Saturday, 24 July, 2021

Budding engineers strive to realise Nepal's space dream


By Shaurya Kshatri
Kathmandu, Mar. 28: On March 21, a motley group of young engineering students piled into the back of a pickup with an 85-inch-long rocket wedged between them and drove down to a barren plain in Dhanusha. Accompanied by a team of Nepali Army, the group dismounted a 25-kg rocket from the vehicle before setting it onto a launch rail. They then began the countdown for the launch of the sounding rocket dubbed as Garuda. Flames pouring from its tail, it shot up off its launchpad. For a good 10 seconds, the test launch had started to show promise with onlookers cheering in celebration before it backfired and came crashing down to earth.
Nepal’s first-ever test launch of a sounding rocket had failed.
But in scientific pursuit, failure is the stepping stone to success, believe Mohan Tamang and his group of 30 young engineers -- all of whom have been relentlessly working to get the Garuda project off the ground since August 2020. This collegiate of talented students collectively known as the Open Rocketry and Space Society Nepal (ORASS) is entirely composed of Bachelor students -- some of whom are pursuing mechanical engineering, others software development, aeronautical engineering and so on. They have come together to design Nepal’s first sounding rocket and present it in the prestigious Spaceport America Cup-2021 to be held in New Mexico, the United States from June 22 to 26.
“This is the first time that Nepalis will be participating in this global event,” said Tamang, the team leader and coordinator of the project. “Our plan is to design a sounding rocket so that it can reach its apogee (maximum height) of 10,000 feet off the ground. The rocket will be attached with a small CubeSat carrying radiation centres and cameras to monitor radiation in the atmosphere,” he explained. As it reaches the maximum height, the rocket will be recovered using parachute.
The initial test, however, fell short of all these tasks, as was envisioned. So, what went wrong? According to Tamang, the rocket was made of 1mm thick mild steel. Usually, the mainframe of most rockets uses aerospace grade aluminum or titanium because both metals are very strong but lightweight. However, operating on a shoe-string budget, the team couldn't muster aluminum or titanium and rather had to resort to mild steel. Relying mostly on crowdfunding, the group was able to collect Rs. 600,000 for the project. Barely enough to acquire quality grade equipment, the team had to improvise. They have manufactured almost everything from scratch -- from the nozzle to the mainframe to the chemicals required. Operating from a dingy hall belonging to Thapathali Campuse’s Robotics Society, ORASS is working on rectifying past errors. “Moving forward, we will be working on thickening the mainframe, and improving the nozzle. In the next phase, we estimate the Garuda to be ready for about Rs. 200,000,” added Tamang.
The team have taken the launch failure as a learning curve and are proud of their endeavour. Even Prime Minister KP Oli during a special function to announce Nepal’s self-reliance on livestock on March 25 acknowledged the attempt of the young minds towards furthering Nepal’s aerospace pursuit.

Taking Nepal to space by 2024
On March 21, the Garuda project wasn’t the only rocket being tested in Dhanusha. NEAR Aerospace, an astronomical research centre, also tested the first single barrel rocket launcher at the site.
Since rocket science is in its infancy in Nepal, there aren’t any guidelines or policy regulating rocket testing. However, both teams are coordinated with Nepali Army, which provided the land in Dhanusha as an optimal site for the launch. According to Binod Lamicchane, army officer at Nepali Army and an aeronautical engineer, the army executes artillery testing and firing at Dhanusha. “The land owned by the army in Dhanusha is devoid of any settlements. As a result, the two teams were assigned this site,” said Lamichhane. Like Garuda, NEAR Aerospace’s attempts also failed but they aren't disheartened by it. They are used to failures and improvisations.
For instance, Ammonium Perchlorate Composite Propellant (APCP) fuel is required for any solid-propellant rocket vehicles. But obtaining the fuel in Nepal is a hassle. So the team, instead, looked for an alternative. “We conjured up an alternative fuel by cooking potassium nitrate and sugar,” said Er. Shishir GC, Co-founder of NEAR Aerospace.
GC and his team have been working on the project, dubbed as Arambha for the last three years. The group has envisioned to take a Nepali rocket about 115 kilometres above sea level. Anything beyond 100 kilometres from earth is known as the Kármán Line -- the beginning of space. “If we can cross that line we can officially be a country that went to space,” exclaimed GC.
The test done at Dhanusha was also a part of NEAR Aerospace’s ambitious project, ‘Nepal’s Space Dream 2024’. As per GC, the next testing will be conducted by April. “This time the rocket will be four times bigger in size,” he said.

Exemplary efforts require policy, regulatory backing
Nepal was allotted its own geostationary orbital slot back in 1984 by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
To finally utilise the slot, on March 12, 2019, Nepal Telecommunications Authority (NTA) signed an agreement with French satellite operator Thales Alenia Space to build Nepal’s first satellite. But the nation had tried to build satellites back in 2016 before pulling its hands out. As per the notice issued by NTA on December 8, 2020, all the procurement processes issued by NTA on October 6, 2016 for the process of launching satellites in orbital positions were cancelled. This was done because the government lacked concrete policy in 2016 as it introduced the Satellite Policy only in July of 2020.
With youngsters making their mark in rocket science, it will be prudent to come up with policies to identify launching sites, and address safety issues to better encourage and ensure space science in Nepal.