Saturday, March 5, 2016

India need Nano satellites; Future of Space Sciences

Sputnik 1 was the first human endeavour to leave mother earth (October, 1957) to be able to wander into Space. Though it was a small satellite ( ~ 83 kg), the later attempts by humans to explore space (Low Earth Orbit, LEO) were becoming increasingly bulky. The exploitation of geo-synchronous orbit (36,000 km) for beaming telecommunication and other signals could only add more burden on building huge work horses (Envisat ~ 8,000 kg). The present discussion is limited to Nano-Satellites, which fall in the 1-10 kg weight category; while Micro- satellites are in 100-10 kg and Pico satellites under 1-kg.

As the miniaturisation in electronic components (MEMS) started, so was the aerospace industry turning to COTS (Commercial, Off-the-Shelf) based small satellites. The idea was to try out newer technology riding on tiny satellites (Micro / Nano) even if the sub-components are not of very expensive MIL (military) grade, meaning radiation hardened class.  In came a "golden standard" called Cubesat, by a group of scientists lead by Bob Twiggs (Stanford Univ) and Jordi Puig-Suary (Calpoly University, California) in the year 1999. They called 1U (1-unit) which would measure 10 X 10 X 10 cm and weigh less than 1.33 kg. Same group also came up with a great idea of developing a P-POD (Poly-Pico satellite Orbiter Deployer) satellite dispenser. Their idea is to impart training for the undergrad students in the space technologies at affordable budget.

Credit : Skybox Imaging

The first Cubesat shot into space in 2003.. oh boy!! ... it transformed the land scape of how one reaches space.  The years 2014, 15 saw nearly 100-Cubesats launches each across the globe. In USA (and Europe) NASA, US-Air force ventured into Micro-satellite developmental programs. NASA's AMES centre had well laid program on Space biology, Lunar Sciences and Inter-planetary missions.  Similarly, JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) too has a vibrant Cubesat program to monitor the earth and also a curious MARCO (Mars Cube One). MARCO's are two data relaying Cubesats which will be part of NASA's  next journey to Mars. They call it a "Technology Demonstration".

Observations made by Michael Swatwout at Saint Louis University, highlights the point (shown below) that the task of Nano satellites has tilted towards Technology demonstration as compared to Educational purposes. A country like India can afford to skip the FIRST step and take advantage of easily availabile components to be able to develop newer technologies.

Credit: Michael Swatwout, SLU

Nano-Satellites: Easy to make
It is not the big players for whom the tiny cubes were like TOYS, even for a lazy engineering graduate there are almost a dozen shops opened up in USA, where a stroke of key board and a credit card can bring him "Power board to Communication board even a Cubesat camera. Here are a few to quote as examples:

Credit: Cubesatkit

INDIA and Nano-Satellites
India has started venturing into space from the SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle, 1979) Program. The first flight under the leadership of very well known face from India Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was a failure; within a year the next flight roared into the skies of Sriharikota in southern India; that was lesson#1 in the history of ISRO; they never seem to look back in repeating failures. The PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) too had to face the setback in its first flight but never ever looked back till date... the present SUCCESSFUL FLIGHT number is 31 and is still counting.

As dictated by the priorities, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been having a very active, bright, successful program which has catapulted the country's name among the league of biggest players in world. ISRO has been successful in low earth orbit programs (IRS satellites), geo-synchronous orbit program and a very successful Lunar (Chandrayaan-I) and Martian (MOM) missions. Capturing the tag of FIRST nation to do so in its very FIRST attempt.


However, the neglected aspect of Small Satellite activity can be gauged by noting that India could launch a meagre number of FIVE in the entire history. Among these, there are just 3-of them which are 10-kg or less. Notable is JUGNU, a 3-kg satellite, developed by Indian premier education center: Indian Institute of Kanpur (IITK). The real hero in my view is STUDSAT which was developed by a group of engineering colleges from the cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad. The reason for STUDSAT to stand out is: due to their limited resources and also a mammoth task of co-ordination among the youth... Hats - off guys...

So... as my title says.... Today, India is a vibrant country with huge potential of growing in cutting edge technologies. Nano Satellites will offer a first hand training to the youth of our nation; also as it has been noticed worldwide that these tiny toys can serve as work horses for testing the new technologies in space, before venturing with millions of investments. With ISRO as the back bone, we can do a lot better than what we have been on the Nano Satellite front..... Let's kick start this activity.... which would bolster the Make in India program as envisaged by the central government.

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