India at Mars

Short version: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft successfully fired it’s Liquid Apogee Motor (LAM) today to correct its trajectory and also served as a test for the LAM which had been sleeping for about 298 days now whilst the spacecraft sped in the general direction of where Mars would be. As of 9:30 AM today, MOM is in Mars’ sphere of gravitational influence, it test fired and trajectory corrected at 2:30 PM today. Long version below.

It was 2:30 PM today when ISRO tweeted that the MOM may currently be firing its LAM to perform a test to check if it’s still working and also execute a very small trajectory correction so that the spacecraft will be set up to park into Mars orbit come the morning of September 24. About 15 minutes after that, ISRO announced to the world that they had fired the engines successfully for nearly 4 seconds.



Image: ISRO flashed this image on Twitter with the caption, “Test Firing of Liquid Engine: Guided by wisdom, Executed by youth”. link to the orignial pic

I was really sceptical about ISRO’s prospects of doing a Mars mission. They worked really hard and pulled through extra shifts to ensure that a spacecraft would be ready in time for the Mars launch window in 2013. Little news items were strewn around showing progress that ISRO made that showed that ISRO was working towards the goal of launching in 2013 but nothing quite indicated that they were ready to launch. As the launch window approached, they quickly got the spacecraft off Earth on a smaller launch vehicle than one would anticipate being used for a Mars mission anywhere else in the world.

The modified PSLV, a workhorse adaptable launch vehicle performed excellently delivering the spacecraft to its intended orbit. The spacecraft then performed orbit raising manoeuvres and slowly headed out towards the heliocentric orbit. As the spacecraft pushed off towards Mars, my skepticism slowly waned away.

For a technology demonstrator mission, the most critical part of the mission is to show that the fundamental building blocks work and can function. With today’s LAM firing, I think that ISRO proved a very crucial component of the mission design. Skepticism kept me away from posting anything here for a very long time. I have to say that I am now very hopeful that we can do this. I seek nothing more than a gentle nudge that puts the spacecraft in an elliptical orbit around Mars.

Critics of this mission have been plenty and have criticised each component of this mission design. ISRO has answered its critics thus far by action, something I think that many Indians would do well to ape.

India, Uranus and its rings

There are several Indian publications that claim that India discovered the rings of Uranus (Vigyan Prasar, the principal science populariser in India, the Vellore District website, the Indian National Science Academy in its publication and even the Wikipedia page on the Vainu Bappu Observatory). So, when you visit the page on Uranus on Wikipedia, you’re quite surprised to see the credit for the credit has been stolen by the Americans! Being a Wikipedian and from the spirit of reading the Sceptical Patriot, I began researching.

Rings of Uranus
Image: A 1998 false-colour near-infrared image of Uranus showing cloud bands, rings and moons obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope’s NICMOS Camera. Image credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope. Image Source

The year is 1977. Astronomers have predicted that a star was going to be occulted by Uranus. Basically, this meant that Uranus would pass in front of a star. The best visibility was to be had from South Asia, East Africa and parts of South East Asia. Two observatories from India participated in this observation, the Vainu Bappu Observatory at Kavallur and the Uttar Pradesh State Observatory at Nainital. Since the US did not get to be part of the action, NASA flew an airborne observatory called the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO). On it flew Eliot, Dunham and Mink who are today credited with the discovery of the rings of Uranus. Having read the above publications whilst growing up, I thought that Wikipedia was showing it’s Global North bias while claiming this fact.

I first went looking for the publication where the results from the observation of the Vainu Bappu Observatory would have been published. I came up with this piece published in the Bulletins of the Astronomical Society of India’s March 1977 edition by J C Bhattacharya and K Kuppuswamy. It claims of a discovery of a new satellite of Uranus.

The astronomers at Kavalur were out to observe the occultation was of the star called SAO 158687 by Uranus. Uranus was to pass in front of the star, as per predictions by astronomers. When astronomers watched the star they expected a dip in the brightness of the star as Uranus passed in front of it. They did observe this but in addition, they observed several other dips before the event. This dip was suspected to be caused by a satellite of Uranus. However, none of the known satellites of Uranus were in the position where the dip was observed. Thus, Bhattacharya and Kuppuswamy deduced that this was a new satellite of Uranus, which prompted the above publication in the Bulletins of March 1977.

