The story of a Bengaluru wristwatch that went to space

Bangalore Watch Company’s Apogee Karman Line wristwatch recently completed a stratospheric flight by travelling 114,000 feet (35 kilometres) into the Earth’s atmosphere

Updated - May 17, 2024 03:07 pm IST

Published - May 17, 2024 03:00 pm IST

Apogee Karman Line wristwatch

Apogee Karman Line wristwatch | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Nightmares of Xenomorphs lingered long after a young Nirupesh Joshi first saw Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic Alien. Yet, the terror was not enough to extinguish the spark ignited in his heart — a fascination with the vast unknown of space. Years later, that same passion for the cosmos culminated in a very real feat: Bangalore Watch Company, a luxury watch brand he co-founded with his wife, Mercy Amalraj, sent a wristwatch to space.

A customised 2 kg carbon-fibre unmanned spacecraft launched from Sheffield, UK earlier this year. It carried the prototype watch [called the Apogee Karman Line] on a stratospheric balloon flight. The balloon reached 114,000 feet (35 kilometres), experiencing -60°C, no oxygen, and no atmosphere. Exposed outside the craft, the Apogee endured this harsh environment before the balloon’s controlled descent.

“Throughout the four-hour spaceflight, several 4K cameras recorded the watch. The watch worked flawlessly throughout the flight with no visible timekeeping issues, condensation, or other issues despite the extreme pressure and temperature changes that the watch was exposed to,” the company’s statement read.

Though no institution has recognised this feat, Nirupesh claims his watch company is the first in India to achieve it. “Unlike Omega’s NASA-certified moonwatches, chosen through a rigorous selection process, no official programme exists in India. But we have proof to show our watch is spaceworthy.”

The Bangalore Watch Company built its reputation on its themed collections — cricket-inspired Cover Drive, aviation-themed MACH1, and the space-inspired Apogee launched in 2021. But Nirupesh and his team wanted to go beyond mere inspiration. “Why just be inspired by space? Why not create a watch that could actually go there?” This question became the driving force behind the Karman Line project, a two-year journey to create “the first space-qualified wristwatch” by an Indian brand.

Nirupesh Joshi

Nirupesh Joshi | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Unsurprisingly, the space-tested watch comes at an astronomical price. The 50 limited edition Apogee Karman Line watches, which can be ordered via the brand’s website, cost ₹2,40,000 apiece. 

But don’t expect some sci-fi features like remote missile launchers in the timepiece besides its ability to survive outer space. There isn’t any. It just shows the time. According to Nirupesh, however, recording time is merely a vestigial function of a wristwatch. “The key thing is the emotional connection,” he explains, “You wear a watch because of what it means to you. Maybe it was a gift from your grandfather, a celebratory purchase with your first paycheck, or an anniversary present from your spouse. Unlike most things we own, a watch can hold decades of emotions and memories.”

He adds that space flight isn’t merely a selling gimmick. “Omega, a luxury brand, has a history of watches that have gone to the moon. Their watches are astronaut-qualified by NASA, meaning they’re deemed fit for lunar missions. That’s the ultimate goal for our brand, too. We want our Karman Line watch to be a serious contender in space exploration, worn by astronauts — not just Indian astronauts but international ones as well. That’s our next big goal.”

Jileesh Joseph, the company’s watchmaker, sheds light on the technical aspects of the Karman Line series. “All luxury watches are tested for some water-tightness (usually 50 to 100 metres). However, the Karman Line was tested for negative pressure. Space has no atmosphere, so there will be a complete vacuum. The watch had to be tested thoroughly to ensure it would work in a complete vacuum in the same way that it would function in high-pressure environments. There is no predefined process for this, and very few companies have done this before, so we had to develop an entire process for this test/qualification procedure.”

They also developed a proprietary material called Cerasteel, a unique blend of stainless steel and ceramic chosen for its exceptional scratch resistance to withstand the harsh conditions of space. 

“All watches of the Apogee series now incorporate Cerasteel and undergo the same rigorous testing procedures, making them all capable of withstanding the harsh environment of space,” adds Nirupesh.

Launching a watch into space presented a unique set of challenges. Finding a launch partner, choosing a launch method (a high-altitude hydrogen balloon), and ensuring the watch’s safe recovery were just a few hurdles the team had to overcome. The launch itself was a nail-biter, with three false starts due to unpredictable British weather. Recovery was another story – the touchdown zone lacked cell service, leaving the team in suspense until confirmation of the watch’s retrieval and functionality.

Was the experience as thrilling as watching Alien

“No, it was a different kind of scary,” laughs Nirupesh. “Here we were, with months of work culminating in this moment, and we weren’t even there to see it happen. The weather delays, the technical unknowns... it was all a big waiting game, hoping our little watch would survive the journey.”

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