India, Israel see payoff in nano sats, just not money

A nano-satellite propulsion unit manufactured by Dutch company Hyperion on display at the 7th ITCA conference in Bengaluru on Wednesday. The company signed an MoU with ITCA to provide mentorship and technology to the 75-satellite programme.

A collaboration between India and Israel to place 75 student-built nano-satellites into orbit by 2020 is expected to come with a big payoff. It just may not be monetary, scientists said.

An agreement to this effect, which was inked last September, hopes to attract 75 institutes across India, with students from each institute working to assemble an operational nano-satellite to be launched into a low-earth orbit by Isro before the target deadline, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence. Each project is expected to cost between Rs 3.59 crore and Rs 7.2 crore, which includes the cost of components, mentorship and launch.

The only problem is that, a year later, not enough Indian institutes have signed to be a part of the programme.

According to Dr L V Muralikrishna Reddy, president of the Indian Technology Congress Association (ITCA), which held its 7th annual science conference in Bengaluru on Wednesday, only 27 institutes have signed for the programme.

“Yes, the numbers are low, but three additional institutes joined the programme during this year’s conference,” Dr Reddy added. The institutes, including a women’s engineering college, are from Tamil Nadu.

There has not been a rush to join the programme because of the finances involved, a source said - a situation which has prompted the Israeli government to offer soft loans to cover nearly 85% of project costs.

For Dr Meir Ariel, director-general of Tel Aviv University’s nano-satellite centre, the cost is worth the effort. He clarified that the satellite project is primarily intended to help with capacity-building in education. “We are not viewing this project as a means to attain a commercial advantage in space,” he said.

Brigadier General (Professor) Chaim Eshed, co-founder of the Israeli Space Agency, clarified that the idea is to create an ecosystem where there is a flow of information between universities, schools and engineers, which will create a larger body of student innovators and lead to technological advances for both nations.

“When I started out in aerospace four decades ago, I was looking for PhDs to launch satellites; now I am looking for high school students. This is how far we have progressed,” he said.

The project is not child’s play, Dr Ariel added, explaining that it will take over two years to build one nano satellite.

The state’s new Minister for IT & BT Ashwath Narayan C N promised to deliver on the collaboration by doing whatever was necessary to turn Indian institutes into technology hubs. “Even if have to amendment laws, we will do so,” he said.

For the last few years, Israel’s scientific community has worked to foster a new generation of aerospace-savvy innovators among Israeli high school students through nano-satellite-building, in an era when the Israeli government’s space attempts have been dogged by failures.

The conference also saw the signing of an MoU between ITCA and Dutch company, Hyperion, which will help with mentoring, design and development related to the programme.

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