About the same time as Kavalur was observing the occultation, an airborne telescope over the Indian Ocean was also observing the same phenomenon and saw similar dips in the brightness of the star before and after the event. It was Eliot who saw the symmetry of the dips before and after the event and concluded that what they had discovered were the rings of Uranus. He published this in a paper in Nature magazine in May 1977.

While both groups made the observations of the rings (among many others including the French, the English and the Chinese), it was the American group that made the correct deduction from the data, the fact that the dip in brightness of the star before the planet were caused by its rings.

I do not know where the attribution of the discovery in Indian publications came to India and why nobody has bothered fixing it even in the information age. Bhattacharya in a paper he wrote for the Bulletins in 1979 also gives credit to the American KAO team. It seems to follow the rule that a myth oft repeated becomes reality.

Review: ISRO Annual Report 2013-14

I saw the link to the 2013-14 Annual Report on the ISRO website thanks to the blinking “NEW” sign next to it. Usually, ISRO reports go over the top with missions that they tend to be working on and hoping to cover more ground than they realistically could. It usually had timelines that no one knew how they’d meet.

The 2013-14 Annual Report is different. It states the basic facts under each section and dwells very slightly on the future course of the missions under development. I am not really sure how I feel with this change especially since they did the unthinkable in putting together and launching the Mars Orbiter Mission in record time.

I have had things weighing on my mind this whole year. This meant that I have not been that on top of space developments as I have been in the past. The Report, put together as a sort of summary of what happened in the 2013-14 period that it covers, hence make lovely reading for me but really bland reading for people already in the loop. The Report is a long series of things which just goes like, “This happened, this happened, this happened, and you know what, this happened too!”

Without further ado, let’s go through this report now, shall we?

I like to begin with the Space Transportation Systems section and begin with the GSLV Mk-III project. This three stage vehicle is now prepping for a passive cryogenic stage flight carrying the Human Spaceflight Crew Module on top to test the design of the whole stack. ISRO has never done this before – flown a mission without a payload – since each launch cost so much. However, the string of failures that the GSLV Mk-I and Mk-II saw has slowed the approach they’re taking with the Mk-III or LVM3 as they refer to it internally and presentations they make. The passive cryogenic stage means that the cryogenic stage does not actually fire whilst the giant twin S-200 and the liquid L-110s will fire and take the vehicle up to a certain height and the engineers will get valuable data that can be used to improve the design and fix flaws in the aerodynamics. I really loved this picture of the CE-20 cryogenic engine that is at the heart of the third stage of the LVM3 in the Report undergoing a hot test.


Image: The CE-20 cryogenic engine undergoing a hot test. Image Credit: ISRO. Image Source

Next, again in the Space Transportation Systems section is an eerie sounding title called “Pre-project Activities of the Human Spaceflight Programme”. The ISRO asked the Government for some money to put together the systems that would enable a human spaceflight programme. This section basically details on what happened under that head. The most interesting aspect for me in this are the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) and information related to tests for the Crew Escape Systems. CARE is expected to be on top of the LVM3 experimental flight I talked about above. This is an important test because it gives us crucial indications as to what the Crew Module can handle during an atmospheric re-entry or to put it bluntly, if humans inside it can survive an atmospheric re-entry. I am not really in favour of mingling this along with LVM3-X and think ISRO is trying to do too many things at once.

5HSP-CMImage: The Crew Module undergoing a test. Image Credit: ISRO. Image Source

ISRO loves indecipherable précis. Pray, expand on this? “Functioning of newly developed Head-end Mounted Safe Arm (HMSA) for solid motors in Crew Escape System was successfully demonstrated.” The work with parachutes with tests conducted in Chandigarh and Agra is interesting and I wish ISRO shares more of these on its Facebook and Twitter sites. With pictures, please!

I really need to read up on this LVM3-X flight. I think I’ve not really understood it well. Under the GSLV Mk-III section, it does not make mention of the Crew Module flight during the LVM3-X flight whereas the section above does. Hmm!

