By Manu Priya for Youth Ki Awaaz:
India’s youth has breached the final frontier: Space! And how? By shooting satellites, conceived and built by them in varsities across India, into earth’s orbit.
No mean achievement, that! Launching a satellite into space requires lots of technical know-how, loads of experience and some heavy duty infrastructure. It’s rocket science, after all!
But young engineering students across India have silently turned this paradigm over, making rocket science look as simple as posting a tweet!
College of Engineering, Pune and Satyabama University, Chennai, launched satellites built from scratch by their students, into space on June 22.
Pune’s ‘Swayam’ and Chennai’s ‘Satyabamasat’ rode into space perched on Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) PSLV C-34 rocket.
These student satellites, smaller in size and weighing much less than the usual satellites, are in no way technologically inferior. Swayam for example weighs a mere 1 kg with a volume of just 1000cc.
Owing to its size, Swayam cannot accommodate anything bulky. So, the students came up with an ingenious system of magnets to stabilise the satellite to eliminate the need for bulky gadgetry. In fact, Swayam is so small, it’s classified as ‘Pico-Satellite’.
Satyabamasat, which weighs marginally higher at 2 kg, will monitor greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and create a ‘pollution model’ for India.
Other student satellites ready to take off include Manipal University’s Parikshit; Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay’s Pratham; IIT Madras’ IITMSAT and PES University, Bengaluru’s PISAT.
Most of these student-made space bodies will head for space in 2016 or 2017.
After launch, the students did not sit back and applaud. The mission had not ended there.
The satellites are being tracked from a ground station. In fact, ground stations all over the globe can track the satellites using messaging systems built by the students.
The payloads were conceived by students and had been built iteratively over a period of time. The process was not simple. It had taken several rounds of trial and error for the young students to finally arrive at a fully functional satellite.
Dhaval Waghulde, undergraduate student and project manager of the Swayam team, said that the seeds of Swayam were sown as early as 2008 when the students started studying satellites in general.
The design had been reviewed and accepted by ISRO in 2013. It had only been thereafter that the real work of satellite fabrication began.
For Satyabamasat, it took six years of trial and error to get to launch-ready.
Of course, when projects are spread out over such long periods, the baton has to be passed from one crop of students leaving to a fresh crop of students joining. This creates an opportunity for more and more students to participate, but it also leads to issues of knowledge transfer to gear up for.
Waghulde, who is the seventh project manager of the Swayam team, said that the biggest challenge was “passing on knowledge and responsibility to the next batch.” “But the overall experience has been rewarding: An opportunity to work with a passionate team and to learn and interact with ISRO scientists,” he added.
Akshay Gulati, who is the systems engineer for IITMSAT, said that the project allowed him to pursue “a real scientific quest – something that a student rarely experiences during his undergraduate days.”
In fact, looking at the enthusiasm of the students, IIT-M and its alumni built a brand new IIT-M Space Lab for the student satellite project. They are ready to take on more challenging space missions. So much so that Gulati has “started dreaming big,” looking forward to having his “own space technology startup!”
ISRO’s student satellite programme is what keeps the students going. ISRO not only provides technical mentorship to the students during the development phase, it also launches student satellites into space.
The beauty of the programme is that, while ISRO’s international clients have to pay as much as Rs 90 crore to ISRO to launch their satellites into space, the student satellites get a free ride on ISRO’S launch vehicles.
“We have been encouraging the student community to participate in ISRO missions and learn space technology, as a capacity building effort,” Deviprasad Karnik, Director, Publications & Public Relations Unit, ISRO, told Youth Ki Awaaz.
“This will not only, prepare future space scientists and technologists but will also develop future vendors in this area, who can design develop, fabricate, test space technology sub-systems and units for consumption within the country as well as become competitors in the world market,” he added.
Talking about his experience of working on Swayam, Nikhil Sambhus, Waghulde’s predecessor, told Youth Ki Awaaz that it helped him learn teamwork skills, an experience he said he will “cherish for a lifetime.”
Nikhil’s sentiments are echoed by Manisha Yogesh Khaladkar, Assistant Professor, College of Engineering, Pune: “It has helped students to enhance their domain knowledge as well as their soft skills. Now that Swayam is launch-ready, there’s a sense of fulfillment, pride and achievement in all of us.”
Since the start of the student satellite program, ISRO has launched five student satellites, the last two in October 2011, when SRM University’s SRMSat, and IIT Kanpur’s Jugnu, rocketed into space.
The core team of IIT-K’s Jugnu has now evolved into Firefly Aerospace. It’s a company that develops and deploys aerospace technology.
That is the kind of impact, exposure to such satellite programs can achieve. They are not just exciting endeavours, they also mark students for life by helping them experience, the process of trial and error and ‘learning through failing’ that forms the very basis of true scientific learning.
And to top it all, satellites built by students are amazing, cost-effective and so cool! These space entrepreneurs may well be the precursors to a new small-satellite industry in India.
Manu Priya is a Bangalore based independent science journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
Images courtesy 101 Reporters.
Featured and Banner Image Source: Arun Sarkar/Getty