Aryabhata: Remembering India’s First Satellite

Aryabhata, India's first ever satellite blasted off into space more than 40 years ago, kicking off India's meteoric rise in the world of space.

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On April 19, 1975, a group of 50 Indian scientists and technicians from ISRO gathered at the Soviet satellite launch complex in Kapustin Yar, near the Russian city of Volgograd to watch a rocket blast off into space.

The reason for the ISRO presence at the Soviet facility, the rocket was carrying India's first ever satellite - Aryabhata - into space. The launch kick-started an amazing space journey which has seen India send a satellite to Mars and create a world record for the most numbers of satellites launched by one rocket (104).

The satellite was named after the Indian mathematician-astronomer Aryabhata (476-550 AD). The 5th Century Indian mathematician and astronomer is best known for explaining the phenomenon of lunar and solar eclipses and for calculating the value of π correct to 4 decimal places.

However, Aryabhatta was not the only name suggested to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by ISRO for India's first satellite. The other two names suggested were Maitri (which translates to friendship) and Jawahar (after her father, India's first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru). However, Mrs Gandhi chose Aryabhata, which was also the name at the top of the list suggested by ISRO.

The Aryabhatta blasted into space astride a Kosmos-3M rocket, a liquid-fueled two-stage rocket, that is capable of launch payloads as heavy as 1,500 kilogrammes into low earth orbit.

Once in space, the Aryabhatta completed one revolution around the earth every 96.46 minutes (1 hour 36.46 minutes). At its closest point to the earth, the Aryabhata was 568-kilometres from the Earth, and at its furthest, it was 611-kilometers from the planet humans call home.

(image via stampexindia.com)

Regarding shape and size, the 360-kilogram Aryabhata satellite was a 26-sided polyhedron 1.4 metres across in diameter. Almost every panel of the satellite (excluding the top and bottom sections) was covered in solar cells which generated electricity for the satellite's 46W power supply system.

(image via freeimagescollection.com)

The Aryabhata carried instruments that explored conditions in the Earth's ionosphere, measured neutrons and gamma rays from the Sun, and performed investigations in X-ray astronomy.

Unfortunately, the scientific instruments had to be switched off during the Aryabhata's fifth day in orbit after the satellite's power supply failed.

Before the power system in the Aryabhata failed, the satellite transmitted data to the earth. The data was received in Bangalore where ISRO's headquarters are located. While such data may see other space agencies set up a whole different location to receive and collate the data, ISRO, converted a toilet into a data reception centre.

The data system included a tape recorder at 256 b/s with playback at 10 times that rate. The telemetry system operated at 137.44 MHz.

Despite not transmitting anything, the Aryabhata continued to function in space and stayed in low earth orbit till 1992. On Feb 11, 1992, almost 17 years after it blasted off the earth's surface, Aryabhata re-entered the Earth's atmosphere. India's first artificial satellite was no more.

Bonus Facts 

The Aryabhata was commemorated in stamps by both India and the Soviet Union. The satellite even graced the back of the Indian Rs 2 note printed between 1976 and 1997.

(image via personal.umich.edu)

Five years after the launch of the Aryabhatta, India's first indigenous satellite launch saw the Rohini RS-1 satellite blast off into space from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota in the Andhra Pradesh. The Satellite Launch Vehicle 3 (SLV3) launch vehicle propelled the Rohini into low-earth orbit on 18 July, 1980.

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