If you wander to the Space Sciences and Planetary Research section, the section on the Mars Orbiter Mission piqued my interest but ended in disappointment. The section is a nice synopsis of what’s happened so far. No looking at the future. No mention of a future/planned Mars mission. The mission does deserve kudos for its achievement thus far and I think the section does not do it any justice. The section on Chandrayaan-II is more interesting. This is the section in which the marked toning down of ISRO’s Reports becomes most glaringly visible. Earlier reports were talking of Chandrayaan III or even IV by 2015. This Report only marks the parting of ways with Roscosmos and the tough job of developing a lunar lander that lies ahead of ISRO. It does not even offer a guess at the possible launch time-frame, though news reports have been pushing it further and further into the future. Pendulum swings! They’ve now got their launch vehicle – the GSLV Mk-II. They’re working on the orbiter and rover since they were working with Russia. The parting of ways on the project means that they had to rework the project with an Indian lander.

Chandrayaan 2 rover mobility test
Image: Chandrayaan-II Rover undergoing mobility test under reduced gravity conditions. Image Credit: ISRO. Image Source

The Audit Observation section also has an important paragraph on Edusat, India’s effort at tele-education. Whilst ISRO has been at pains to make this into a success, the CAG seems to report that the planning was bad and basically all the ground infrastructural network did not come up as expected. As the network developed, the satellite idled with no useful function. By the time the network on ground developed, the satellite seems to have given up waiting. I also think that similar criticism can be levelled at ISRO for its planetary projects to Mars and the Moon. Chandrayaan-II seems to be coming almost a decade after it’s predecessor launched and there is no mention of the next Mars mission at all.

Annual Reports usually make drab reading except for people who follow intently. Earlier, ISRO has gone overboard with planning and now seems to be extra shy thanks to all that it wasn’t able to achieve as promised. I think the Report needs to strike a healthy balance of information on the projects undertaken in the year and a glance at what’s coming in the future, especially if it is exciting.

Rosetta reaches the Comet 67P

Today, at around 3 PM, I got news of Rosetta’s rendezvous with the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko via Twitter. This is the first spacecraft that has rendezvoused with a comet with the specific intention of orbiting, studying and landing on it. I only re-tweeted a few tweets as I was at work.

Rosetta spacecraft

Image: Rosetta spacecraft in its stowed configuration as it prepares for liftoff on board the Ariane-V. Image Credit: ESA/Arianespace. Original Image

I first heard of Rosetta way back in 2004, when it lifted-off. I was then in college hanging around for my turn at a computer at a cybercafé waiting to access the Internet to learn the latest updates when I read about the mission. I thought of it, then, as a wild goose chase and dismissed it. I then caught up with news on the spacecraft on the ESA website and on Twitter later in 2011. I have been excited at the steady and slow progress it made as it gained on the comet since then and have especially been following their updates on their blog as well as following them on Twitter.

There is a lot of good coverage in the blogsphere about today’s event which explains things a lot better than I ever will be able to, in my opinion. You should start with the ESA blog that covers the event itself as well as what they expect to do next (some science and find a place to land that lander, Philae). Emily Lakdawalla has a load of pictures from the comet. You can also go to Spaceflight Now’s Mission Update Centre that offers nice summary updates (for the time hungry) with links to detailed stories (for the information hungry). I’ll add more good blog posts about the Rosetta mission here as I find them.

Mars Society India participates in Mars analogous experiments for their rover

The Indian chapter of the Mars Society was rolled out in January 2012. They are an independent organisation though affiliated to the Mars Society in the United States. For the past few days, they have been posting pictures from Australia where they have been involved at a very nascent analogous experiment with a Mars rover they developed.

The Mars rover prototype developed by the Mars Society India being tested at the Mars analogous terrain in Arrkaroola in Australia. Image Credit: Mars Society, India. Original Image: here
The Mars rover prototype developed by the Mars Society India being tested at the Mars analogous terrain in Arrkaroola in Australia. Image Credit: Mars Society, India. Original Image: here

Analogous experiments are very important in the space development cycle. It is a way of testing hardware here on Earth on a terrain similar to one your hardware may encounter on another planet. Engineers go hunting for such analogous terrains and then bring the hardware in for testing. Once at such a site, they get a chance to test most of the things they want to.

