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Space

Astrobiology in India

I stayed in Lonar between July 2018 and June 2019. I was aware of the geological interest that the meteorite crater there held for the scientific community. I did not know what interest it held for the astrobiology community. I had the first opportunity to learn more when Jyotirvidya Parisanstha (JVP) hosted a lecture by Prof. Yogesh Shouche of the National Center for Cell Science. The lecture was about how Lonar Lake was a model for extraterrestrial life search! I kicked myself little for missing the lecture. Today’s podcast episode gave me a glimpse of what I probably missed.

Episode 16 of the NewSpace India podcast has Narayan Prasad (NP) in conversation with Siddharth Pandey, PhD. Siddharth heads the Center of Excellence in Astrobiology at Amity University, Mumbai. Below are the show notes from that episode.

Siddharth defines Astrobiology as the study of origin, evolution and distribution of life on Earth and the search for it elsewhere. He says Astrobiology formed the basis for some of the older space programs like NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos because it pertains to some of the fundamental questions that have been important to the human species like are we alone in the Universe and the search for life outside our planet. Siddharth wants to begin connecting to a network of people in India who are interested in Astrobiology. He returned to India after stints in America, Europe and Australia.

Siddharth says that astrobiology related experiments in India began in 2005 with teams led by Dr. Jayant Narlikar based out of IUCAA, Pune and TIFR, Hyderabad among others. This group believed in a theory called Panspermia – which says that life was bought to Earth by an asteroid impact at some point in the Earth’s history. This team conducted balloon experiments out of the field in Hyderabad that led to the discovery of bacteria living in extreme environments in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Siddharth says that the Methane search instrument (Methane Sensor for Mars – MSM) on board the Mars Orbiter Mission is an astrobiology experiment. He says ISRO had developed an astrobiology experiment knowingly or unknowingly. Methane is considered one of the bio-signatures that indicates the existence of life. Hence, existence of Methane corresponds to existence of life. He hopes we have more experiments flying to search for life in clouds of Venus and the surface of Mars. He hopes that the chance to carry micro-gravity experiments on board the 4th stage of the PSLV, SSLV and the upcoming human spaceflight mission, Gaganyaan increases the number of astrobiology experiment that can be designed and carried on these missions.

NP asks Siddharth if the lack of a Space Science roadmap is worrying. Siddharth says that he finds the fact that we have no clear Space Science roadmap concerning especially given ISRO’s plans for missions to Mars and Venus in the near future. He says that several meetings on these experiments have been held but the outcomes of these experiments need to be more widely shared. He hopes that in the future, scientists are involved right mission planning and architecture stage of the mission itself to design better payloads.

Siddharth says that there is a need for a National Committee for Astrobiology that brings together various Government departments like DST, DBT etc to develop a roadmap for Astrobiology and to co-ordinate an astrobiology program. He says that ISRO has been good at developing platforms for astrobiology experiments in space.

He then talks about analog environments that are present in India. He speaks about Ladakh, Kutch, Lonar in Maharashtra and Antarctica. He says that the low atmospheric pressure, low oxygen, high ultraviolet ray exposed environment which are well preserved for centuries in Ladakh provides conditions that are analogous to an early Mars.

He says that hypersaline bacteria and jarosite minerals found in Kutch have been studied by PRL, Ahmedabad and papers have been published in scientific journals. He says that being one of the largest continuous salt expanses make it an interesting field of study for it’s similarities to early Mars.

He says that the impact of a meteorite in basaltic rock, a form of rock formed by melting of volcanic rocks means that it takes longer to weather compared to meteorite impact on other types of rocks.. The site at Lonar, Mahrashtra is one that is most accessible among two other similar sites in the world. He says that Lonar also has a lake formed by a drain of a spring that drains into the crater. This is similar to the landing site for the Mars 2020 which may be going into a dried site where a lake such as the one in Lonar probably existed at some point in Mars’ history. Lonar offers similar basin and depositing mechanisms which scientists can compare and study from.

Siddharth says India has two sites in Antarctica – Maitri and Bharati. Of these, Bharti station is located on Larsemann Hills. The hill is of interest because it is ice-free. This is because geothermal heat prevents ice formation. This means scientists have access to rocks and access to study bacteria living in rocks which survive in dry and cold regions of Earth. It also has a permafrost where the ice has not melted as it is under the soil. Here the ice is preserved for centuries and hence of interest to scientists.

NP then asked about how a person interested in astrobiology can pursue it as a career option. Siddharth says that they are in the process of putting together a website with freely available reading material. Siddharth suggests that interested students can pursue Astrobiology at the post-graduate level after pursuing an under-graduate program in Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Engineering etc.

NP then asks Siddharth about possible citizen science efforts that can be undertaken in astrobiology. Siddharth talks about the development of a Space Citizen Network where citizens can get connected to research groups working in the field. He also suggests that citizens could connect with these groups when they go on field trips. There are plans for a field trip to Kutch in October 2020 and to Lonar in November 2020.

