Wings of fire: Chennai-based Space Kidz India launches AzaadiSAT, involves 750 schoolgirls

Schoolgirls had to remotely build payloads (transport of data across a network) and write codes for the satellite to be launched into space

Manju Latha Kalanidhi Published :  19th February 2023 03:00 PM   |   Published :   |  19th February 2023 03:00 PM
Students write codes for the payloads

Students write codes for the payloads

It seemed like a flight of fancy a year ago for Tanvi Patel. The tenth grader and a science enthusiast from Shri BS Patel Kanya Vidyalaya in Mahesana, Gujarat, was chosen to be part of an ambitious space plan. Called AzaadiSAT, the project involved 750 girls like her from government schools across India.

They had to remotely build payloads (transport of data across a network) and write codes for the satellite to be launched into space. On February 10, as part of the ISRO’s SSLV-D2 launch, the small, eight-kg CubeSat blasted off into space from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. How does Patel wish to celebrate? 

“I want to hug Srimathy ma’am for making me a Space Star,” she says. Dr Srimathy Kesan is the brain behind the communication satellite. The 49-year-old founder and CEO of Space Kidz India (SKI), a Chennai-based science and space technology incubator, made AzaadiSAT the first STEM project in the world comprising all girls.

Founded in 2011 with the mission to help young minds ‘savour space sciences’, SKI runs three-month modules—from the solar system and galaxy to robotics and drones—for various age groups. So far SKI has trained 3,500 kids in space exploration of whom about 100 are already working with companies that are into robotics and drone startups across India.

Incidentally, Kesan herself is neither a space scientist nor an aeronautical engineer. “In school, 
I was an NCC cadet and was chosen as a paratrooper. Paratrooping put me in the sky and the space bug bit me,” she recalls.

The tipping point came in 2009 when her friend mentioned a global conference being held in Miami. “I had to be there,” she says. It was in Florida that she got an opportunity to interact with NASA representatives who had set up a kiosk to talk about their programmes. NASA had several initiatives for young school students and that same year, she managed to fly a batch of 108 students to the US to give them a taste of space.

Since then, Kesan has taken around 3,500 youngsters to various space workshops. In 2013, SKI started the Young Scientist India programme to identify high school students who could be mentored to become space scientists. Kesan herself was part of the one-day astronaut programme in Florida in December 2022 where she was handpicked to join celebrity NASA astronaut Charlie Duke, becoming the first Indian woman to experience zero gravity.

How did a commerce student become a space ninja? “Reading NASA news, attending workshops/seminars at the US space agency, taking copious notes and googling like crazy about anything related to satellites,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes. 

In 2022, Kesan pitched the idea to include 750 girls from government schools to build an indigenous satellite to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a Zoom call where some space startups were meeting. “The PM instructed the government officials to offer me all help needed,” she says.

ISRO gave them technical support and other incidental expenses for the programmes were sanctioned by Hexaware Technologies, a Mumbai-based IT services company. Anna University, Chennai, gave them the space to build the satellite. The students were picked based on their enthusiasm to learn fast. The space lover wants to take kids to the moon in the next five years. Audacity is, indeed, Kesan’s first name.

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