Mars Society, India, as I understand it has been developing this rover since the inception of the Indian chapter and has put the rover through lab tests in IIT-Bombay. This forms the next step in their development cycle. Working with Mars Society Australia, they picked the site at Arkaroola, Australia for their analogous testing.

Srinivas Laxman wrote a piece in the Times of India about their experiments in Arakroola whereas their Facebook page has been updated with pictures almost on a daily basis since they were there. My hope is that once they return, they put together a public talk and exhibition of photos and the rover, giving the public in Mumbai a chance to interact and understand about what goes into and behind an effort to develop and launch rovers to Mars.

My First Sidewalk Astronomy event

I first read of sidewalk astronomy in 2007 when I read about the work done by John Dobson and the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers . I have been wanting to do it and the dream died a quiet death as I began working. Lucky for me that someone else had also been thinking of doing the same and set up a page on Facebook for the event which was to be held across Mumbai.

Sidewalk Astronomy involves setting up a telescope on a sidewalk with the idea of showing the public the night sky through the telescope. Since these events happen in a city and we’re faced with bright city lights that drown out the fainter objects, this event seeks generally to look at brighter objects – usually the Moon, the planets and if one is lucky, a few bright stars.

The first sidewalk astronomy event in Mumbai was to be held at various locations – Nariman Point, Worli Sea Face, Shivaji Park, Bandra and Thane. I went to the Shivaji Park event to volunteer.

The event was slated to begin at 7 o’clock. At half past six, the venue was clouded out. I was joined here by Henna and Arpit Gada. Henna was organising the event across Mumbai and Thane. Phone calls at this point seemed to suggest that other venues too were clouded out. We took a round around Shivaji Park to look for a nice place to setup the telescope. We ended up selecting a spot opposite the Cafe Coffee Day at Shivaji Park.

We got curious eyeballs as we began setting up the telescope at the spot. People walked upto us and asked if there was a special astronomical event that we were out to observe or if we were doing a specific research. An old couple had also come reading about the event published in Daily News & Analysis, the newspaper. Unfortunately, it was still clouded out.

We had spotted the Moon a couple of times as we walked around Shivaji Park as it played hide and seek. We spotted glimpses of the Moon and began showing late evening walkers the Moon through a pair of binoculars. We had setup a telescope but it was too rickety to show anything through. We used three pairs of binoculars to show the Moon.

As we began reaching out to people, asking passersby if they wanted to see the Moon, we were helped by a few people who had come to see and had seen the Moon. I was tasked with seeing to it that nobody robbed the binoculars and began counting the number of people who were watching. I lost track at a 110 where a huge crowd of people came in and there were small lines.

That number may seem small but we were doing this between 8 o’clock and 9 o’clock at night as India was batting in the finals of the T20 World Cup that was going on. We’d also chosen a less crowded spot since this was everyone’s first experience.

People who watched the Moon through the binoculars loved it and expressed interest in wanting to do it more regularly. We promised to come back in May if we could before the Monsoons. It was a wonderful experience for many. Struggling with the binoculars, their weight, then getting a grip and then learning to focus and then the wonderful sight of the Moon. Some even spotted Jupiter which was hanging around near the Moon this night and were curious to know what object that was. A few people enquired about getting binoculars and costs and where one could get them. Some were reliving their childhood experiences of going out with Khagol Mandal and similar amateur astronomy groups in and around Mumbai. A couple even went home and got their kids back to the spot to see through the binoculars. We got a few people who were quite afraid of even taking a peep through the binoculars and then wouldn’t leave it after they saw the Moon through the binoculars.

This is the real joy of astronomy. Sharing a sight with people who miss this. I wish we had spots within the city that were as dark as villages so that people get a chance to see galaxies and planets that are now invisible. But, for now, people wanting these sights have to travel quite far to catch a glimpse of some of the wonders of our universe.

