The launch of Aryabhata remains one of the proudest moments, not only for the Indian space program, but it is also as a landmark in the history of the country. It was on the 19th of April, 1975, when the rocket thrusters of India’s first indigenous satellite fired up. It was named Aryabhata by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. There were three names proposed for the satellite, first was Aryabhata (after the great Indian mathematician and astronomer), the second was Mitra (signifying friendly relations between India and USSR) and third was Jawahar (after the first Indian Prime Minister, to evoke the spirit of Independence).
Indian scientists long dreamed of an indigenous space program after being inspired by the launch of Sputnik 1 by the USSR, which was the first-ever artificial satellite, and this dream finally began to gain momentum with the establishment of ISRO on 15th August, 1969. After taking into consideration the success achieved by the Rohini rockets in the 1960s, the Indian Space Research Organisation shifted focus to building indigenous satellites. Vikram Sarabhai, who has long been considered the father of Indian Space Research, appointed a team of 25 engineers and researchers at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad. Under the direction of space scientist Dr. U.R Rao, a 100-kilogram satellite was designed, intended to be launched by the United States using the Scout launch vehicle which was a multistage rocket seen as reliable and affordable for India.
The primary objectives of the Aryabhata mission as per Professor U.R Rao were to establish the relevant infrastructure for the fabrication, testing and qualification of such sophisticated spacecraft systems, set up the necessary ground-based receiving, transmitting and tracking systems; and provide Indian scientists with an opportunity to conduct investigations in space sciences, suitable payloads were also included.
In 1971, India’s then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi received a message from the USSR, saying that the Soviet Academy of Sciences was ready to assist India in launching its first satellite. Negotiations followed in New Delhi and Moscow between 4 ISRO scientists and 20 of their Soviet counterparts and after 4 days of discussions, a free launch for the Indian satellite was finalized. However, the Indian space program came to a standstill in December 1971 due to the death of its founder Vikram Sarabhai, who passed away at the age of 52 due to a cardiac arrest. This led to a substantial delay in finalizing the details for the launch of the satellite.
Aryabhata was successfully launched from a rocket made by the Soviet Union into a near-earth orbit on 19 April 1975 at 1300 hr IST. The orbital parameters immediately after the injection were apogee height 620 km, perigee height 562 km, and inclination 50.7 degrees. It weighed 360 kilograms, with instruments to explore conditions in Earth’s ionosphere, measure neutrons and gamma rays from the Sun, and perform investigations in X-ray astronomy.
In the initial phase, the ground station at Bears Lake, USSR controlled the satellite. During the normal phase, the SHAR ground station took over. Aryabhata tumbled initially, and regulator voltage to the aeronomy experiment was absent. All other subsystems functioned very well as indicated by 91 different health monitoring parameters. The scientific instruments had to be switched off during the fifth day in orbit because of a failure in the satellite’s electrical power system. Useful information, nevertheless, was collected during the five days of operation.
Even though not a roaring success, this launch opened up various new opportunities for the Indian Space Program and the experience gained through this experimental satellite was valuable for future programmes and in designing operational satellites. This launch proved successful at a time when leading space powers had little faith in India’s chances to produce an indigenous satellite. Aryabhata orbited for nearly seventeen years. Today, the Indian space program stands out as a true pride of India and has reached new milestones. We can always look back with great joy, at the scientists who made the pathbreaking Aryabhata possible, that paved the way for the remarkable progress of India in the field of space.