Chandrayaan 1 countdown begins

This article originally appeared on my blog http://pradx.wordpress.com. I recovered the post using Wayback Machine.

After what is termed as a “dress rehersal” yesterday night succeededChandrayaan-1’s countdown should have started up today morning. I think what they are referring to as a dress rehersal is going through all the steps of the launch right up to the final step without actually launching the launch vehicle (just a fancy technical name for a rocket with a payload). Things have now moved into their final phase.

Space bloggers like Emily Lakdawalla is claiming the difficulty in getting images of Chandrayaan I online. It might be difficult to see a total lack of images or information after being used to bombarded with information via websites and mailing lists. ISRO doesn’t have a good website or a good mailing list. ISRO’s Chandrayaan I website may have been well designed but it hasn’t been updated for the past 17 months. 

One of the claims that this mission was supposed to do, was to encourage excitement among the younger generation for the space sciences. This was iterated several times by the Prime Minister himself. Looking at the number of people online today, I believe that ISRO should have presented their stuff online in a much more better way than has been  done. For this historic launch too, everything has been left for the media to piece and stitch together. I believe mediapersons were given a grand tour of the launch site at Sriharikota, but nothing significant has come out of it.

There are a few people working though. Times of India’s Srinivas Laxman’s coverage (see related stories for the latest) has been outstanding, though not well timed with the launch. NDTV’s Pallava Bagla, who also co-wrote a book has some excellent coverage and a good dedicated website for India’s Moon Yatra.

In the CitizenSpace efforts to popularize Chandrayaan I launch, my friend, Raghunandan (Planetary Society, India) constant pleas for material on Chandrayaan almost fell on deaf ears. The electronic data that he now has in his hands is, in his words, “quite awesome”. He is now in transit, trying to get an unofficial glimpse of the Chandrayaan I launch. He hasn’t been able to put the content online but will be happy to forward the material to you after the launch. Catch him on his email id – planetarysocietyindia (at) gmail (dot) com. 

I am also planning to carry a series of articles on how students today can benefit from Chandrayaan I’s launch on October 22 in a series of six articles on the SEDS India blog. To sign off, the media is the best place to catch the latest action in the Chandrayaan I launch arena. I’ve tried my best to try and get some of the content online and I accept, failed but I hope the lessons I have learnt enroute will help me in future launches.

Black Hole, Beresheet and Block 5

On the eve of Yuri’s Night of 2019, a bunch of things happened around the letter B. Hence, the title of this post. All had a space connection.

B for Black Hole

Scientists from a group of scientists funded by America’s National Science Foundation released the first “image” of a black hole. The image was pieced together (this TED talk by Katie Bouman talks about how) using data collected by radio telescopes from North America, South America, Europe and Antarctica called the Event Horizon Telescope. Vasudevan Mukunth provided a nice background before the announcement on The Wire.


Scientists have obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87. The image shows a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun. This long-sought image provides the strongest evidence to date for the existence of supermassive black holes and opens a new window onto the study of black holes, their event horizons, and gravity. Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

I followed the announcement itself on Twitter. There was also a lot of attention directed at Katie Bouman for her work highlighted in her 2016 TED talk linked above but she was at pains to repeatedly call it the work of her team which is laudable. The South Indian comparison to a medu wada was inevitable I guess. That formed the best tweet during the afterglow of the announcement on Twitter.

Tweet by @NirujMohan comparing the medu vada with the black hole image.

XKCD also has a lovely cartoon giving a comparison of the imaged M87 galaxy to the size of our solar system that I found a wonderful tool to get the scale of the image. Sandhya Ramesh writing for The Print has a nice rundown of all the stuff shared during the press conference and the 6 papers published for the result.

XKCD giving a size comparison between the size of our solar system and M87. XKCD notes that perhaps Voyager 1 has just passed the event horizon. Image Credit: XKCD, Randall Munroe.

B for Beresheet

A private spacecraft built by SpaceIL had its landing scheduled for April 12 Indian time. SpaceIL was a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize. However, despite the fact that they could not meet the deadline for the Prize, they went ahead and launched their spacecraft to aim to become the first private spacecraft to soft land on the Moon but ended up becoming the first private spacecraft to hard land on the Moon. A malfunction in the lander’s main engine led to it crashing into the Moon at almost 500 km/hr from a height of 150 meters. So near and yet so far…

Team Indus was also on it’s way to the Moon being the Indian entry to the Google Lunar X Prize but ISRO cancelled its contract for launching it on the PSLV. They are now trying to revive the launch and perhaps a nice stimulus is the opening of the chance of becoming the first private spacecraft to soft-land on the Moon. ISRO’s own Chandrayaan-2 is on an ever delaying attempt to launch to the Moon with the latest date being being the second half of 2019.

