this 6-meter (19.6 foot) tall launch vehicle performed as expected, Agnikul now has a proper rocket lined up that will be three times taller for 2025. The upcoming 18-meter (59-foot) orbital rocket will feature two stages, have up to seven engines, and a payload capacity of 300 kg (661 pounds) to thrust it into low Earth orbits around 700 km (435 miles) high.

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