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Space startup Pixxel is ready with the first two satellites of its hyperspectral imagery constellation, and is awaiting a launch date from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to send them to orbit. 

Awais Ahmed, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Pixxel, can hardly conceal his excitement when sharing this news. “We are ready with our first satellite, which is currently going through a series of re-tests. We’re waiting for the ISRO PSLV-C53 mission to get on the launchpad, which should be ready by December 2021 or soon afterward," Ahmed said. 

“Our second satellite is also completely built and is in the final testing stage. We hope to launch it around March 2022," he added.

Pixxel plans to build a constellation of 36 satellites by the end of 2023, according to Ahmed. The initial launch of its first satellite was scheduled to take place on 28 February, 2021 aboard ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV)-C51. However, the startup had pulled out of the launch at the last moment, citing “software issues".

Hyperspectral imaging is a specialised field of satellite-based imagery, which offers a significantly richer set of data by observing a wide spectrum of light – instead of just primary colours. However, Pixxel does not earn money from the satellites themselves. Instead, its core product is the data analytics-based platform that others can use.

Ahmed said demand for hyperspectral imaging in India is at a very nascent stage at the moment. “We have a few clients in agri-tech who will use our data and compile it to provide advisories to farmers in terms of crop patterns, fertilizer usage and so on. Large agro-forestry companies have also shown interest, while specific central and state government departments are also some that we are already working with," he said.

Pixxel is not the only company looking to send satellites up in space next year. The year 2022 is shaping up to be a potentially significant year for Indian space-tech startups. Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras-based startup Agnikul Cosmos is also eyeing a launch sometime in mid-2022, the company’s co-founder Moin SPM told Mint earlier this month. The company will provide a fully 3D-printed rocket, Agnibaan, which will be used by some satellite-internet companies.

According to Ahmed, while there is plenty of scope for policies and official processes in India’s space-tech sector to be established and made easier, there has been tangible growth in the availability of support for a private space entity in the country. “For instance, we got to test our satellites at the U.R. Rao Satellite Centre in Bengaluru. We have also worked with the National Remote Sensing Centre to set up the data processes for our software offerings," he said.

Despite being in the satellite space, Ahmed said that Pixxel will not attempt to compete for a place in the satellite internet ecosystem of India, citing cost, volume and competitors as key factors.

Cost is one key factor for space-tech startups in India to contend with. Pixxel, for instance, has raised $8 million so far, which Ahmed says will be spent in developing and putting the first three satellites in place. Following this, the startup will seek fresh funding as it starts offering its hyperspectral imaging service to paying customers.

Despite the growing interest, Ahmed said that India’s space-tech ecosystem is still a decade behind other nations. “We are at least 5-10 years away in terms of the overall ecosystem in terms of what European or American space-tech startups are doing right now. We require more funding and better regulatory clarity for more projects to be undertaken in space-tech in India," he said

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