How a college space club designed India's first women-only satellite payload

The club members belong to Kerala's LBS Institute of Technology for Women

67-Lizy-Abraham Squad goals: Lizy Abraham (left), assistant professor at LBS Institute of Technology for Women and principal investigator in the WESAT mission, with student members of the team | Nirmal Jovial

As PSLV-C58 took off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota this January 1, the aspirations of an all-woman crew, too, soared with it. For, it carried a 1.5kg satellite payload, called the Women Engineered Satellite (WESAT), which is designed to gauge ultraviolet rays and solar irradiance in both space and on earth’s surface, examining their impact on rising temperatures and climate change in Kerala. “WESAT is India’s first women-only satellite payload,” says Lizy Abraham, 40, assistant professor at LBS Institute of Technology for Women in Thiruvananthapuram (the first engineering college in Kerala exclusively for women) and principal investigator of the WESAT mission. “Except for the Indian Space Research Organisation’s support to launch, we used only the potential of the students of LBS Institute of Technology for Women.” WESAT is the baby of the college’s 43-member space club.

When we [first] approached [government agencies], they were not convinced, particularly because we are a group of women. ―Lizy Abraham, principal investigator of the WESAT mission

As WESAT entered the orbit and started transmitting data, it silenced sexist sceptics. “I vividly recall our meeting with ISRO last September,” shares Sheril Mariam Jose, 21, one of the student coordinators of the WESAT project. “Originally slated for launch in November, we needed to complete the payload by October. The fabrication stage alone required Rs20 lakh. Securing such a substantial sum within a limited timeframe proved challenging. We naively hoped that being a women-only mission might facilitate funding. However, given the persisting gender disparity in the technical domain, we encountered significant hurdles in convincing others of our capability to fulfil this project.”

Their initial efforts to secure funding from government agencies were met with lukewarm response. “When we [first] approached them, they were not convinced, particularly because we are a group of women,” says Abraham. “I am not blaming them. They might have wondered whether we would be able to launch a satellite. But we approached the same organisations with new results, findings and updates each time. At one point, they were somewhat convinced that we could launch a satellite, but not in the near future.”

This delay in obtaining funds from government agencies compelled the team to explore crowdsourcing. Jose recalls how many individuals offered support. “They could not sponsor it entirely, but pledged to assist us with whatever they could,” she says. Unexpectedly though, the project got support from the Union and state governments through Nidhi Prayas and Kerala Startup Mission grants, enabling the team to complete the payload within the stipulated time frame.

The idea for WESAT took form in 2018―the same year when LBS institute started a space club. The leaders of the club during that phase coined the name WESAT. However, lack of sufficient reference material to construct a real satellite payload impeded their progress. It was then that Abraham returned from Ireland, where she was doing her postdoctoral research, and took charge of the project. “For about a year, we scoured various internet resources, research materials from various international space agencies and ISRO to develop a novel but feasible idea,” she says. “In 2018, Kerala experienced devastating floods, which led us to consider studying the impact of UV radiation in the context of climate change.”

The idea eventually solidified into a study comparing UV radiation in space and on earth’s surface to understand the filtration rate. The team developed its dedicated methodology and submitted the full technical proposal to ISRO, but funds were still low. “They encouraged us to proceed, but we lacked the funds to even initiate a pilot study with a ground station [measuring UV radiation],” recalls Abraham. “The college provided some funding, but two other faculty members―Resmi R. and Sumithra M.D.―and I pooled in money from our salaries. We spent years developing the idea; we were determined not to abandon it halfway.”

69-Members-of-the-WESAT-team-with-the-payload All smiles: Members of the WESAT team with the payload.

During the Covid pandemic, the team members got more time to dedicate to WESAT. “We made good progress in documentation, defining our payload, and the software part in that phase,” says Shruti S. Nair, a former student coordinator of WESAT who is now a cloud infrastructure associate at UST Global. By early 2023, a memorandum of understanding was signed between WESAT and ISRO for the launch. Consequently, tests and re-tests on the payload entered a top-gear phase.

“Every day at 4pm, we would gather in the lab after class,” says Abraham. “The team was divided into different groups, each assigned with specific tasks. We approached WESAT not merely as a college project but as a mission. Four batches were dedicated to working on four different modules of the satellite payload. There was a team designated for documentation, and another for media. We organised hackathons to tackle issues and often worked overnight, foregoing sleep, to meet ISRO’s deadlines.” Issues and challenges arose at multiple junctures, and for many months, the team operated on a 24-hour basis. “Even after returning home around 8pm, work continued,” adds Abraham.

Late-night stays at the college did not go down well with many of the members’parents, says Abraham, nor did the fact that they were devoting all their attention to the project rather than on academics and exams. It was a challenge to convince the parents. “I had to ensure that everyone reached home safely after leaving college late at night,” she says. “Sometimes, buses were unavailable, and some students lived in remote areas. So, I had to consider their transportation options. Furthermore, there are numerous restrictions on women travelling at night. It is society that imposes these kinds of restrictions on us. If late-night travel is not safe, it is not because of women. It is the society that makes it unsafe.”

There were moments of lightness and fun, too. Devika D.K., 22, a WESAT student coordinator and a scholar of applied electronics and instrumentation engineering, recalls the day of their students’union elections. The team was visiting the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. “Phones were not allowed inside, so we didn’t know the results until we left,” she shares. “Just after exiting the VSSC gate, we eagerly checked the results and discovered that our new chairperson and vice-chairperson were part of our team. We celebrated that victory there.”

The mission was not without adventure, of course. “Once, we received instructions [from ISRO] to immediately reach Sriharikota [which is close to 900km from Thiruvananthapuram] for the integration of our payload [into the launch vehicle],” says Surya Jayakumar, 22, also a student of applied electronics and instrumentation engineering. “We checked, and there were no train tickets available. We were unsure whether we could carry our payload on a flight. So, we decided to travel by road. Lizy ma’am, Devika and I went by car, and ma’am drove the entire distance without any major halts in between.” On their arrival, they found team members from other payload teams. “But we were the only three women there, and all of them were very appreciative and encouraging, as two of us were young students,” she recalls.

The WESAT team members later had the chance to enter the Mission Control Centre and the Mobile Service Tower of ISRO, and most of them were present in Sriharikota to witness their satellite being launched on New Year’s Day. “WESAT was our final year project, and many people, including faculty members and friends, questioned how we could trust this project, given the uncertainty surrounding its output and success,” says Surya. “If we had not achieved the desired results, our entire engineering course could have been jeopardised. But we chose the less-travelled path, and that made all the difference.”