Episode 39 of the Space Industry podcast is a discussion with Rifath Shaarook, Chief Technology Officer at Space Kidz India, about the company’s heritage and how they work with suppliers in the modern industry.
Episode show notes
Space Kidz India is a Chennai, India, based company that develops satellite and high-altitude balloon missions, technology demonstrations, educational programs, and a range of other initiatives in the space industry.
In the podcast we discuss:
- Space Kidz India’s origins and missions carried out to date
- What the company looks for in a new supplier
- How space companies can better share information on their products and services with prospective buyers
- Some of the bottlenecks in procurement and how they can be overcome
- Space Kidz India’s upcoming work and future plans
What does a buyer look for?
- Engineering support during integration and testing
- Flexibility in customization options
- Detailed datasheets, along with 3D models, made available online openly
- Online NDA options through portals like DocuSign to speed up communication
- Provide the right point of contact at the supplier company
- Access to global potential by onboarding more suppliers from regions other than US and Europe to be on digital procurement platforms like satsearch
- Support to make customs clearance for importing more simple
Flight heritage vs price
- Flight heritage is more important than price for mission-critical subsystems.
- New components at a cheaper price can be considered for non-critical components or during a dedicated technology demonstrator mission
About Space Kidz India
Space Kidz India, an aerospace organisation based in India, is a satellite and component manufacturer. They are also building sounding rockets for meeting sub-orbital launch vehicle demands and re-entry capsules.
Please note that while we have endeavored to produce a transcript that matches the audio as closely as possible, there may be slight differences in the text below. If you would like anything in this transcript clarified, or have any other questions or comments, please contact us today.
[00:00:00] Hywel: Hello everybody. I’m your host Hywel Curtis. And I’d like to welcome you to the space industry by satsearch, where we share stories about the companies taking us into orbit. In this podcast, we delve into the opinions and expertise of the people behind the commercial space organizations of today who could become the household names of tomorrow.
Before we get started with the episode, remember, you can find out more information about the suppliers, products, and innovations that are mentioned in this discussion on the global marketplace for space at satsearch.com
Hello everybody. And welcome to today’s episode. Now, today is a little bit different to our episodes that we run speaking to individual suppliers in the industry. Today I’m joined by Rifath Shaarook from Space Kidz India.
And Rifath is going give us a little bit of his experiences and some insights into the procurement and the space industry on the purchase side, on the buyer side. But firstly, I think it would be great to set the scene by, Rifath, if you could give us a little bit of a background about SpaceKidz India and hello, and welcome to the podcast too, of course.
[00:01:04] Rifath: Hello everyone. Thank you so much for the opportunity. This is absolutely, beautiful to be here. I just love it. I’m a big fan of satsearch. It has helped me a lot during our searching for the components. Thank you for that thank you. I’ll start with a brief intro about Space Kidz India, and what we are doing here.
Space Kidz India is an aerospace organization, located in India in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. So we started back in 2010 as an ambassador for NASA space camps. So we take children from here to NASA and train them in different aerosapce related field. And that is how we came to know about cubesats and nanosatellites back in 2010.
It was like 12 years ago. At the time, it, things were very different. We started from there. So we wanted to get into space industry, particularly nanosatellites. So we started with launching high altitude balloons for testing our components and everything back in 2015.
And from there so far, we have launched 18 balloonsat missions, two suborbital satellites to test our buses. One in collaboration with NASA as part of a student challenge. Currently we have two satellites in orbit, one is an amateur radio satellite, and another one is a IOT communication satellite.
So we are a full skill satellite development company. We manufacture all the components and subsystems for nanosatellites locally here in India and supply to all the research and education based customers. And now we are expanding into new fields. Like we are working on a reentry capsule on the sounding rocket. So things are getting exciting.
[00:02:37] Hywel: Wow. Fascinating. There’s quite a range of work there. How many are you? How big is the team?
[00:02:43] Rifath: We are around 12 people work full time and we have another 12 contract workers who work when there is a requirement.
[00:02:52] Hywel: Oh, great. So I was going to ask a little bit about missions you’re involved in, but I think you’ve just given us an overview there. Maybe if you could just. Explain a little bit about how those missions have worked from on the procurement side of things.
How have you gone about sourcing the systems and tools you need and indeed the expertise that you’ve required in Space Kidz India, especially in the early years.
