The Indo-French atmospheric research satellite, Megha-Tropiques, is now safely ensconced in orbit, a fact that will gladden the hearts of many scientists around the world. This is just the second satellite that will gaze down on the formation of clouds and powerful storms in the tropical regions of the world. The ageing U.S.-Japanese Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), launched in 1997 and still operational, has provided a bonanza of information. There are high expectations from Megha-Tropiques, which will concentrate even more on the tropics and provide greater coverage of the region. This satellite will measure the flow of energy and the build-up of water vapour at different levels in the atmosphere, both critical factors in the evolution of large cloud systems. By deciphering the complex linkages between land, ocean, and atmosphere, it will be possible to greatly improve weather and climate models, making for better monsoon prediction. It should also provide vital clues for determining whether a warming climate could lead to more rain or less. And the benefits will not be restricted to India. That the 21 science teams formed for the mission have drawn scientists from 11 countries is a testament to its global importance. After a three-month period during which the instruments on the satellite will be calibrated and another six months when data will go only to the international science teams, data from the satellite will be freely accessible to all. A number of groups from various countries, including India, have plans to feed the data in real-time into their simulation models for weather prediction. In the meantime, another Indo-French satellite, SARAL, which will study the oceans, is being prepared for launch next year.
Along with the Megha-Tropiques, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) also carried three tiny satellites as co-passengers, two of them designed and developed by the faculty and students of Indian academic institutions. The three-kilogramme Jugnu nanosatellite came from IIT Kanpur and the 11-kilogramme SRMSat from the SRM University near Chennai. The PSLV had launched the 40-kilogramme ANUSAT from Anna University in 2009, and last year it put up the STUDSAT, weighing less than one kilogramme, built by a consortium of seven engineering colleges in Bangalore and Hyderabad. This sort of effort must be encouraged. For one thing, novel technologies can be tested quite cheaply. More importantly, putting together any satellite, however small, that will survive the rigours of launch and then work in the hostile environment of space is a tremendous challenge. It is unquestionably an excellent way to train the technology leaders of tomorrow that India needs.