B is for Block 5

I cheated a little here to get the B’s in a string. But, this refers to the Block 5 of the Falcon Heavy which took off with a 6 ton Arabsat-6A. The launch was of a Falcon Heavy with an Ariane-V like configuration with one core first stage with two strap-on boosters.

The focus of the mission seems to have been the launch itself. It is the world’s most powerful rocket. Also, the sights of the twin boosters landing seems to have eclipsed the whole mission. No one is even asking about Arabsat!

I couldn’t catch the Falcon Heavy launch live but saw it while having breakfast in the morning on the next day. What a lovely day for space!

India conducts an Anti Satellite Missile Test

This article was originally posted here

Pictures released of the Anti Satellite Missile Test conducted by India on March 27, 2019. Image Credit: Shiv Aroor/LiveFist

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced today that India had successfully carried out an Anti Satellite Missile Test (ASAT). The mission was code named Mission Shakti. A missile was launched from the Dr. Abdul Kalam Island Launch Complex off the coast of Orissa and hit an Indian satellite orbiting at 300 km. The hit was successful.

It is to be said that this is an important technology demonstration on the part of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It is a capability that only three other countries in the world have – USA, Russia and China. Of these, China seems to be the reason that India accelerated the development of the ASAT. China did the ASAT test in January 2007 by destroying a satellite in a 800 km orbit. The US responded to this with tests of its own in 2010 by destroying a satellite in a 300 km orbit.

India’s response was a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) test it performed in 2012 where an incoming missile was intercepted by an interceptor missile. DRDO which had developed the said capability said that it had the building blocks to test the ASAT by 2014. However, it is believed that then UPA Government under Dr. Manmohan Singh did not give the DRDO the go-ahead for this project. It is believed that India feared further restrictions on technology transfer from the US as the basis for not giving the project the go-ahead. It is believed that the go-ahead came after the Narendra Modi government when it came into power in 2014.

It is essential to seperate the civilian and defence space programmes. India did this in 2008 in response to the India-US Civilian Nuclear Deal. Although ISRO launches defence satellites into orbit, it does not intend the end purpose of such a mission be purely military. DRDO developed and launched the target satellite and launched it on a PSLV-C44 this year in January.

With this test, India has a slight advantage over China. Although, China has a ASAT capability it is widely believed that it does not have the capability yet to destroy incoming missiles provided by a BMD programme.

In today’s test India seems to have pranced around all the international treaties that look to prevent the weaponization of space. The concept took root in a 1969 treaty called the Outer Space Treaty. The Treaty is today called outdated and there are several loopholes that many countries today take advantage of like China did in 2007 and India did today. The US has been working to ban anti-satellite tests since 2010 but has failed in building any consensus on the subject. India seems to have conducted the test to ensure that it slips through the door before it closes, metaphorically.

There is a lot of political discussion on whether the timing of the announcement of the mission by the Prime Minister today is a violation of the Model Code of Conduct which is in force for the 2019 National Elections. But, that is for the Election Commission to look at. I do not see any need to do this so urgently unless the anti-satellite test ban were to come into force some time in the near future and India had an inkling as to the timing of the same. The simplest explanation is that the mission was ready and the go-ahead was given by the Government thinking of it as a matter of national defence and prioritised the decision over the Elections.

There is also worry of the creation of space debris which would be left behind by the satellite that was destroyed by the missile today. However, they have the US example of 2010 which also destroyed a satellite in a similar orbit and which lasted in orbit for about 3 years. Against this, stands the Chinese example whose destroyed satellite in the 800 km orbit is still believed to be in orbit. We are given to understand that the debris would eventually get pulled down by Earth’s gravity and will burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere before causing any significant damage. This matter is debatable.

All in all, given the timeline and the current available knowledge, India responsibly tested its capability keeping multiple issues in mind – space debris, Outer Space Treaty and current regional geopolitics.

More reading

The Ministry of External Affairs posted a Frequently Asked Questions section on its website on today’s test. Curiosly, this is not on the Ministry of Defence or the DRDO website. It has useful information and the official version of what transpired.