On Solar System Studies and a look at Planetary Exploration

I had leave on account of Mahashivratri today and also heard of a public lecture on “Solar System Studies and Planetary Exploration“. Being a holiday, I decided to go down all the way to Colaba for the evening. A hop on the local and a lovely bumpy ride on a rickety seat along the dockyard and through the military establishments of south Mumbai brought me to TIFR.

The public lecture was organised by the TIFR Alumni Association (TAA). If you were an ex-student of TIFR and are interested in joining the TAA, do contact them since they are a new body and are still trying to track down alumni. The talk was organised on the occasion of National Science Day celebrated in India on February 28.
Image: Presentation. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas

Prof. J N Goswami is an alumni of TIFR and currently the Director of the Physical Research Lab , known as the cradle of space sciences in India. He was part of the Chandrayaan-I programme and is an advisor to the Mars Orbiter Mission and Chandrayaan-II.

Prof. Goswami’s primary interest is in the area of solar system studies. His talk was mostly based on this topic. He just dwelled for a little bit on the Planetary Exploration aspects. I would have, personally, have been more interested in the reverse. His talk wasn’t all dry though and it did expose me to an aspect of space exploration that I have not been following attentively.

Prof. Goswami began with a standard model of solar system formation. Referencing yesterday’s Kepler announcement he said that there was a need to have a standard model as against one just for our solar system. The model progresses from protostellar cloud to a fully formed solar system in about a few billion years. He said there were three forms of solar system studies – analytical, lab work and remote sensing. His talk considered lab work on meteorites. After explaining the geologies of the “pristine” and the “processed” meteorites he spoke of how studying the radioisotopic decomposition was used to determine a round figure for the time when the solar system was formed. He cited various studies and these seem to be continuing to the present date with increasing precision. A notable Indian contribution was a publication by Wadhwa M in Nature in 2010 that puts the age of the solar system at 4568.2 Ma. Prof. Goswami then went through various studies done at PRL and in labs in America and Europe to improve on this date by considering various radioisotopes.

He said that PRL also was building nascent capability in looking for exosolar planets. He said that we needed crazy people to take risks for such projects. He said that PRL backed one such guy and they now have an exosolar planet search facility at Mt. Abu Observatory.

Prof. Goswami is one of the few persons who worked with some of the Apollo moon samples which were sent to India. He says that a very influential person spoke to him for about 3 hours to get him to work on the Chandrayaan project. The person, whom Prof. Goswami admired and respected led him to abandon work on the solar system studies which he has now returned to at PRL to work on the Chandrayaan project.

Prof. Goswami said Indian Planetary Exploration programme is limited by its launch vehicle capability. Currently, with the GSLV still proving itself, ISRO can only claim reach upto Mars and the Moon and passing asteroids.

Prof. Goswami says that involving foreign partners in Chandrayaan was driven by the fact that India then faced economic sanctions that prevented the transfer of technology. ISRO hence invited foreign payloads on-board the project. On the discovery of water on the Moon, he says that it was always there and that we did not bother looking. Hence, when Moon Mineralogy Mapper found water in the 2.8 spectrum range, they asked for references from the Deep Impact and Cassini probes. These probes used the Moon as a way to calibrate their mass spectrometers. He said that they just did not look beyond the 2.6 spectrum range else these probes could have discovered the water as well. He stressed that the data had been in public domain for years but still no one looked! Having a re-look confirmed data from these probes as well as in the Apollo samples even ones which were in the possession of PRL. In the QnA a member of the audience asked about the Moon Impact Probe water discovery. Prof. Goswami said that the decision to not allow sufficient time for de-gassing the probe before it was sent in to impact the lunar surface would have raised doubts on the claim if they were made. He says the same instrument will be carried on the Chandrayaan-II for more studies.
Image: Chandrayaan’s achievements. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas

He says Chandrayaan achieved a lot. The major discovery was the water and hydroxyl molecules attached to lunar surface material. Besides this the probe also studied and obtained new results related to reflected solar wind components, mini-magnetospheres, sub-surface ice layers below permanently shadowed craters, water molecule in the lunar atmosphere, new rock types, composition of lunar surface and confirmed the basic concept (global magma ocean) of lunar evolution. The probe also provided a 3D map of the lunar surface and radiation environment of lunar space.

