Aryabhata: India's First Satellite

A first launch for India

By Google Arts & Culture

Illustrations by Roshan Gawand

Aryabhata, India's first satellite in 1975 by Roshan Gawand

On the 19th April 1975, at a barren-looking launch site in Astrakhan Oblast, Russia, rocket thrusters flared and a large polyhedron-shaped object was blasted into space. This was “Aryabhata”, India’s first unmanned satellite, a landmark moment in the nation’s history.

Aryabhata, India's first satellite in 1975 by Roshan Gawand

On that day, India became only the world’s 11th nation to send a satellite into orbit. More importantly, the Aryabhata satellite helped lay the foundation on which India built its impressive space program. 

Today, India is among the few nations that has sent a probe to the moon, and only one of four to achieve interplanetary orbit.

Aryabhata, India's first satellite in 1975 by Roshan Gawand

The road to space

The road to India’s first satellite began in the 1960s, with the success of the Rohini rocket programme. These were developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and were a series of “sounding” rockets designed for meteorological and atmospheric research.

Bhabha with Cecil Powell, Patrick Blackett and Vikram Sarabhai by TIFR ArchivesTata Institute of Fundamental Research

Then, in the early 1970s, Vikram Sarabhai, ISRO's founder, appointed a team of scientists and engineers to develop a satellite. This team was led by the space scientist, Dr. Udupi Ramachandra Rao, who directed operations to assemble the satellite in Bangalore.

Scout Launch Vehicle, L-60-1189 (1960) by National Aeronautics Space Administration, The National Archives at Philadelphia, and NASAU.S. National Archives

Cold War rivalries and obstacles

Initially, the satellite was to be launched with the help of the United States, using the Scout launch vehicle – a multi-stage rocket that was seen as reliable and affordable for India. 

By Larry BurrowsLIFE Photo Collection

In 1971, Indira Gandhi, the then-Prime Minister, received a message from Moscow via the Indian ambassador. The message informed her that the Soviet Academy of Sciences was ready to assist India in launching its first satellite – no doubt, the Kremlin  was concerned by a possible collaboration between India and the US. In the end, India decided to take them up on their offer, and Aryabhata would be launched with the Soviet Union’s help.

Aryabhata, India's first satellite in 1975 by Roshan Gawand

However, just as a launch date was looking like a possibility, Vikram Sarabhai, ISRO's founder died. His death brought the whole Indian space program to a standstill – the satellite project looked to be in serious trouble. 

Determined to press ahead despite this setback, Dr. Rao and his team were able to finish work on the satellite and a launch date was decided. 

Aryabhata, India's first satellite in 1975 by Roshan Gawand

Naming Aryabhata

At this point, the satellite was still without a name. To secure her support, the team of scientists turned to the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to bestow it with a moniker. She chose “Aryabhata”, after the great 5th Century CE mathematician and astronomer.

Among his many other discoveries, Aryabhata was famous for creating a system of phonemic number notation in which numbers were represented by consonant-vowel monosyllables. 

Aryabhata, India's first satellite in 1975 by Roshan Gawand

The legacy

As the Aryabhata satellite exited earth’s orbit, it began to record valuable data. It was equipped with instruments to explore conditions in Earth’s ionosphere, measure neutrons and gamma rays from the Sun, and perform investigations in X-ray astronomy.

Aryabhata, India's first satellite in 1975 by Roshan Gawand

After the fifth day in orbit, an electrical failure meant that Aryabhata’s instruments had to be switched off. Still, during the five days it was in space, valuable information was collected – the mission meant that India could make observations on an X-ray source (cyg-X1). 

Aryabhata, India's first satellite in 1975 by Roshan Gawand

Crucially, the launch helped establish the infrastructure and the know-how for future satellite missions. Perhaps more importantly, though, the launch proved to the country and the rest of the world that India’s fledgling space program was as capable as it was ambitious. 

Aryabhata would remain as an inspiration for later generations of Indian space scientists and engineers.

Credits: Story

Illustrations by Roshan Gawand

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