India launches nation's 1st 3D-printed rocket engine

A rocket is seen headed to space in a beachy area.
Indian space startup Agnikul Cosmos successfully test-fired their launch vehicle that was powered by a 3D-printed rocket engine. (Image credit: Agnikul Cosmos via X)

Indian space startup Agnikul Cosmos successfully launched the nation's first 3D-printed rocket engine on Thursday (May 30), paving the way for reduced time and costs associated with building rockets and boosting the country's spacefaring capabilities.

"It signals the ability to rapidly assemble rockets that is unparalleled," Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy of Agnikul Cosmos, who is also a professor of aerospace engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, said in a statement.

The maiden flight was also the country's second private rocket launch and the first to demonstrate the use of a semi-cryogenic engine. Unlike cryogenic engines that require heavy tanks to hold pressurized liquid hydrogen and oxygen at very low temperatures, semi-cryogenic engines replace the liquid hydrogen with refined kerosene. As a result, such engines require lesser storage space and normal temperatures, allowing for increased payload capacity as well as higher thrust.

Related: India makes breakthrough by test-firing new 3D-printed rocket engine (photo)

Thursday's launch of the Agnibaan Sorted (short for Suborbital Technology Demonstrator), which is designed to ferry up to 660 pounds (300 kilograms) of payload into a 435-mile (700-kilometer) orbit, was the startup's fifth attempt at the mission. Previous efforts were aborted due to technical issues, including one earlier this week that was canceled just five seconds before scheduled launch.

On Thursday, the mission lifted off from the startup's launchpad at the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota on India's southeastern coast. The two-minute flight achieved an altitude of five miles (eight kilometers) before splashing down in the Bay of Bengal. "All the mission objectives of this controlled vertical ascent flight were met and performance was nominal," the startup said in a post on X

"This is the culmination of 1000s of hours of reviews and hard work by the team," Srinath Ravichandran, the co-founder and CEO of Agnikul Cosmos, added in the news release. Data from this test flight will be useful to develop the startup's orbital launch vehicle, Agnibaan, perhaps by early next year.

Pawan Goenka, the chairman of Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe), said the mission's successful launch is "a historic moment for India's space sector." 

"The successful launch of the Agnibaan Sorted is not just a milestone for Agnikul Cosmos but marks a significant moment for private players who are contributing to growing India's space sector," he said in the statement. "Today it is the power of young innovators and entrepreneurs who are leading from the front, innovating with cutting-edge technology such as the world's first 3D-printed semi-cryogenic engine, that is driving the transformation of India's space sector."

The Delhi-based Indian Space Association (ISpA) said the launch will "bolster global confidence" in India's private space industry, as reported by Reuters.

Currently, Agnikul Cosmos takes about 75 hours to build one rocket engine using its automated 3D printing technology, which is much faster than the standard 10 to 12 weeks required to build a similar-sized rocket engine using conventional processes, the startup's co-founder and CEO Srinath Ravichandran told TechCrunch

Recently, India's national space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, also tested a 3D-printed rocket engine whose manufacturing reduced the number of engine parts from 14 to one, allowing the organization to save not only on raw material used per engine but also the overall production time by 60 percent.

Such leaps in homegrown technology will help India boost its launch rate as the country plans to perform up to 30 civil and commercial launches in a little over a year. The country's goals for its human spaceflight program include sending three astronauts on a three-day trip to low-Earth orbit in 2025 and to the moon by 2040, as well as establishing an orbiting space station by 2035 and a lunar base before 2050.

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Sharmila Kuthunur
Space.com contributor

Sharmila Kuthunur is a Seattle-based science journalist covering astronomy, astrophysics and space exploration. Follow her on X @skuthunur.

  • Unclear Engineer
    Trying to understand the new jargon.

    A "semi-cryogenic" rocket is just one that uses regular kerosene RP1 fuel with liquid oxygen for its oxidizer, so one of the 2 parts is "cryogenic" and the other is just room temperature (or lower in space). Same as the old Atlas rockets that the U.S. is going to use to launch the Boeing Starliner capsule (some day soon, we hope).

    As for "3D printed", and "one piece", I am trying to understand what is included in the "one piece" and what are attachments that are different pieces. There is a picture of another "semi-cryogenic" rocket motor used by India here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SCE-200 . As can be seen in the picture, there are a lot of parts, some that spin in a turbine. So, it is not clear to me how there can be "one part" if it includes the turbine and its blades. I am guessing that it is the combustion chamber and the nozzle, along with its cooling passages, and maybe the injectors for the fuel and lox in the combustion chamber that are being 3D printed.

    it would help if the article had some engine designation number that we could look up to get more info. A Google search turned up this: https://www.theweek.in/news/sci-tech/2024/06/01/explained-the-tech-behind-3d-printed-rocket-and-how-agnikul-cosmos-capitalised-it.html , which says
    "Ravichandran has also said that their core engine is 3D printed as a single piece, including the fuel inlet, exhaust outlet, and everything in between, along with the igniter. This engine is then connected to the necessary plumbing, such as fuel pipes, pressure and temperature sensors, and valves. "
    But, there is no equivalent picture in the second link.
    Reply