[00:03:11] Rifath: Particularly in the early years it was very difficult. There were only few companies like ISIS and Blue Canyon Technologies who are, supplying ADCS and we have to separately go to their website, check everything, get their datasheet. Oh, it’s tough in the early days I’m talking about 2014, 2015, like that.
And one thing, what we do here at Space Kidz India, we actually don’t buy the subsystems. We don’t buy communication system or we don’t buy structures from third parties. We are actually one of the manufacturers we manufacture the system. What we buy is raw materials. For example, we buy microcontrollers or we buy stepper motors for building the attitude control systems.
We buy raw materials for building the structures. So it’s quite different because it is not just we need to interact with the space industry. We also need to interact with normal, consumer electronics industry for example, Texas instruments or Digikey, like that kind of supplier. So we can get the raw material and get things going on. Yeah. That’s what we basically do.
[00:04:12] Hywel: When you are looking for the sort of suppliers like the companies you’ve just mentioned, when you’re looking to, for a new supplier, or a new kind of mission, or you maybe you need to change for whatever reason. What is it that you are looking for in the supplier company in order to create a partnership?
[00:04:27] Rifath: Whomever we work, with engineering support is the first thing we look at, like how much we can collaborate with them. And if in space, that a lot of things can go wrong. And during integration, that will be a lot of troubles because it is multiple systems, right? each system is manufactured by different people at different countries and everything has to work together.
So then only we can deliver the properly working satellite to the end customer. So during this integration, the system has to talk with each other. So first thing we look forward is good engineering support. So in case if you’re buying a sun system, for example, recently be purchased an attitude control system with the support of satsearch. We found the supplier using search and we bought the ADCS and it’s amazing. They were able to provide us with all the support. So onboard computer is manufactured by us. It’s our custom system in-house system, so we have to integrate it. So that is the first thing we’ll look forward to.
And the second one is the flexibility on customization. And also the timelines for example, here at Space Kidz India, our turnaround time are very quick, for example, in 2019, we built and launched a CubeSat within 10 days. And yeah, and last year we’ve fabricated a satellite within three months. So sometimes there will be missions which require a lot of quick turnaround times.
It’s not like usual, not every mission requires this, but in some missions, if you’re able to develop a good partnership with the supplier who can support us in the long term with our custom requirements and suppliers, as soon as possible, that would be an amazing thing to work with.
[00:06:10] Hywel: Yeah, absolutely. And when it comes to the engineering support, do you think there are ways that suppliers could explain what they do or promote what they do on that side of things better? Should they be giving you more resources upfront or is it about integrating the systems, testing, integrating into the systems more clearly, are there ways you advise them to improve?
[00:06:30] Rifath: That’s really an amazing question, right? Because while looking at attitude control systems, because attitude control system, or like recently we are looking for some propulsion system. There are lots of options, and it is hard to interact with everyone, write emails to everyone, get the data sheet and, then evaluate all those things.
It would be great if I understand the companies have a lot of proprietary technologies and it may require NDA to be signed off, but it would be really amazing if they can give as much as information as possible upfront, for example, maybe in satsearch website or whatever the website they’re using is they can upload it, all the things online and it would be great. We can just go through the data sheet. We can see who would be the right fit so we can just contact them directly instead of contacting everyone, it’ll save time, both for us and for them, that would be really amazing.
And what I would Also think is there are a lot of companies like in China, new companies are coming in China and from Japan new companies are coming, if they can also join the platform like satsearch or like any other platform existing, a global potential can be tapped in.
For example here in Chennai itself I’ll tell you an example. We are from Chennai and from 300 kilometers from here, we have another GPS manufacturing company. We’ve been trying to contact them for few months, but we weren’t able to get a reply because that company is a very big company. We have to contact the right person to get the right response. But we weren’t able to do that. Recently, they joined a bunch of companies from India, like data patterns, accord systems, they all joined satsearch and we just sent a request from satsearch. So it directly went to the right person. And today we got the response.
So if companies can mention whom to be contacted for what aspect, if it is a onboard computer whom should be contacted, if they can give a right way to contact, it would be easier for us. And a lot of time and energy can be saved.
[00:08:32] Hywel: Obviously at the moment, there’s a particular challenges globally with the supply chain. And you’ve mentioned that your procuring components and electronic components to integrated circuits and things, and it’s just pretty pretty tough times out there for that sort of thing.
