This week, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) basked in the glory of congratulatory messages after it created a record by sending 20 satellites at a time into space. On the day of the launch, as the countdown began at ISRO’s launch station in Sriharikota, 1,200 km away, the College of Engineering Pune (COEP), a premier educational institute in Pune, kept its fingers crossed. As the scientists exhilarated after the successful launch, COEP students jumped in joy. Their creation, Swayam, a nano-satellite, was one of the 20 satellites, and the smallest one to have successfully taken its place in the earth’s orbit. Nearly 180 students’ hard work over a period of eight years had succeeded against the scepticism of many who thought students won’t be able to design and send a satellite in space. Experts said that the project has “shown” the way forward for engineering education in India.
“This launch has vindicated our stand that this is the way to learn engineering. It has vindicated our belief that if enough good people stand by a crazy idea, it will work. When we proposed to build a satellite eight years ago, people thought it was a crazy idea, and that we students won’t be able to make it. But today, we have won. And it makes me immensely happy and proud. When we started, we knew nothing about satellites. We were students from different branches of engineering. The only thing common in us was the drive to make it happen,” Nishchay Mhatre, a faculty member of COEP, told The Sunday Guardian in an exclusive chat.
Nishchay was one of the primary members to have thought of designing a satellite in his student days at COEP in 2008. He was a part of the core team which conceptualised Swayam and got approvals for it. He led the design and construction team for two years and visited ISRO for three years between 2008 to 2011 to get guidance from them. He is the recipient of the Luigi Napolitano Award of 2011. The award is given by the International Astronautical Federation to young scientists under 30 years for “outstanding work” in aerospace. Nishchay became the first Indian to receive the award. Today, the “bootloader code” which is working on Swayam’s on-board computer system, has been written by Nishchay.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Abhishek Bawiskar, the student who thought of it first, had just returned from IIT-Bombay in 2008. He gathered a handful of like-minded friends and discussed the idea with them. So charged did everyone get with the idea that they decided to make a satellite.
“We were all thirsty for challenges. We wanted to apply the knowledge we learnt in college. We wanted to see the name of our college in the list of colleges to have designed a satellite. We were charged up. We knew that we knew nothing about satellites. But we also knew that we were willing to put in everything it takes to make this happen,” Nishchay said, elaborating on the innumerable katta meetings they used to have on the department’s staircase through late night, brainstorming on the idea.
“Bawiskar was a student of civil engineering. He had nothing to do with satellites. But five-six students started working very seriously on it. Looking at their determination, I called a scientist friend from ISRO to give lectures to them. He guided them, and advised them to record their discussions very methodically. That is how it began,” said Dr Anil Saharsrabuddhe, former director of COEP and current chairperson AICTE, Pune, in a short documentary made by the students on Swayam.
Dr Maneesha Khaladkar, faculty advisor, COEP satellite team, said that the students from the astronomy club formed the core team of the satellite club. “Year after year, the legacy was transferred in the form of induction, a very tough selection process. There are five sub-systems. Every year, 40 students worked on the project. What was constant was the passion to work for the project which is an interdisciplinary work,” she said.
Initially, Swayam was meant to be a satellite with remote sensing capability. “We wanted to fit in a camera which would take pictures of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere and monitor it. But when ISRO scientists viewed our design and our plans, they said this was too complex. They asked us to simplify it,” Nishchay told this correspondent.
Making a nano-satellite in itself was a huge challenge. Weighing less than one kg, the satellite had to have all the five sub-systems packed in a 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm cube. “We redesigned it for ham radio stations, i.e. amateur radio stations, to pass message from one ground station to the other,” he said.
The challenge was to put everything together in such a small satellite, to make it work in extremely hostile conditions in space, and also make it work efficiently each time. “It helped us learn our courses way better, because the motivation level was so high,” Nishchay said.
Swayam takes messages from one ground station while passing above it, and then transmits the message to another ground station while passing above that place. The two ground stations may be separated by a distance of thousands of kilometres, and might be continents apart. The satellite will acknowledge receipt of the message, transmit it and receive the successful transmission message from the receiving ground station, thereby successfully completing communication.
SOLID SUPPORT FROM ISRO
The students got tremendous support and guidance from the scientist fraternity across the country, mainly from ISRO. The designing teams periodically visited ISRO in Bangalore to test various parameters of the satellite, and to test flight models. “Each time, the scientists gave us a patient hearing and pointed out problems in our designs. They guided us, and helped us generously with the contact details of other scientists. Initially, when we were thinking of the idea in 2008, G. Madhavan Nair had come to a defence engineering institute in Pune. We approached him and told him about our plans. Without any delay or hesitation, he put us in touch with another ISRO scientist. The college and ISRO were extremely supportive of us throughout this period,” Nishchay said.
This week, when Swayam went up in space along with Cartosat-2C and 19 other satellites, including another academic satellite from India, COEP rejoiced. “It was a great moment for me. I felt so happy and proud when the satellite launcher was launched. Everything associated with this satellite is memorable for me. Each moment is special,” Nishchay said after witnessing the launch from Sriharikota.