Unveiling the Aurora: IITMSAT


by Ranjani Srinivasan and Ananth Saran

Rewind the clock by a millennium and imagine you’re witness to a tribe of Vikings chanting hymns, as they gaze upon the glowing horizon of the night sky. The hymns tell of beautiful maidens, Valkyries, who escort dead warriors to the gods above. As time flows by, the glowing shade of red transforms into what looks like fold upon fold of luminous draperies that march majestically across the sky, and one can imagine a multitude of swords furiously slashing in the heavens. A cause of wonder and fear amongst ancient civilizations, this phenomenon, christened Aurora after the Roman Goddess of Dawn, is better understood today: energetic charged particles from the ionosphere zip down to lower altitudes and knock electrons out of the atoms in the atmosphere, leaving behind an eerie glow.

Intriguingly enough, people still haven’t established what exactly causes these charged particles to “zip” down; current theories link them to phenomena as diverse as earthquakes, lightning storms and solar flares. In 2009, a few enthusiastic first-year undergraduate students of IITM chanced upon these theories and proposed to investigate them in a plausible space mission – and thus was born the IIT-Madras Student Satellite Project, or iitmsat.

As it stands today, the project aims to study and calibrate the energy typical of particles in the upper part of the ionosphere, and anomalies in the same during solar events and other phenomena. The dynamism of the layer is of immense interest because, besides being intriguing, an understanding of it is imperative for the success of Low Earth Orbiting systems and manned space missions. Apart from these scientific and engineering goals, there is a much bigger picture to this endeavour – to groom novices with an earnest interest in science and engineering and help develop a real-life satellite design with socially relevant goals. Nithin Sivadas, one of the founding members, “This project, to me, is one small step towards fulfilling Jawaharlal Nehru’s dream of making India self-reliant in technology. The fact that IITs were set up with such a vision should urge students to engage in research with socially relevant goals in mind.”

Bottom view (Left) and Top view (Right) of the Particle Detector on-board iitmsat

Inspired by similar thoughts, there is a strong workforce of 20 undergraduates and a few postgraduates who work after class hours and during weekends to meet the demands of the project. Apart from the incentive of getting hands-on work experience in research, there are other advantages of being associated with the project – thanks to collaborations with big, esteemed institutions like TIFR (Mumbai), ISRO (Bangalore), and IGCAR (Kalpakkam), team members have had the opportunity to work in these laboratories through their summer.

The review with ISRO scientists

The most recent of these trips was to ISITE (ISRO, Bangalore). A team of 8 students worked for two months under the guidance of senior scientists and mentors at Bangalore. The trip was an educational experience (and an escape from the sweltering Chennai heat to the bliss of monsoon in the garden city). Says Varsha Subramanyan, a third year undergraduate of the EE Department and a part of the team to ISRO, “It was truly a humbling experience to work in such high-end laboratories with expensive and rare equipment specialised for nuclear instrumentation. It is not too often that a second year undergraduate student gets to hold in one’s hand ICs that cost over one lakh rupees or to handle radioactive sources. For an inquisitive and enthusiastic student, the joy derived from this is unmatched!” Her classmate and co-team member, Sneha Reddy, nods in agreement. The project has even motivated two senior members of the team to choose similar themes for their work at prestigious fellowships like DAAD and MITACS.

In an attempt to bring the project under the umbrella of the academic curriculum, the team and its managers encourage final year B.Tech projects and Dual Degree projects which are related to iitmsat, a scheme that has been received with positive responses so far.

iitmsat has also received international attention at prestigious conferences around the world. Akshay Gulati, one of the founding members, who has continued to work with the team as a project officer after graduating, presented a paper last year on iitmsat’s structure at the 19th International Congress on Sound and Vibration, Vilnius (Lithuania). After the conference, he spent three weeks at the Swiss Space Centre in EPFL, Switzerland, studying mission analysis and design. In early 2013, at the 23rd AAS/AIAA Spaceflight Mechanics Meeting, Hawaii, USA, Deepti Kannapan (a founding team member and a graduate from the Dept. of Engineering Design) presented a paper on a novel (quaternion-based) algorithm for tracking of satellites. This summer, yet another wave of appreciation came at the CEDAR Conference 2013, Colorado, USA. Nithin Sivadas’s work on modelling electromagnetic wave interaction with trapped energetic particles in radiation belts was honoured with a Runners’ Up mention at the conference, which saw 111 research works presented by scholars from universities and institutes across the US. After the conference, he had the opportunity to spend 3 weeks visiting key scientists and researchers at centres of research like Stanford University, MIT, NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre and National Science Foundation among several others. The team is gearing up to present two more papers on the mission and associated experiments at the Japan Nano-Satellite Symposium, a couple of months from now.

The satellite.

While the team has garnered recognition at international conferences and symposiums, much of its time and effort are spent right here in the environs of IIT Madras. Where does this team work within the institute? And where do they get their equipment? Says Surya Teja, another member, “Currently, we work at a laboratory in the Central Electronics Centre. But work is in progress to set up a private laboratory since most of our equipment is specific to nuclear instrumentation. The space will be ready in a few months, and work will start in full swing, with all sub-systems of the team sharing table-space in the Institute for the first time. We are all very excited about it!” They have good reason to be, having just completed a successful technical review by a committee headed by the Director of National Atmospheric Research Laboratory (NARL) and the Director of Scientific Satellite Instrumentation Facility (SSIF), ISRO. The last few months have been fruitful, and there is a sense of satisfaction and optimism as the team looks forward to more successes in this ambitious endeavour.

Another member of the team makes it easy to wrap this piece up, by sharing a philosophical quote that is often discussed at their meetings:

‘O me! O life! … of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish; … what good amid these, O me, O life?’ That you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?   

(Dead Poets’ Society-1989)

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