If we kinda, park that issue because, fingers crossed, it’s a short term blip and there are certain things in the world, which we don’t have to talk about, which could hopefully be resolved for the good of industry, at least everywhere.
If we park that situation in a typical operating conditions, do suppliers typically meet the lead times that they promised based on your experience?
[00:09:07] Rifath: Based on our experience before pandemic, most of the time we were able to, there were not delays more than a week or so, because mostly we work with local supplier, local vendors.
So we, get the components on time, a major trouble where we get is the import and customs clearance. That is where things get shut and the customs offices, they don’t understand what we are exactly trying to do. And the moment we say these components are for satellite or space, they get panic and they’ll inform the government agencies.
Most of the time it is during the import, the problem will happen at least in India, that we have seized a lot of time. And one time we even had to leave one of our payload, which we flew in US. It was coming back. The sample was coming back and we weren’t able to clear the customs at the end. We didn’t receive it. We just left it.
We just left it because it was so expensive to get the clearance. So we just did it. So that is where things go wrong. Most of the time, at least here in India. And right now our government is working towards, promoting a NewSpace policy to make this easier for us.
But apart from that someplace like Digikey, or other supplies were materials like our semiconductors microcontrollers and all those stuff. We didn’t face much problem before the pandemic. But after the pandemic, it’s completely going crazy and it’s so painful, but before pandemic, it was not that much serious.
[00:10:34] Hywel: It’s more about the customs issues and the imports then, and in those situations, other suppliers able to support you, is it a, do you feel as if the suppliers are doing the best they can and it’s just down to some customs officials some way.
[00:10:45] Rifath: Yeah, most of the time we won’t be able to interact with the suppliers like GK or element 14. They’re a very big platform. So we won’t be able to have continuous conversation with them. It’s all over what is the information we are giving the address and everything. So that is the one. But if you’re talking in terms of suppliers, the manufacturers, like we are seeing in satsearch like ISIS or Endurosat, those times they try to support as much as possible from their side, whatever the address we are giving and whatever the shipping requirement we are having on all those things.
It is not all about just the satellite alone, satellite components alone. Sometimes the requirements are regarding the test equipments, for example, spectrum analyzers or signal generators. So like that, which are not directly connected to satellite industry, but it is very crucial for testing your subsystem, checking out your satellite and dispatching it for the delivery.
In that perspective suppliers are doing their best. Recently, we got a signal generator for testing one of our satellites and it was delivered under 24 hours. Under 24 hours. Yeah. Not to India, but to one of our US, one of my friends there and he just took it here within two days. We got it there. So they’re trying to do their best.
Sometimes, we also need to give correct input codes, correct input clauses, and everything. If you make mistakes from our side. And if finally it’s a mess, it’s we have to blame our side.
[00:12:14] Hywel: That’s great to hear that, the suppliers are helping you whenever they can. And yeah, I think everybody recognizes that, as we’ve said, the challenges in the supply chain are felt by everybody. It’s not, doesn’t matter how, where you are, what scale you are. They’re being felt by everybody. So at least there’s that level of understanding. And obviously you mentioned a bit about the missions that you’ve that you’ve done.
And there have been innovation in those missions. So you’ve tried to push the envelope in certain ways. When it comes to flying components at any level, if you wanna, go down the parts of the subsystem, are you likely to fly a component that meets your technical specifications for a satellite, but that doesn’t necessarily have flight heritage? This is I think an interesting one in the industry.
[00:12:56] Rifath: At least from, our organization’s personal perspective. We love to fly components and subsystem, which doesn’t have any flight heritage. We actually have dedicated missions, like once in a year or couple of years, just to fly components, which does not flown before to space and qualify them.
So we can use that in the future missions because we are at the end of the day, we are not the end customer. We are not sending satellite, getting the data and selling it. We are not getting business out of the data. We are a satellite manufacturer and the more innovation we can make in hardware, more money, we can save for our customers.
So it’s our responsibility to test new components and qualify them so we can provide, best service to our customers. So most of the times our satellites, it is not customer satellites. Every year Space Kidz India ourselves, we have our own missions, personal technology demonstrator missions in which we fly new components.
And we love to do that because we get good deal because it’s a new component. So prices are cheap. And it’s a win-win situation. We can provide them with the data so they can evaluate how their system is performing. At the same time, we can also learn new things about how we can integrate these things in the future.
