Rajat Kulshrestha: ‘Roadside assistance in space’

Rajat Kulshrestha, CEO of Space Machines Company which recently launched Australia’s largest commercial satellite Optimus, on pioneering space innovation

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Growing up in India in the 1990s as the nation’s fledgeling space industry was making the news, Rajat Kulshrestha grew fascinated with all things cosmic. It eventually propelled him into a career as an aerospace engineer in Australia.

Fast forward some three decades and the trajectories of both the Indian space industry and Kulshrestha’s career seem to have grown in tandem. Only months after India became the third country to land on the moon, Kulshrestha, in March, had his Sydney-based Space Machines Company (SMC) set a significant milestone in Australia’s space journey with the successful launch of Optimus – the country’s largest commercial satellite launch to date.

SMC’s Optimus is an Orbital Servicing Vehicle (OSV) that provides “roadside assistance in space”, or life-extension services, inspections and on-orbit assistance for existing space infrastructure. It also offers an innovative “space taxi service” to physically move satellites to new positions.

A pioneering space innovation, it marks the beginning of space exploration’s next chapter – developing sustainable space infrastructure.

Unfortunately, less than a month later, the company said that communications with the satellite had become disrupted and that efforts were on to reestablish contact.

Despite the setback, the SMC team, led by Rajat Kulshrestha and George Freney continues to focus on their mission objectives for future innovations and expansions in their OSV fleet.

Rajat Kulshrestha at a panel discussion at the Australia-India Space Cooperation event in Melbourne (Source: Supplied)

On April 30, SMC became one of three collaborative space projects with India to get funding from the Australian government. Of the total A$18 million (INR₹ 98 crore) under the International Space Investment India (ISI) Projects, SMC will take home over $8.5 million to begin work on ‘Space MAITRI (Mission for Australia-India’s Technology, Research and Innovation)’, with which it will demonstrate advanced concepts such as on-orbit transportation and space debris mitigation.

Talking to Indian Link about Optimus, days after the launch and before the glitch became known, Kulshrestha had said, “Satellites are a risky endeavour. Half the satellites that launch fail in some way — a rate that is rising.”

The statement was prescient, even though it was in the context of explaining why SMC and its services are vital in the future of space exploration.

Rajat Kulshrestha; Space Exploration
Space Machines Company’s Optimus satellite (Source: supplied)

Space Machines Company and its Optimus satellite

The 270 kg Optimus was launched on March 5 on Space X’s Transporter-10 mission from California, carrying new technologies including new printed flexible solar cells (a potential lightweight energy solution for space operations), and a space domain awareness camera to capture high-resolution imagery of passing objects.

On the vision behind Optimus, Rajat Kulshrestha told Indian Link, “As Earth becomes intrinsically connected to space, given the cost of accessing space has decreased significantly”, the number of satellites in orbit could cross 60,000 by 2030, up from 8,000 today. But satellites are a risky endeavour – half of those that launch fail in some way. And in orbit, they are prone to a growing risk of collisions with space debris or interference from other satellites. Optimus was designed to help address these challenges. It will enable companies to keep their satellites in space longer, ensuring a more scalable, secure and sustainable space infrastructure. This includes not only extending the satellites’ operational lifetime but providing services like refuelling, servicing, protection and de-orbiting.”

SMC established its research and development office in India in September 2022, in partnership with Bengaluru-based Ananth Technologies – symbolising deepening bilateral ties, particularly in space technology and exploration.

Inside of the SpaceX Transporter-10 stacked with Optimus, Orbital Servicing Vehicle (centre front in the photo) before launch (Source: SMC/Facebook)

“Establishing our research and development office in Bengaluru, near the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) headquarters, was a strategic move,” Kulshrestha explained. “This location allows us to leverage India’s rich experience and expertise in space endeavours.”

The Indian partnership enables SMC to collaborate across various mission aspects, from integration and testing to technology development and supply chain management. It comes at a crucial juncture, as India gears up for ambitious plans to send an astronaut to the moon by 2040 and establish its own space station by 2035.

“By tapping into the insights of the Indian space program,” Kulshrestha emphasised, “we ensure our satellite development and operations approach is both sustainable and cost-efficient.”

Operating in both Australia and India presents unique challenges and advantages. While coordinating teams and operations across different countries and regulatory landscapes is complex, it allows SMC to harness talent pools and manufacturing capabilities in both nations. Moreover, the exchange and cross-pollination of ideas can yield innovative solutions to the complex challenges of the evolving industry.

“Overall, this partnership showcases an exciting example of the synergies that can be unlocked when space-faring nations like Australia and India work together,” Kulshrestha added.

Rajat Kulshrestha; Space Exploration
Optimus roll out  (Source: Supplied)

An Alliance for Space Exploration

Looking ahead, Rajat Kulshrestha envisions space cooperation between India and Australia not only building trust and engagement but also significantly bolstering their space capabilities and geopolitical influence, while collaborative ventures in satellite technology, space exploration, and Earth observation will enhance their competitiveness in the global space industry.

The partnership can enable both countries to take “proactive steps promoting dialogue and cooperation” and achieve investments and innovation.

“In the Indo-Pacific region alone, this partnership holds immense potential to foster greater space stability and security. By leveraging their respective expertise in satellite technology, space situational awareness, and debris management, both nations can bolster early warning systems for potential hazards such as debris collisions and hostile manoeuvres.”

Kulshrestha emphasised the importance of enhancing cooperation and information-sharing in space operations and policies.

“Encouraging public-private partnerships and academic exchanges will foster a vibrant ecosystem that prioritises innovation while adhering to responsible practices. By bringing together government agencies, commercial entities, and research institutions, we can develop shared norms and best practices for the peaceful utilisation of space resources,” he added.

Kulshreshtha also feels India and Australia can set a positive example in aligning national space policies and regulations with international frameworks, such as the UN’s guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.

Optimus, Australian Satellite with Indian connection successfully reaches orbit
Launch of SpaceX Transporter-10 on 5 March 2024 (Source: twitter.com/AusSpaceAgency)

Governmental Support: A Catalyst for Collaboration

“Governmental support and policies play a pivotal role in fostering collaborations between Australian and Indian space companies,” Kulshrestha said, naming targeted funding, incentives, and regulatory frameworks as areas for policymakers to focus on to make such partnerships flourish.

Acknowledging unique challenges for Australia’s nascent space industry, he said: “Working closely with international partners and collaborators has been essential, particularly in sourcing components and supporting technology, as well as coordinating launches with SpaceX.”

However, building the capabilities required to compete globally is imperative for SMC and other local space firms, he stressed.

Despite the challenges, Kulshrestha is upbeat about the immense opportunities presented by a thriving space ecosystem. However, he underlines that Australia must receive adequate support, investment, and a conducive environment to bolster its sovereign space capabilities, which will “also provide critical infrastructure to address pressing issues such as climate change, connectivity, and defence.”

The Future of Space Exploration

Rajat Kulshrestha says the space industry is on the brink of remarkable growth and innovation, presenting both thrilling opportunities and substantial challenges.

“One of the most promising opportunities lies in the increasing commercialisation and democratisation of space, which is creating new avenues for businesses, researchers, and individuals to access and leverage space-based technologies and services.”

Critical in this regard will be his company’s competencies in meeting the demand for robust in-orbit maintenance and repair capabilities.

Read More: Optimus, an Australian satellite with Indian connection reaches orbit

Mamta Sharma
Mamta Sharma
Mamta Sharma is a freelance journalist committed to sharing stories of diversity, inclusion, and equity, alongside narratives on leadership, entrepreneurship, start-up innovation, and wellbeing.

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