What’s up with Pratham (IITB’s student satellite)?

Shardul Vaidya reports on the progress made by Team Pratham towards the completion of India’s first student satellite and it’s plans for the future.

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The fabricated structure for Pratham.

The fabricated structure for Pratham.

Pratham was the brainchild of two students from the 2010 Aerospace batch, Saptarishi Bandyopadhyay and Shashank Tamaskar. Their original mission statement was to launch a satellite conceptualised and made by students. The program had to go through a rigorous conception and design stage after which it was given the green signal to go ahead under the guidance of Prof.Sudhakar, Prof. Mujumdar and Prof. Arya. This was the first time a student body had initiated a satellite program in India. Recruitment and development commenced in 2007 and in Sep 2009, a MoU was signed with ISRO, under which ISRO would provide the launch vehicle for the satellite, now christened Pratham.

The satellite’s main function was to help reduce signal loss and correct it in transmission by counting the total number of electrons in the ionosphere. Despite having a highly motivated and organised team, Pratham overshot its schedule and was delivered to ISRO in May 2012, where it underwent four design reviews. A combination of unavoidable factors like administrative oversights and minor technical issues meant that Pratham missed its launch slot. Meanwhile, a number of senior team members passed out, leading to a lack of quality workforce. The program thus went into a vegetative state with the stakeholders in a dilemma over whether to revive the program or scrap it altogether.

After much deliberation and being convinced that previous errors would not be repeated, the Pratham program was revived in Dec 2012. Two rounds of recruitment were held in each semester of 2013 and about 30 new members were added to the team. The team currently consists of 40 members and has a very strict organisational hierarchy with 2 project managers and a core group under them, with each core group member heading one of the 8 sub-systems.

The team conducted 5 workshops on building ground stations for students and as a result developed 15 ground stations for Pratham across India.

The MoU with ISRO too was extended till March 2016, with March 2015 being the planned handover date of Pratham to ISRO. Project manager Shantanu Shahane assured us that the project is on schedule and will be delivered to ISRO as per plan. He emphasised that although the first iteration of Pratham wasn’t launched, it achieved almost all of its social objectives. The team conducted 5 workshops on building ground stations for students and as a result developed 15 ground stations for Pratham across India. It has also collaborated with IPGP, a French university and has established a ground station for Pratham in their campus. The team has also published more than 20 research papers till date.

Aerospace major Boeing, too, has also donated a sizeable amount to the student satellite programme.

Given the scale of operations, it’s not surprising that Pratham has a budget of about 1.5 crore, funded mainly by IITB under various headings like the MHRD, Dean R&D and Professor Funds. There is also a sizeable contribution from the Space Technology Cell (STC), a collaboration between IITB and ISRO. Aerospace major Boeing, too, has also donated a sizeable amount to the student satellite programme. Although the main focus of the team is on getting Pratham ready for handover, they have internally started working on the conception phase of a second satellite, Advitiya.