So we absolutely love to do that. And we are actually going to do that in an upcoming mission as well. We are flying a new eight attitude control system.
[00:14:23] Hywel: All right. Brilliant. Where, when is that?
[00:14:25] Rifath: It’s actually scheduled for launch on August 15th. Right now, the integration is going on.
[00:14:31] Hywel: Okay. Fantastic. Oh best of luck.
[00:14:33] Rifath: Thank you. Thank you so much.
[00:14:35] Hywel: And then you mentioned that with your own systems and the own subsystems that the price is effective, like the flying of the price, and you are all about being able to generate value at the end of it. So obviously price is a consideration, one of the considerations in space, but there’s space is a unique business model in the sense that the environment dictates so much of what goes on and price is there for only one factor.
But assuming there, there was, an established flight heritage or performance for a product that you needed. Would you consider switching to a new supplier, a new vendor for any of the products due to a reduction in price, or would other factors be more important to you in such a situation?
[00:15:16] Rifath: It, it totally depends upon the situation. For example, in a mission where we are having a camera in this. Okay. The camera, we cannot take risk because it is one of the primary payload. So we cannot put a new hardware. So we are using a flight-qualified our own model, or it is a custom fabricated one, but we are not flying a new one.
We went with, where reliability matters. So in that kind of scenarios, we will prefer flight proven hardware, but, in case it’s more of an experimentation or like our technology demonstrator missions, where there is a prizes reduced, what we will do is first we’ll get the engineering model and we will do an internal evaluation with the team that how good the equipment is.
And we will go through that documentation and we’ll check, how they have done so far. And if it satisfies our engineering team. And then we will give it a try. Maybe we can first fly it in a, high altitude balloon mission. And we will be doing thermal vaccum testing. And if all those things get satisfied, we will absolutely love to go with the newly developed models.
But if it is a flight critical one, for example the deployers will never take risk. The releasing mechanisms, the deployers mainly recently we had an opportunity to use a deployer from a new manufacturer, but we have to say no because it was never used and we cannot risk to jeopardize the entire mission.
It’s a very crucial one where we went with the more reliable flight-proven system. If it is just a small mechanism, like an antenna release mechanism, even in this mission, what we are doing is our primary antenna is held by a flight proven system, but we are just having another dummy antenna with another like secondary transmitter, which is held by a new system, we are developing. So even if that fails, it’s not a problem for us, but once we are able to prove it in space, that it is actually working from next time, we will switch to our own system, which will save us a lot of money. So it’s a complex engineering process and, design process we have to go through for each and every component.
Yeah. Case by case it changes.
[00:17:28] Hywel: Yeah. You’ve given, some really useful information. I think for suppliers, as I mentioned, this is what I was really interested in talking with you. You mentioned engineering support, the importance of communications, maintaining those communication upfront sharing of testing data and documents and everything.
Do you have any other kind of general advice that you would give to suppliers on the, in the industry today who would like to sell, to a Space Kidz India or to companies like yourself in the future?
[00:17:54] Rifath: Yeah, actually right now comparing to the scenarios, which were like since we are here for like around the past 10 years, comparing to the earlier days right now, things have changed a lot. Before you can’t even get the data sheet online.
And we have to mail the responses to be slow, but now things got really better because NewSpace has been trending one and everyone wants to get into space industry. Suppliers, they got really good at communicating with the customers. So I think right now we are doing almost good.
But what I would say is sometimes, suppliers can include 3D models. And we can see whether it would fit our recommends, data sheets, detailed data sheet is a very important thing. So every supplier, if they can provide detailed data sheets in the product page, which can be openly downloaded. That would be an amazing thing. That’s what I would say.
And manufacturers mostly while looking at, even in satsearch or, any other platform, only the countries like US and countries are like someplace from Europe, only they are supplying all the details openly and it’s available publicly, but I have worked a lot with people from Ukraine.
I have worked a lot with people from Russia, from China. I have worked with them and I know what are the amazing technologies they’re having in terms of CubeSats in terms of solar cells, onboard electronics and everything, but they’re not openly available. So if those people can also come into it, the prices will become competitive.
The more competition, the prices will get lower and it’ll benefit people like us. So that would be amazing.
[00:19:32] Hywel: You’re completely honest about your motivation for that to happening, but yeah, that’s. Horizon tide lifts all boats. And so you’d hope that the industry itself would benefit from changes in. And as you say, it’s not about the ability to communicate.