LiveFist – Shiv Aroor is a defence journalist who maintains a defence blog. His writeups cover most of the technical details and the defence organisational intrigue that was involved in today’s mission. The post linked here also has multiple links that are worth following up on if you’re interested in more details of the ASAT.

There is a 2012 India Today article being circulated on Twitter claiming that India had build capability required for today’s test in 2012 itself. There is significant difference between capability and technology demonstration. And, I believe it’s always a good idea to test a technology before use, if you can.

Vasudevan Mukunth wrote in The Wire about the Mission Shakti, which also analyses the technicalities of the Mission in detail which is also a good overview if you only want to understand what this whole hoopla is about.



NISAR will look at the Antarctic

Alexandra Witze writes for Nature about a decision relating to NASA and ISRO joint mission called NASA ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) decision to point at the Antarctic rather than the Arctic.

The decision is based on the fact that the Europe’s Sentinel satellite is covering the Arctic region. Also, SAR satellites are built such that they point either to the North or the South pole. Hence a call was taken on which Pole the NISAR would be facing.

Khagol Mandal

The Wire has a nice write-up about Khagol Mandal.

I grew up in Mumbai and had heard of Khagol Mandal on my visits to Nehru Planetarium but never had the courage to ask my Dad to go for one of their all night camp until I was in college. I attended a few of their talks and Wednesday meetings.

However, given that the Internet was full of American websites I too felt the need for splitting the clubs along the science and engineering line. Since, I was more interested in the science vs engineering divide, I started SEDS India in 2004.

Reading the article, I wonder how different life would have been had I started a Rocketry Hub in Khagol Mandal rather than wasting precious time setting up SEDS India.

The Mars Orbiter Mission story

Imran Khan has directed a short movie on the Mars Orbiter Mission and is now available on YouTube (trailer).

The video helped me relive September 24, 2014 again. On that day, I watched Mars Orbit Insertion from Mumbai while my fiance (and now my wife) watched with her sister in Kerala. On that day, she didn’t understand the importance of the crucial Mars Orbit Mission maneuver. But, she got it only today after watching the video with me today.

Must watch whether you follow space and definitely if you have a partner with whom you want to communicate the enthusiasm for space exploration.

Falcon Heavy Launch

If you haven’t seen the Falcon Heavy launch video already on YouTube, you must. If you’ve seen it, it’s worth watching again and again if you like this sorta stuff again and again.

I did not watch the launch live but a live feed was going on as I watched the launch by scrolling back as the vehicle flew to orbit.

It was lovely to see the updates on Twitter (by Elon Musk as well as other space tweeps). It was a lovely accompaniment to the live video feed on YouTube. It almost made it look like that these were tools specifically made for this purpose. Reddit went too crazy for me to meaningfully follow it on mobile.

The launch was spectacular in the following as well. It almost felt as exhilarating as watching the early Apollo missions.

Towards the afternoon Sandhya Ramesh wrote for The Wire magazine answering some of the questions that many people seemed to have had about the mission. Stephen Clark at Spaceflight Now has the most descriptive write up of today’s events itself. I haven’t seen any write up yet about the implications of the launch worth sharing that I’m not already sharing on my Tumblr.

The First Flight of the GSLV Mk-III

As I write this, the GSLV Mk-III would have commenced its 25.5 hour countdown to launch at 1728 hrs (IST) on June 5, 2017. The 3-stage GSLV Mk-III will carry the 3136 kg GSAT-19 to a geostationary orbit. The satellite carries transponders for communication, a scientific instrument to study the nature of charged particles and effect of space radiation on satellites and among various other technologies an indigenously built Lithium ion battery. This will be the launch vehicle’s debut flight and hence called D1.

GSLV Mk-III at the Second Launch Pad
I love the dawn/dusk time view of the launch vehicle. Image Credit: ISRO

The GSLV Mk-III flew last as GSLV Mk-III-X, an experimental flight where it flew with a passive third stage and the CARE payload. The sub-orbital flight was intended to study the launch vehicle configuration and went off successfully. It allowed ISRO to study how the launch vehicle performed in flight. The crew vehicle CARE splashed down in the Bay of Bengal near Andaman and Nicobar islands and was recovered by the Coast Guard.

