Into the Cosmic Sunset: Shakuntala's Journey Back Home

May 2, 2024
Awais Ahmed
Into the Cosmic Sunset: Shakuntala's Journey Back Home

Shakuntala, Pixxel’s first pathfinder satellite that we saw launched in April 2022, has finally returned to Earth after completing its swansong journey in space. As Shakuntala descends to altitudes beyond our ground stations' reach, preparing for its final voyage through the atmospheric flames, I am reminded of the incredible journey we embarked upon as a young, inexperienced team driven by passion and a vision to explore the unknown.

It was February 2021, and we were all set to launch our first satellite, Anand, scheduled for the 28th of February. However, around the 10th of February, we discovered that one of our vendors had provided erroneous reports on the testing status of specific critical components. Consequently, we painfully decided to withdraw the satellite from the launch just two days before it was due to be shipped to the launch pad in Sriharikota, India, since it would take quite a few months to replace the components and get the satellite launch-ready again.

In March, passionate discussions took place regarding the next course of action. We decided to divert funding from our flagship commercial satellite (which we have since affectionately named the “Dead Firefly,”) to build another pathfinder satellite instead. This decision aimed to reduce the risk of relying solely on Anand which might take longer than expected to launch again and because we didn’t want to keep all our eggs in one basket satellite.

Thus, the idea of Shakuntala was born.

In April 2021, we started on what was merely a concept, aiming for a launch in December of that same year. It was a tight turnaround time for an inexperienced team (given that we hadn’t launched a single satellite by then). There was a lot of uncertainty about whether it was the right choice at all.

The journey from the drawing board to the launch pad was nothing short of a miracle, filled with relentless hard work, sleepless nights, and an unwavering belief in our mission. As they say, sometimes you have to make a choice and then make it right.

While we had initially aimed for a December launch, inevitable delays pushed the date back. However, the satellite finally made its ascent in April 2022 with SpaceX, and what an unforgettable night that was for the entire team. Huddled together in a small office watching the Falcon 9 rocket take off at approximately 10 PM on 1st April, we all saw our collective dream escaping the clutches of earth’s gravity into an orbit’s embrace.

In orbit, Shakuntala met and exceeded our expectations, performing almost flawlessly. It transformed from merely a satellite into a symbol of our capabilities, aspirations, and hopes.

The mission was not without its challenges, however. A significant obstacle arose when the satellite's SD cards were corrupted by space radiation. This unforeseen setback rigorously tested our team's resilience and ingenuity. Despite this significant reduction in storage capacity, Shakuntala continued to excel, adeptly navigating the challenges. Its outstanding performance affirmed the robustness of our design and the quality of our work, a testament to our team's innovative solutions that kept it operational.

At the time of its launch, Shakuntala was the world's highest resolution hyperspectral satellite—a feat we are all proud of at Pixxel. During its 619 days in orbit, it captured and transmitted some of the most stunning hyperspectral images ever seen.

The data collected showcased our team's extraordinary capabilities and demonstrated the transformative potential of hyperspectral technology in Earth Observation. This technology is paving the way for us to see the unseen and to develop a comprehensive health monitor for Planet Earth, our cosmic home.

In its last days before it burned up in the atmosphere, Shakuntala fought against physics itself to keep its camera and antennas pointed towards the Earth while still trying to take care of the responsibilities bestowed upon it dutifully.

As Shakuntala now completes its descent, it's difficult not to feel a sense of loss. Yet, I am overwhelmed with pride and gratitude. This satellite did not just gather invaluable data and enhance our understanding of the planet; it also symbolised our team's spirit of innovation and perseverance. Although Shakuntala's journey has concluded, its story will always echo in the infinity of space, and its legacy will continue to inspire us at Pixxel to push the boundaries of spacecraft technology.

Thank you, Shakuntala, for being more than a satellite—a dream that soared into reality for so many of us here at Pixxel and a beacon of hope and inspiration.

"In the cosmos, a dream took flight, 

A beacon named Shakuntala, a wondrous sight. 

Born from minds young and bold, 

A tale of the stars, daringly told. 

Now descending in a fiery embrace, 

Shakuntala returns to its birthplace. 

Thank you, dear satellite, for your celestial song, 

In the annals of space, you'll forever belong.”

A small glimpse of our journey here: