iitmsat: Flying High


A report on the ongoing satellite project by Anand Rao.

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There is a general feeling that students’ lives in our institute are getting into a rut; that one batch after another keeps following the same pursuits. Nothing seems bigger than positions of responsibility at institute or department level fests, and involvement in any other activity is never given as much credit. In this context, it takes not just effort, but a great deal of self-motivation and audacity even to start an initiative of the same magnitude but completely tangential to the extravaganzas mentioned above. iitmsat is one such attempt.

Student satellite initiatives have sprung up in universities across India over the past few years and one may be inclined to believe that this is just another project in line with the rest. However when this group of pioneers, barely out of their teens, got together one and a half years ago they had something different in mind – to build a small satellite and use it for a ‘socially relevant scientific experiment’. Recent studies dating back to less than a decade have shown a probable correlation between earthquakes and high energy particle bursts in the ionosphere. The aim thus is to house a transducer on a self-sustaining satellite that will sense these bursts and verify if they indeed act as seismic precursors. A lofty ambition, but once they set their minds on it there was no looking back. Visits to TIFR, ISRO satellite Centre (ISAC) and IIST helped them understand not just the concepts but the processes involved in undertaking a venture of this scale. Today, the team is 25-strong with members across branches and programs and works with the support of half a dozen faculty coordinators from five departments.

The team’s untiring dedication and hard work has been rewarded, first with the Institute’s commitment to an initial funding of Rs.65 lakh and then with ISRO giving a green signal to their proposal last month and promising a launch date around 2013. Nithin Sivadas, into his fourth year at the Aerospace department, and Akshay Gulati, a fifth year mechanical engineering student, who are at the helm of the project apprised the student community of the project’s progress so far through a presentation on 31st August at CLT. Praneeth, Akshay’s batchmate, spoke about how being a part of the team and working with such a dedicated group of people has been a steep learning curve for him. Three faculty coordinators – Dr. David Koilpillai, Dr. Santhakumar and Dr. Nithin Chandrachoodan – acknowledged that this is the first ever undertaking of such a magnitude in the Institute’s history and appreciated the team’s efforts to go down the untrodden path. With periodic reviews from ISRO in the pipeline, the team is planning to rope in interested students to complete specific project packages over a three month period and give them a choice to stay on if they find the experience enriching.

The journey over the last couple of years has not been an easy one, with challenges and discouragement at every step. Naturally, when the idea was conceived, no member of the team had much of a clue as to how to go about building a satellite and more importantly, keeping it in orbit. There were not many people with the required experience available to guide the team on the skills required and the processes involved. Working for the project obviously required much commitment from a student’s side as it was outside of their normal academic schedule. The biggest factor was the uncertainty – whether all the effort was actually heading somewhere and if the project would be recognised by the Institute and officially approved by ISRO, the governing body. Today, most of these issues have been ironed out and a well thought out system is in place (distinct subsystems, a clear work plan etc) for the team to follow.

Without a doubt, hardly any projects at the undergraduate level, not just in IITM but across the country, can expose students to this level of research and engineering. With a total budget of over Rs. 3 crore, the project, if successful, will transform the way people perceive our institute and inspire future generations of students to take up more challenging initiatives.

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