He said that the Mars Orbiter Mission was so well on course to Mars that it might not need a planned course correction. I couldn’t clarify if he was talking of the one in April or an interim course correction.
Image: Prof. Goswami during the QnA session. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas

The crowd there seemed to stick mainly to his studies of solar system formation, which was expected. He did not speak much about the planetary exploration project. He was much more fun in the QnA and was very good at analogies and I have to wonder why he spoke differently during his presentation and during his QnA.

ISRO on Social Media Misrepresentations

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on December 17, 2013 as per the permalink. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

Update: ISRO posted this on their Facebook page earlier on Tuesday which seems to imply that they’re planning to expand their presence on Facebook and Twitter. If true, these fake profiles seem to have done more for public outreach than India’s space enthusiasts have achieved thus far. Kudos to the people behind the fake profiles!

I have congratulated ISRO’s social media presence with respect to the Mars Orbiter Mission. Their official page is linked to from the ISRO website. This press release tells me that ISRO is yet to understand social media much like many Indians, myself included.

There have been a multitude of unofficial ISRO accounts on the agency as well as it’s various missions, ostensibly trying to ape similar efforts by NASA. These may be well meaning individuals trying to inform the world about ISRO through a channel it is not present on using information from ISRO press releases and news stories. I myself did this when Chandrayaan 1 launched in 2008.

The critical difference, in my opinion, is being open about the fact that the account or the page is not an official ISRO page. I did so on my Chandrayaan 1 representation.

I think one does not go after these people with a legal notice. At least, not until one has sent them a warning.

GSLV on Wikipedia

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on December 13, 2013 as per the permalink. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

I began contributing to Wikipedia in 2007 with the idea of improving coverage of Indian space sciences on Wikipedia. I began working on the articles related to the astronomical observatories. This also fell in line with the space popularization work I was involved in at Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) India chapter. In 2009, I also began editing general interest articles on Wikipedia.

It was only yesterday, after a break of nearly a year or more, that I got back to editing on Wikipedia. I worked on the article of India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle or GSLV. The upcoming launch has me nervous and had me interested in the history of the GSLV. I looked to Wikipedia as my first port of call and was frankly, disappointed at the shape in which I found the article. So, I rolled up my sleeves and began working on the article, in true Wikipedian style.

The history of the GSLV is as interesting as the vehicle itself. It was designed specifically to carry the INSAT class of satellites which weighed in at 2 to 2.5 tons. The Project was started in 1990 as the PSLV took shape and was beginning to move towards a development flight in 1993 to reduce reliance on the US’ Delta and European Ariane launch vehicles which are expensive options. Reading up, there seems to have been confusion on how to proceed with the tricky cryogenic third stage of the vehicle. Both US and Europe refused to share the technology and India had to go to the crumbling Soviet Union for help. US and Europe refused help pointing to the fact that India had not signed the Missile Technology Control Regime. I guess they also tried to offer the technology if India became part of the regime. The Soviet Glavkosmos offered to transfer technology to India in 1991. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia could not stand up to US pressure on falling in line with the MTCR. It finally have India just 7 cryogenic stages and 1 ground mock up instead of 5 stages and transfer of technology. I am happy that India did not become part of MTCR despite immense pressure and need for cryogenic technology. Scientists at ISRO began work on India’s own cryogenic technology in 1994 called the Cryogenic Upper Stage Project.

Even the 7 cryogenic stages Russia supplied to ISRO held surprise for ISRO. The stage was heavier and there were interface problems. The engine was also not proven on any flight. It took ISRO about 6-7 years to get the stage to fly at all. Hence you see the first flight of the GSLV in 2001.

Scientists working on the Cryogenic Project were also part of what is now called the ISRO Spy Case. The scientist has alleged that the Case was put together at the behest of foreign interests that were trying to scuttle Indian efforts at building a cryogenic engine.

Although the learning curve on the GSLV has been huge, I think it will help India build a vehicle that is as versatile as the PSLV is today.