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.

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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

Satish Dhawan

On the day prior to PSLV’s launch, FactorDaily has a near 2 minute video on the man who succeeded Vikram Sarabhai, laid the foundations for India’s rocketry programme including the PSLV, started the Earth observation and communications satellite programme and after whom India’s space port, Sriharikota is named – Satish Dhawan.

Space Mining

A company in the US, Planetary Resources has started making efforts to mine asteroids or large meteorites in space. I believe Indian companies, especially mining companies which are having a hard time getting government clearances must look at space mining quite seriously. This would be a chance to save the environments in the locations that these mines are located on Earth without moving people out and also will push mineral exploration into space. Also, by the time that they get clearances to mine in India, they could probably build, launch, mine and return back to Earth with minerals and possibly sell them on Earth. This is a good possible study for the MBA types to find out which is cheaper – waiting and getting clearances or launching two spacecrafts into orbit for the purpose of asteroid/meteorite mining.

Wikipedia’s article on Asteroid mining has this to say on the possibilites of minerals present on asteroids and meteorites:

These include gold, iridium, silver, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium,ruthenium and tungsten for transport back to Earth; iron, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, aluminium, and titanium for construction; water and oxygen to sustain astronauts; as well as hydrogen, ammonia, and oxygen for use as rocket propellant.

Given this range of options, I thought I should also design a bare bones, un-researched article on one asteroid mining scenario.

Tugcraft
Rudimentary Asteroid mining scenario

My concept works on two spacecraft scenario. One is a longer lasting Tug-craft. The second is a frequent Earth returning Mine-craft.

Earth based asteroid monitoring systems will be used for the twin purposes of keeping an eye on incoming asteroids that could hit Earth called Near Earth Objects as well as potential targets for a tug-craft in orbit. Looking at timelines of spacecraft that cater to the International Space Station or that go to the Moon, we currently can get a spacecraft into Low Earth Orbit and then from there to a specified target (between the ISS to the Moon) in 1 to 5 days. We can also decently estimate their trajectories and velocities to get a handle on where we should send our tug-craft to intercept the asteroids/meteorites and also whether we can send them to intercept points in the time available to us.

For the purposes of this idea, let’s consider that an asteroid passes near the Moon. A tug-craft could either be launched from Earth or a spacecraft already in orbit can be redirected to the target. Let’s say that the tug-craft reaches the intercept point in 5 days. As the asteroid approaches, the tug-craft makes adjustments to it’s orbit, makes more precise calculation of the incoming asteroid’s velocity with respect to itself and begins mapping the mineralogical possibilities that the asteroid/meteorite offers. The tug-craft then uses tugs (metallic or composite rope like structures) to drill and latch onto and slowdown the speeding asteroid using its on-board thruster. It also uses on-board remote sensing instruments and spectrometers to estimated the mineralogical content and location on the asteroid. In my example, I provide for three tugs to pull the asteroid into a mining-parking orbit with the tug-craft dictating the orbit.

This itself would require a minimum of two test flights and a few more flights to improve and  perfect asteroid catching techniques. It would be something akin to catching a bullet. It would require continuous improvements or kaizen method to get better and more cost effective in the longer run. But there will be millions of objects to test it on even in the Near Earth space.

The mine-craft’s work is a bit more straight forward, given that the target’s location is known. It only uses data from the tug-craft to understand location of the deposits and begins to mine the asteroid. The raw minerals are collected and returned to Earth. Earth-based mining techniques may not work in space and may require re-working the mining design. The recent launch of expandable spacecrafts would come in handy to increase the amount of material the spacecrafts can bring back to Earth.

The only part of this that we have not worked out fully with is tugging the asteroid and mining the asteroid. Test flights would be needed to test out both systems in parts of space where it keeps away from Earth during such tests. I think these systems could be ready to for deployment after research in the next 5-10 years.

 

Geography

Geography is a subject that I was deeply interested in during the first decade of my life. I got engrossed in it and aced in it in Class V and just as simply left it to pursue my interest in Astronomy.

Geography literally translates as “drawing of this world”. Representing the world around us on paper – in maps seems to have been the end result of a process. Studying the world around us, looking at the types of soil, the kind of physical features around us, looking at representing human settlements and representing them so that they may be used to understand topography, identify good places to build human settlements and also as a way of going from one place to another.

Applying this data, various maps were made – maps of topographies, political and physical maps, maps for soil etc. This data is now available via proprietary media like Google Maps and Survey of India and is also being crowd-collected again through initiatives such as OpenStreetMap.

I’ve always wondered of what use would it be in our daily life and how rarely we use this data to understand the world around us. We only mug Geography in school in order to obtain certain grades but don’t understand how to use it in our day-to-day life to understand the world around us.

As in all cases, there is hope. There are groups of people around the world who are collecting data about their surroundings by setting up personal weather stations and by mapping roads, buildings and places of public interest. This data is being re-collected again by the public because it is currently closed behind private and government silos. But, as in all other things we learned in school, its application to make better decisions in our life or even simple day-to-day things seems a little far away.

Mumbai. January 3, 2016.

New Horizons historic meeting with Pluto

A spacecraft from Earth has now been to all the 9 planets that we knew as a kid. New Horizons became the spacecraft to cover all the planets that we knew as a kid on July 14, 2015. Our view of Pluto has changed a lot since Clyde Tombaugh spotted the minor planet in 1930. In January 2006, when the New Horizons spacecraft launched to Pluto from Cape Canaveral in the US Pluto was still a planet! In August of that year, Pluto was “demoted” to being a dwarf planet. The world (scientists and people alike) revolted against the move.

At the time that New Horizons approached Pluto it still is a dwarf planet.

Pluto as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft on its flyby of the planet, Pluto. Image Credit: NASA
Pluto as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft on its flyby of the planet, Pluto. Image Credit: NASA

New Horizons successfully executed the flyby and is now in science mode taking scientific data that will be beamed back to Earth. Some of the lower resolution data that New Horizons is beaming back to Earth is now being publicly and scientifically analysed whilst we wait as this data teaches us about the dwarf planet, Pluto.

My second journalistic publication

I first wrote for a journalism publication in 2009 for CNN-IBN. I had written then about ISRO’s 40th anniversary with the help of Jaimon Joseph.

My second article appeared a couple of days ago in a new publication called The Wire about the commercial trends that seem to be beginning to emerge in the Indian space programme. The feedback from many of my family members was that they could not understand what I was talking about. This makes my article an almost failure in my consideration, other than the fact that I managed to get it published with help from Vasudevan Mukunth.