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‘Pratham’ in orbit: The story of IIT Bombay’s student-built microsatellite

Isro launched their microsatellite Pratham from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh.

india Updated: Sep 26, 2016 12:34 IST
Snehal Fernandes
Snehal Fernandes
Hindustan Times
Isro,India space agency,Pratham satellite
Isro launched their microsatellite Pratham from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh.(HT Photo)

Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay had just begun his third-year dual degree programme in aerospace engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT-B) when he attended a talk by Tata Institute of Fundamental Research’s (TIFR) astronomer Mayank Vahia.

“It was 2007 and professor Vahia spoke about the growing trend of student satellites being built all over the world. And he said ‘do you know IIT-B should also think of something similar’,” Bandyopadhyay, now a postdoctoral researcher at California Institute of Technology’s Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recalled.

Around the same time Shashank Tamaskar, who was pursuing his third year BTech in the same branch, had finished his internship with Vahia, and shared the idea of building a satellite with Bandyopadhyay.

“At that point, we just wanted to build a satellite because we wanted to learn. Studying in the best institute in the country, we wanted to build something that would inspire others to do great things. That was really the motivation,” Bandyopadhyay said.

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The duo, also astronomy Olympiad students, took the idea to the then head of the aerospace engineering professor K Sudhakar.

Pratham microsatellite will measure the total electron count (TEC) in the ionosphere. (HT Photo)

“While encouraging us to explore further, he helped us understand that just dreaming big is not sufficient, that one needs to work hard to convert dreams to reality,” Tamaskar, who is a technical specialist with the Advanced Dynamic Systems & Controls Group at Cummins Inc, USA, said.

Having bounced off the idea to their seniors and classmates, Bandyopadhyay and Tamaskar formed a small six-member team. The Pratham team today has 80 members with professors as their mentors.

On Monday, the dreams of the current students and alumni of IIT-B took off at 9.15am as the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) launched their microsatellite Pratham from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh.

The 10kg Pratham microsatellite will measure the total electron count (TEC) in the ionosphere that can improve the accuracy of the global positioning system in India and predict tsunamis.

But what had seemed to be a two-year project to design and build the microsatellite ‘Pratham’ – or the first – on the drawing board, took eight years and seven graduating batches to finish.

In 2008, IIT-B was the first educational institute to approach Isro with the idea of launching a student satellite – evident from the name given to the satellite mission. Students had come up with 50 names for the mission, each one written on the blackboard of a classroom. After multiple voting, the team zeroed in on ‘Pratham’.

But before Pratham could see the light of the day, six educational institutes such as IIT-Kanpur, Pune-based College of Engineering and Chennai’s Satyabhama University launched their student satellites between 2009 and June this year.

(From left) Jhonny Jha, Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay and Shashank Tamaskar (HT Photo)

In 2012, the Pratham team came very close to a launch.

“We had cleared our technical review with Isro but could not get the prototype made in time for the required tests due to the senior members graduating out of IIT,” Jhonny Jha, a former project manager, said.

Jha is now the chief executive officer and co-founder of Didi, a vocational education and discovery startup focused on blue-collared women professionals in Mumbai.

“We also wanted a specific orbit for our payload to function which meant waiting for Isro to launch a satellite in the polar sun synchronous orbit and having a spare space for our satellite to fit in the launch vehicle,” Jha added.

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The one thing, however, that stayed constant, boasts the Pratham team, is “continuity” of the project from its inception to the final launch. Unlike foreign universities where a professor – not students – is the principal investigator (PI) to ensure continuity of long-term projects, Pratham’s mantle was passed on from one student batch to another.

Every aspect of the satellite’s design and development was documented and put in the public domain so the next batch could pick up from where the last left.

“I am very proud of the culture, that I may call IIT-B culture, to pass on the knowledge, mistakes, tips, tricks, discoveries we made,” Sanyam Mulay, systems and solutions architect for a technology consultancy, said.

Ask former project managers of Pratham if the mission missed the bus, and they say “not really”.

“Pratham was the first project to start in the country and that inspired many other projects that have already been launched. Even making ground stations to receive signals from Pratham have produced spin-off projects in other colleges,” Mulay said.

Other satellites made by students

  • SATHYABAMASAT: A nano satellite
    Developed by Sathyabama University, Tamil Nadu
    Mission: To collect data on greenhouse gases, water vapour, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen fluoride
    Launch Date: June 22, 2016
    Launch Vehicle: PSLV- C34

  • SWAYAM: A pico satellite
    Developed by College of Engineering, Pune
    Mission: To provide point to point messaging services to the HAM community
    Launch Date: June 22, 2016
    Launch Vehicle: PSLV- C34

  • SRMSat: A nano satellite
    Developed by SRM (Sri Ramaswamy Memorial) University, Tamil Nadu
    Mission: To monitor greenhouse gases
    Launch Vehicle: PSLV-C18
    Launch Date: 12th October, 2011

  • JUGNU: A nano-satellite
    Developed by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur
    Mission: Near infrared (IR) camera to capture near IR images of earth surface
    Launch Vehicle: PSLV-C18
    Launch Date: 12th October, 2011

  • STUDSAT: A pico satellite
    Developed by NITTE Meenakshi Institute of Technology, Bangalore, by undergraduate students from seven academic institutes
    Mission: Remote sensing and capturing images of the earth’s surface with a camera having a resolution of 90 meters.
    Launch Vehicle: PSLV-C15
    Launch Date: 12th July, 2010

  • ANUSAT: A micro satellite
    Developed by Anna University, Tamil Nadu
    Mission: To gain experience in the design, building, testing and operation in orbit of a complete micro-satellite.
    Launch date: 20 April, 2009
    Launch vehicle: PSLV-C12

Reminiscing the idea behind calling the mission as Pratham, Bandyopadhyay said, “We decided on Pratham thinking it will lead the way to build student satellites. But that didn’t happen. We don’t know the success of other student satellites. Therefore, we could be leading the way with Pratham. That could be a new first.”

Vahia, who mooted the idea of the student satellite, said that the Pratham team has got through the quality assurance group of Isro, and that is quite an achievement.

“What goes up is only a small part of the story and does not matter whether or not the satellite works in space. The learning process of making sophisticated, high-precision, high-quality and high-reliability instruments that will survive and work in space is crucial,” he added.

Designed to fit within a 30-cm cube, the Rs 1.5 crore microsatellite will orbit at an altitude of 670km and orbit over India at 11.25am every day. The life cycle of the mission is four months, but the satellite will be able to continue collecting data on the electron count.

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First Published: Sep 26, 2016 11:50 IST