The GSLV Mk-III is India’s medium lift launch vehicle capable of flying 4 tonnes to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit and 8 tonnes to Low Earth Orbit. It is intended to place India’s heavier communication satellites in orbit. It has two S200 solid fuel boosters attached to a core stage. The core stage has two clustered L110 Vikas Engines. The third stage Cryogenic Upper Stage C25 is powered by the indigenously developed CE-20 engine. The payload fairing also has a “slanted strap-on nose cone for aerodynamic robustness” added to it after the X flight.

Notice the change in language. It is no longer called as first, second, third and fourth stages as in PSLV and the GSLV. The stages are called as booster, core and upper stage.

This will also be the time when the CE-20 will actually fire and take a payload to orbit. It is different from the cryogenic engine on the GSLV which is called CE-7.5. The GSLV Mk-III-X carried the CE-20 but it did not fire.

I had written about the commercial aspects of the GSLV launches in the Wire in 2015 and think that the same holds for the GSLV Mk-III as well. India has already begun developing satellites which require a launch capability more than that provided by the Mk III. An example is the soon to be launched GSAT-11. GSAT-11 weighs 5725 kg and is going to be launched on board the Ariane-5 in 2017-18 and uses the newly developed I-6K bus. This requires development of heavy lift (launch capability to GTO of more than 10 tonnes) launch vehicles. This development would be pursuant to lessons learnt in the development of the GSLV and the Mk-III.

GSAT-19 is largely a communication satellite. It holds improvements in satellite components such as heat pipe, gyros, accelerometers and an indigenous Lithium ion battery. There is very little information that I could find on GRASP (Geostationary Radiation Spectrometer) besides what it says about studying charged particles and impact of space radiation on satellites.

With so much to write about, I was not happy with the initial reportage in the Indian press looking at India’s human spaceflight program (example). I wish they would ask ISRO to share more information on the payload (the science payload as well improvement in space craft instrumentation) and the improvements in the launch vehicle that the GSLV Mk-III X flight enabled.

I wish ISRO and the GSLV Mk-III team all the best and Godspeed!

The South Asia Satellite

The ISRO will launch the GSLV tomorrow carrying the South Asian Satellite on board. ISRO calls it the GSAT-9. It will carry Indian transponders that will be used by India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The Wire has a short video describing the significance of the launch and some prior history.

11a8gsat-9seenwithtwohalvesofpayloadfaringofgslv-f09
GSAT-9 seen with the two halves of the payload fairing of the GSLV-F09. Image Credit: ISRO

I think this launch will be important for India for two things. One is to prove, further, the reliability of the GSLV as a launch vehicle capable of regularly delivering communication satellites into orbit. This improves with each launch. As this reliability improves, it brings in business in communication satellite launches as well as reduces India’s dependence on foreign launch vehicles. The second is to improve availability of transponders for users on the ground. Indian transponders can thence be leased and commercialized after meeting India’s requirements.

It would be interesting to see if the use of the transponders by some of our neighboring countries provides them with sufficiently good experience that they will continue using Indian transponders or even ask for multiple transponders. This would make it important again to improve the reliability of the GSLV and the GSLV Mk-III to put enough communication satellites into orbit to service these future requirements. Could then India wean off South East Asian countries from American and European transponders to Indian ones?

Interestingly, this satellite also carries with it an electric propulsion experiment. This satellite is expected to stay in orbit for 12 years. Communication satellites usually  last around 10 years. They have to carry as much fuel for what is known as station keeping. The satellites begin to drift from orbit like kites that we fly. We tug at the kite to keep it at one place and prevent it from drifting too far away. The satellite has no strings attached and hence the satellite will have to use fuel on-board to reach its orbit as well as to stay there.

Using electric propulsion completely for doing station keeping would reduce the amount of fuel the satellite would have to carry. This means we can add more transponders which in turn would mean fewer satellites could meet the requirements. But, this is an experiment and hence ISRO is still carrying the fuel it normally would had the electric propulsion system had not been there. I am also delighted to hear that the GSAT-20 mission flying next year will also carry an electric propulsion system on board. The lessons we learn from the experiment on the GSAT-9 would be incorporated.

Intercontinental Space Weather Balloon Network

I read on Spaceweather.com today morning about an intercontinental network of space weather balloon released by the website in collaboration with Earth to Sky. The data is released on the website.

network_expanded2.png
The Intercontinental Space Weather Balloon Network. Image Credit: Spaceweather.com

 

It would be lovely to get a few balloons from India as well besides the ones being launched from TIFR’s National Balloon Facility in Hyderabad. It would be a fun lear