It’s about the mindset deciding to communicate because when it’s needed in a, in an individual transaction setting, the information is all there. It’s just a case of let’s go one step further and do it in the marketing.
[00:19:57] Rifath: And also one more thing I would like to add is it’s a standard practice for, all the companies to sign NDA right before providing further details.
And some companies use portals like DocuSign to, just sign the things. And sometimes, they’ll manually send the thing you have to fill up and sign it. So if all the companies can come up with a platform or something where NDAs and agreements can be just a single. Like we have apple money, apple card, and all right, you can just tap it. Everything will get executed.
Because see, as a subsupplier we work with tens of different companies and executing tens of different NDAs invoices is a tiring thing. So if they can come up with a platform where agreements can be signed in a single tap, even satsearch can provide such platform where, you can authenticate the NDAs and invoices on behalf of customers.
It’ll be very easy for us. And it would also reduce the load on our legal team.
[00:20:48] Hywel: Great. No, that makes sense. So you’re not against sign in the NDA, it’s just the time it takes to do it, is a bit of a limited factor of what you yeah. That’s important. That’s important for companies to know. I think so.
[00:20:59] Rifath: Yeah, because for company is just like they are one company, they working with multiple customers. But for customers perspective. We are working with lot of people like them and we have to sign tons of NDAs and, different agreements.
[00:21:11] Hywel: Yeah. Yeah. I see. So on the supplier side, all their NDAs are the same, but for you, you’ve got all different formats and yeah.
Brilliant. Thank you very much. It’s been really great information. I think just as a final question to wrap up, I wondered if you could just share a bit more about the plans, the future plans for Space Kidz India and what sort of types of new technologies around the horizon. What are you considering as your missions and services are mature in the years to come.
[00:21:32] Rifath: Right now, we are into manufacturing of satellites nano satellites weighing less than 25 kg. And in the coming mission, we are going to qualify our own custom bus. That is one thing, but our future missions where we are mostly concentrating is on two things. One is sounding rockets. We are developing sounding rockets because we want to increase the rate of launch vehicles, suborbital launch vehicles available because most of the companies are now focusing on, orbital vehicles.
We work primarily with students and research institutes, and it’s really hard to get quick turnaround time and launch cadence in suborbital vehicles. So we are working on that and we are also working with different suborbital launch providers to provide a common platform where our payloads can be launched to space quickly. That is the first one.
And the second one is we are working on a re-entry vehicle, like a space capsule, which can go to space and come back. We are personally working on some experiments which need that. So these two are the major missions we are working right now.
[00:22:34] Hywel: Fantastic. Yeah, both very ambitious undertaking this. So best of luck with in both of those areas.
[00:22:39] Rifath: The more ambitious the project is, it’ll be more thrilling and more thrill, it’s more fun to work with.
[00:22:45] Hywel: Absolutely. Oh, fantastic. Thank you. And if anybody out is interested in in your work, should they find you at spacekidzindia.in?
[00:22:50] Rifath: Yes. They can log onto our website and they can reach out to us. We’ll be happy to support that.
[00:22:55] Hywel: Great. And that’s kidz with a Zed, everybody, or a Z. If you’re in the US. Thank you very much with, that was fascinating. I really appreciate you giving us all your insights and your personal experiences of procurement in the industry, I think is really useful information. So thank you from satsearch, from our entire community.
[00:23:11] Rifath: Thank you. Thank you so much to you on the entire satsearch community. And it really makes things easier. And I hope that it’d be more platforms for different things in space industry coming.
[00:23:20] Hywel: Thank you again, and to all our listeners out there, thank you very much for spending time with us today. As I mentioned, you can find out more about spacekidz India’s work at spacekidzindia.in. We’ll also have some links in the show notes and everything. Thank you for spending time with this space industry podcast today.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the Space Industry by satsearch. I hope you enjoyed today’s story about one of the companies taking us into orbit. We’ll be back soon with more in-depth behind-the-scenes insights from private space businesses. In the meantime, you can go to satsearch.com for more information on the space industry today, or find us on social media if you have any questions or comments. Stay up to date. Please subscribe to our weekly newsletter and you can also get each podcast on demand on iTunes, Spotify, the Google play store, or whichever podcast service you typically use.