Thirty-five undergraduate students from seven engineering colleges, four in Bangalore and three in Hyderabad, have done something that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. One of the five satellites carried by the PSLV-C15 launched on July 12 is a pico satellite, named ‘Studsat,’ which weighs less than 1.5 kg. A picosat is a miniaturised artificial satellite. This is the first time in India that a picosat with an imaging camera has been designed, fabricated, and built by students, under the guidance of scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The students were also involved in testing the adequacy of the clean room and ground station built for fabricating Studsat, and in receiving data and commanding the satellite. The clean room and ground station were established at one of the seven institutes involved in the project. The camera has a low resolution of 90 metres. The panchromatic images will provide terrain information during the satellite’s short lifespan of six months to one year. The idea behind this exercise was to provide students an opportunity to understand the mission aspects and gain hands-on experience in building a working satellite.
Satellite launches by ISRO have always attracted public attention. But it was the Chandrayaan-1 launch in October 2008 that fired the imagination of students. The outcome was an impressive increase in the number of young men and women showing interest in space research. What is more, the trend has been sustained. Studsat, a student initiative backed by some of India’s finest higher educational institutions, is an inspiring first — and there is more to come. Two nano satellites (in the less-than-15-kg category) are being built by IIT Kanpur and IIT Mumbai, and two by Chennai-based universities. All four satellites will be launched before mid-2011. If this progressive trend is student-driven, ISRO has played an exemplary role in mentoring and nurturing it. The decision to sacrifice precious payload to accommodate the demonstration satellites shows that ISRO is playing for the future. With the educational institutions required to build their own clean room and ground station, the agency has ensured that they have a long-term commitment to promote space research. At a time when many developed countries are finding it difficult to promote science, ISRO’s novel way of attracting talent stands out. With Chandrayaan-2 and human space flight in prospect, it is clear that rising India’s space future is very bright.