Dreams in orbit


After four years, a team of IIT students has crossed the final hurdle to launching its own satellite. Sunaina Kumar meets the dreamers

Deepika Thakur, Giri Prashant, Jhonny Jha, Hussain Manasawala and Avnish Kumar
Space-bound: (from left) Deepika Thakur, Giri Prashant, Jhonny Jha, Hussain Manasawala and Avnish Kumar

LAST WEEK, a group of students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B) had an ‘aha’ moment. After cracking their heads for two-and-a-half years on building a satellite called Pratham, the team of 10 — known as the ‘Satellite Junta’ on campus — succeeded in creating a virtual space environment system. The system simulates space conditions and finally gives them a chance to test the satellite before its expected launch this year.

The project’s inception was four long years ago and the ‘aha’ occurred in the middle of the night, accompanied by noisy celebrations and rock music blasting in the lab. The team has been working round the clock in this final testing phase. Most finish classes by evening and then meet in the Satellite Lab after dinner. They often work from 9 pm to 9 am, seven days a week, and routinely conduct “epic meetings” that sometimes last for 18 hours.

The lab has two large rooms — in one the centrepiece is a 10-kg dummy model of Pratham with antennae strewn on the floor, while the other is a ‘clean room’ (free of dust) where all essential components are stored. A white board on the wall is where 21-year- old Jhonny Jha, the project manager and fifth year civil engineering student, enumerates daily tasks along with a detailed schedule for each team member.

Hard task The core team works from the ‘clean room’ that houses the satellite
Hard task The core team works from the ‘clean room’ that houses the satellite

Pratham is a voluntary project, one of the many tech projects and co-curricular activities at IIT; it is also the most prestigious and time- consuming of the lot, and doesn’t earn the students any extra credit. Says Hussain Manaswala, a 24-year-old electrical engineering student and part of the core team: “It is a race against time. We all feel the urgency and can’t leave before this is completed.” Pratham was originally an initiative of Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay and Shashank Tamaskar, IIT-B graduates who are now studying in the US. More than 100 students have worked on the project at one time or another. Jha, who graduates next April, says he’s ready to stay back in college to see it through.

The project has been mentored by scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which will also launch the satellite from Sriharikota. The 10-kg small research satellite will piggyback on an ISRO satellite and will be in polar orbit at an altitude of 814 km for four months. It aims to measure electrons in the ionosphere, which could help in more accurate global positioning system (GPS) data collection and also work as a tsunami-warning system.

The Pratham team is collaborating with the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP) to conduct research on the electron count in the atmosphere, which is directly co-related to tsunamis. While on-ground research to link tsunamis with increased electron activity is being done in India, the students claim no Indian satellite has exclusively concentrated on this payload.

With a budget of Rs 1.5 crore funded primarily by IIT-B, Pratham has had a DIY approach, with most components made from scratch. Most satellites, it is reckoned, cost at least 50 times as much and finding low-cost solutions has been a priority for the team. “It has been optimised to the last screw,” says Deepika Thakur, 21, a student of chemical engineering from Bhopal. She points to the antennae, made by the team at Rs 1,000 each, which would have cost upwards of Rs 50,000 to purchase. Similarly, the team’s 15 ground stations at various locations in India have been created at a budget of Rs 30,000 each, though they usually cost several lakhs.

Thakur has also been heading Pratham’s social outreach, in which the team shares its experience with students from other universities and helps them develop satellites and create ground stations. Influenced by Pratham, 15 Indian universities have taken up student satellite projects, including College of Engineering (Pune), Birla Institute of Technology (Deogarh) and Atharva College of Engineering (Mumbai). Once Pratham is in orbit, these universities will collect data for it from their own ground stations.

Professor K Sudhakar of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and a mentor to the project adds a caveat that Pratham is not meant to be an industry project, and its greatest contribution has been the learning opportunity it has provided for its team. “It is not just about launching the satellite into space,” he says, “but about students working together in teams, creating complex systems, and becoming able engineers. It is about unbridled dreaming and converting those dreams into realisable solutions.” He has always provided the needed reality check to successive students in the team. At the project’s beginning, the original Pratham team expected to build five satellites in five years. Four years on, the current team is less precipitant and more professional.

The students had once hoped to build five satellites in five years. Four years on, this team is less precipitant and more professional

The biggest hurdle the team has faced has come from expected quarters — course workload. “There was a phase about a year back when work began to wane. It is difficult just to keep yourself motivated for so long [since] we have classes and other technical projects going on at the same time,” says Giri Prashant, 19, a third-year student of aerospace engineering, who joined the department only because he heard of the satellite project.

The IPGP has gifted the Pratham team a bottle of champagne that will only be opened once the satellite is launched. The students expect that after the uncorking, work will begin again as data starts coming in and the current team passes on the baton to the next group of students. The dream of launching five satellites is still intact.

Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.com. 


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