Time at 35-km high

Bengaluru-based watchmaker builds India’s first space-qualified watch, which ticks successfully in the stratosphere
The Apogee Karman Line in space, 35 km above the Earth | PICs CREDIT: Bangalore Watch Company
The Apogee Karman Line in space, 35 km above the Earth | PICs CREDIT: Bangalore Watch Company

Everywhere, time has no beginning and no end, just perpetual existence. However, in space, which stretches into infinity, time takes a whole new meaning. Helping astronauts, who call space home for several months, to keep time is not only a challenge, but a feat achieved through a blend of creativity, engineering, and ingenuity. Several space watches have been created over the years, handsomely adorning the wrists of space-farers, telling them the time on Earth, and aiding them to keep a track of normal life, routine and tasks.

Bengaluru-based Bangalore Watch Company (BWC), which has embarked upon the exercise of celebrating India’s space prowess through its distinct wristwatches, aims to go higher. Recently, the six-year-old Indian watchmaker rolled out the country’s first space-qualified watch, the Apogee Karman Line, which went through careful design and rigorous testing over the last 18 months, reaching high up and deep into the stratosphere, before landing safely back on Earth.

Space is the limit

In 2021, the company launched the ‘Apogee’ series of watches as an ode to the Indian space programme. Apogee refers to the point in the orbit of the Moon or a satellite at which it is furthest from the earth.

“We didn’t want to stop at creating watches that were merely inspired by space, but to see if we could build them to be qualified and tested for space,” says Bangalore Watch Company Co-Founder Mercy Amalraj. Accordingly, BWC’s Apogee Karman Line terms itself as the first space-qualified watch from an Indian company.

Built on the Apogee series, BWC’s new watch line has been designed to survive and function in space, which is an unforgiving environment, a vacuum, with no gravity, no oxygen, and extremely low temperatures, and space watches are designed to work seamlessly in these conditions.

“Watches have been to space before. But most of them have been used only inside capsules or other spacecraft, in a pressurised environment. Only a few have been exposed to the outside. Not all watches can withstand external conditions of outer space, where temperatures plummet to -250 degrees Celsius, when facing away from the Sun, and +250 degrees Celsius when facing the Sun. We wanted our Apogee to be fit for outer space, and not just inside a capsule. Accordingly, the company created a specific prototype and performed a lot of testing on Earth, before the final test in space,” says Bangalore Watch Company Co-Founder and Creative Director Nirupesh Joshi. The idea involved taking a few candidate watches from the Apogee series, testing them on the ground so as to mimic conditions in space, and then send a watch into space, to see if it survives through the inhospitable conditions up there.

The blue dials 
of the watch
The blue dials of the watch

Sturdy for space

The Karman Line is a boundary 100 km above mean sea level that borders Earth’s atmosphere, and the beginning of space is 100 km above the Earth – it’s where space begins. “We called our space idea the Karman Line Project, because we wanted to send the Apogee watch into the stratosphere,” Joshi says. The company began by arriving at an ideal design and construction for a watch that could be put to the test of spaceflight, and its safe return to Earth.

Two years ago, it developed a proprietary material called ‘Cerasteel’, comprising a steel inner core and a ceramic exterior, with an American firm. Cerasteel is rated an impressive ‘9H’ on the pencil hardness test. Along with a Black Cerasteel unibody case, and a special mechanism from Switzerland, offering 68 hours power reserve, a meteorite dial was also included. Sourced from a Swedish meteorite hunter, the blue-coloured Muonionalusta meteorite fell to the Earth a million years ago, but is believed to be older than our planet (over 4.5 billion years old). It was discovered in 1904. Besides, a scratch-resistant domed sapphire crystal, with two layers of anti-reflective coating, and a genuine leather strap were some other features.

A major problem that had to be addressed was pressure. There is no pressure in space, only vacuum. Another was temperature. These watches are not battery-powered, and work on automatic mechanism. They have hundreds of moving parts; when you move an arm, potential energy is converted into kinetic energy. “We subjected the candidate watches to differential pressure (low and high), repeating the cycle several times. Then we conducted freeze tests. Usually, when temperatures change, a watch’s glass shatters and there is condensation behind the crystal. These tests were to eliminate such issues,” he says.

The launch

Post the successful on-ground tests, the watch had to be launched into space. BWC partnered with a UK-based company specialising in high-altitude hydrogen-powered balloons. “We had to build a 2-kg payload with a carbon fibre spacecraft, with our watch fitted on it externally. Multiple cameras were to record the whole journey. The spacecraft was attached to a balloon, and was launched from the UK, attaining a height of 114,000 feet (35 km), i.e., much higher than a commercial flight. At this altitude, the balloon was remotely detonated to bring the payload back to Earth. The latter started free-falling at 300 kmph, and was remotely parachuted to the ground as it got closer.

“The whole watch survived. We have four hours of footage on its entire journey, and how it sustained in that environment (at -60 degrees Celsius), and returned safely to Earth. There was no condensation behind the crystal, no issue with the movement or mechanism. Hence, we believe that this is the first Indian watch that has gone to space, and the first Indian watch that has been qualified for outer space,” states Joshi, adding that the eventual goal is to see that the Apogee series would be worn by astronauts in human spaceflight missions.

Time on the ISS

  1. Astronauts on mission look at their watch or laptop. Days and time are the same on the International Space Station (ISS), since they are 400 km below on Earth

  2. Crews live according to the GMT time zone. When they go to bed and wake up, it is at the same time that people do so in the UK

  3. The only difference is that sunset and sunrise don’t have the same meaning when they happen 16 times a day

Watches in Space

Reports state that so far, 1,899 watches have gone to space. Some of the prominent models include:

Rolex GMT-Master 1678 (1954)

Breitling Navitimer (1954)

The OMEGA Speedmaster “Moonwatch” Professional (1957)

Limited Edition

The 50-piece limited edition Apogee Karman Line watch is priced at Rs 2,40,000 (~$2,850) and can be ordered on Bangalore Watch Company’s ’s website

The layers of Earth’s atmosphere with the Kármán line indicated (not to scale)

SOURCE: NOAA

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