Saturday, October 3, 2015

How to Watch a Satellite Launch in India

So, you love watching an aircraft taking of like a rocket from an airport. How about watching a rocket craft its way through space to place its payload in a geostationary orbit? How? Well, here's how!:

First, find out the date of the launch of the next rocket from SHAR (Sriharikota Range) from where our rockets, the PSLV and GSLV are launched. This information is usually available to the public about 7-10 days before the launch. So keep scanning your newspaper or check ISRO's (Indian Space Research Organization's website. for the next launch date.

This is a shot of the PSLV C30 taking off from SHAR on the 28th September, 2105

To get to SHAR you have to reach Sullurpeta which is the closest railhead from SHAR. Sullurpeta (Station Code : SPE) is about 80 kilometres from Chennai and could take up to 3 hours by road.The time taken by train (suburban train) is 2 hours 10 minutes and by an Express Train is 1 hour 30 minutes. Depending on when you need to get there you could take the suburban trains (Rs.25 for a second class ticket and Rs.200 for a first class ticket) or an long distance train. The air-conditioned Chair Car fare from Chennai to Sullurpeta by Express Train is Rs.300/-

Some long distance train options from Chennai to Sullurpeta are:

Depending on the time of the time of the launch, it may be possible to get back to Chennai the same day after witnessing the launch. But, if this is not possible you may have to stay overnight in Sullurpeta - which is a small town and the only option to stay here is Hotel Kinnera Grand which is a 5 minutes drive from Sullurpeta Railway Station (Sai Nagar Main road Sullurupet - 524121. Phone :(STD Code 08623) 242455 and 242466.

The launch of the rocket (the PSVL or the GSLV) happens either from Launch Pad I or Launch Pad II both of which are in the restricted area of the Satish Dhawan Space Center (SDSC) within the ISRO Complex at SHAR. SHAR is 17 kilometres from Sullurpeta. It takes about 30 minutes to get from Sullerpeta to SHAR (or the spot from where I recommend that you watch the launch). Of course, if you know anyone in ISRO it is possible to get an invite to watch the launch from inside the ISRO complex - which I am told is no different from watching from outside. In fact, several photographers who have Media Passes to watch the launch still prefer to watch it from here (the location I suggest below) as the entire launch can be watched  right from the ignition stage.

Plan to reach the viewing position at-least 30 minutes prior the the official launch time. Unlike how most of India works, the launch time is adhered to very precisely as the calculated time is the most advantageous for the rocket to place its payload with the greatest precision when launched. So, unless there is an unforeseen weather issue, a technical hitch or if  space debris is noticed, which could come in the path of the trajectory of the launch - the rocket will be launched at the exact designated time.

So, when you are ready to leave for SHAR proceed towards Sriharikota - which is 15 kilometres from Sullurpeta. When you are 7 kilometres from Sriharikota and near the village of Attakanitippa (all rickshaw drivers know the place quite well) and see this milestone - slow down.

Reduce speed as you need to change your trajectory shortly after this milestone (at the 5 km milestone which is just beyond this milestone on the way to Sriharikota) on the way to Sriharikota (SHAR or Sriharikota Range) Just after the milestone pictured above, you will see (at about 2 kms after the 7 km milestone as above i.e. after the 5 km milestone) this sign on your right:

Take the right on this dirt road (Pernadu Road) and travel for 500 to 600 meters (say half km or less on this dirt road) and on the left would be your viewing point on the Pulicat lake (the lake bed may be dry depending on the season). At the viewing point on your left (you would be facing East - Latitude: 13.724419, Longitude : 80.123865) you will see two sets of tower like structures. One set - where 3 towers are visible (Launch Pad I)  is from where the PSLV's are launched. The other set with 4 tower like structures (Launch Pad II) is from where the GSLV's are launched.

Launch Pad I - Three Towers
Launch Pad II - Four Towers

Now that you are at your right point, keep an eye and train your camera on Launch Pad I or II, as the case may be, and countdown for lift-off.

Some key points in your preparation:

Launch Window: The launch time or the launch window is communicated by ISRO in advance for you to book your tickets to Sullurpeta. Also, progress in preparing the rocket is updated many times a day on ISRO's Facebook page. If there is any change you may get adequate notice to reschedule. Plan to reach the venue well in time to get a glimpse of the launch which can be seen - depending on the weather - only for 30 to 60 seconds. Within about 60 seconds the rocket is out of viewing range.

Accessories: Depending on technical parameters like the weather, the desired trajectory, the flights goals and payload the launch may be scheduled at any-time of the day or night. Water, Caps,Torchlight, some food may be useful. Binoculars will get you a better view.

Camera: Bring a 400 mm lens for shooting the take-off. Rent one if you don't have one. A tripod is not very useful. The camera settings I used are : F9, ISO 250 (a higher ISO may be required if the launch is late in the evening), Shutter 1/2500, Spot Metering.

Just seconds after the launch the rocket is almost out of visual range

Getting to the venue: On the date of the launch it is unlikely that you can hire a car in Sullurpeta. So, if you are not driving there make your arrangement well in advance. ISRO has many guests and visitors for the launch and all taxis in Sullurpeta are booked in advance. Babu Naidu (+91-934661-0136) is a taxi owner in Sullurpeta who you may check with. Since no taxis were available, I hired a rickshaw which not only took me to the exact spot of the launch but the driver briefed me on the exact direction to look for the rocket. The rickshaw owner is Jagadish and his phone number is : +91-9640208664. Chengaiah is another rickshaw owner whose number is +91-9966602243. The charge is Rs.500/- for the return trip with no additional charge for waiting

After the launch: After the launch visit the Satish Dhawan Space Center (SDSC) at SHAR which is only about 1 kilometre away. Visitors are not allowed in but it is still nice to be there.

For those living in South India there is no excuse for not witnessing a rocket launch from SHAR. It is short, spectacular and a sin to give it a go-by!
Update on the 20th December,2015. Here are a few photos of the C29 taking off on the 16th December, 2015
Update on the 23rd May, 2016: Incorporation of inputs from blog reader, Prabhu, who suggested some corrections in the distance to be covered on the way to the launch site.

Update on the 8th September, 2016: Here are two photos of the GSLV-F05 taking off from SHAR with INSAT 3DR weather satellite