There are also plans for projects that can be undertaken at home. One of the plans is to distribute marbles and citizens can report back after studying microbial colonies that grow under the marble. Scientists are interested in understanding how microbial colonies grow and attach themselves to rocks. They also want to learn what environments support growth of these microbial colonies. This can be in addition to similar amateur astronomy projects like identifying asteroids etc.

NP then asks whether there are plans for an independent road-map for Astrobiology of Government efforts for the same. Siddharth says that plans are afoot to formalize a Society of AstroBiology Education and Research (SABER) that could be registered in Maharashtra. He says that the group had already met twice – once in Lucknow and once in Pune. They hope to develop a roadmap for the future growth of the astrobiology community. They might also consider contributing to mission objectives on future missions to Mars and Venus.

NP asks about raising funding for astrobiology experiments. Siddharth says that there is no single source for funding for astrobiology. Mostly, scientists raise funds from different departments and societies based on either where they are coming from or from organizations that are involved in their area of interest.

ISRO provides funding through its RESPOND and SNAP. He says that they have previously raised funding from companies like Tata Motors and National Geographic Traveller magazine. He is currently also thinking of reaching out to philanthropy houses in Mumbai to access funding for the future projects that they are thinking of undertaking.

Siddharth says that Amity is planning to put together a weekend program called Space for Everyone which would generate awareness about space. At the end the people who complete the program can join the Space Citizen Network. He says that astrobiology popularization has been hurt as there is a lack of credible speakers. He hopes that efforts above address these issues. Amity has also launched India’s plant growth space flight experiment called the Amity Space Biology Experiment -1 (ASBE-1).

On the role of the Media, he says that media should do more than simply cover events. They must provide a forum to discuss, analyze and critique events. He says that it must enable two way discussion between the scientist and the citizens. He says that India must look at reasons for which it is pursuing a scientific program.

NP says India has a strong Biotechnology and Pharmacy industry. He asks Siddharth about what is the scope for Indian biotech and pharmaceutical companies in participating in Astrobiology. Siddharth responds that astrobiology experiments would give these companies an opportunity to research how the human body behaves in microgravity and experiment with chemicals and drugs. He says that while there are applications in fundamental research, it would largely serve marketing purposes currently. Companies could showcase how their products are used in space programs and how their designs can be used in extreme conditions such as in space.

NP then asked where Siddharth sees the future of astrobiology in India. Siddharth replies that he hopes that ISRO works on larger support and infrastructural missions with private sector works on supporting low earth commercial missions. For astrobiology in India, he hopes that there is an active scientific society, meeting often to exchange knowledge and builds cross-domain and inter-disciplinary expertise that is needed. He also hopes India undertakes future missions to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn – Europa and Enceladus, that are considered some of the other sites in our solar system which could support life.

End of show notes.

This podcast also gave me a stream of ideas. We could Astrobiology Cafes to discuss recent developments in the field. As missions progress in this direction, I also think there will be discussions surrounding ethics and safety that arise. I do not see how these are tackled by the astrobiology community. This conversation excited me a lot, opened my eyes to what astrobiology really is about and agree with NP’s comment in the end that it was a dense knowledge transfer rich episode of the podcast. This reminded me so much of my days from 2009 when I developed a Lunar Analog Research Station.

Categories
Podcast

Reporting ISRO

The 15th episode of NewSpace India podcast came out this Friday (January 17). It had Narayan Prasad in conversation with Vasudevan Mukunth. VM is the Science Editor for The Wire. If you do follow their Science stories, it is in quite a league of it’s own (better than most Indian coverage and almost at international standards). He also blogs extensively at Root Privileges and tweets at @1amnerd. Full disclosure that he has been my editor of the two pieces that I have contributed to The Wire.

Here are my notes from listening to the podcast episode for my own future reference:

The coverage of ISRO as a journalist depends on the quality of information and access to sources available to a journalist. It requires more information made available in the public domain and access to sources who can explain the information to a journalist. There is no clear demarcation on when the information is publicly available. In many cases, ISRO uses policy to clamp up when asked tough questions.

NP suggests this might be a top level policy level decision. VM suggests that the policy is that scientists are allowed to speak to journalists as long as their comments are not adversarial. Scientists often err on the side of caution and hence do not speak at all. There is no clear information policy. This ambiguity in information policy means that when a failure occurs, information flow just dries up.

NP describes The Wire’s science journalism with respect to ISRO as being that of piecing together information, for placing things in context and critiquing various aspects of the space program. He suggests that the lack of information has forced The Wire to take to this form of “citizen journalism”. VM replies saying that ISRO clamps up information and they seem to fail to acknowledge other sources of information for the stories. As an example, they fail to acknowledge that NASA could find the Vikram lander and put this news out. Similarly, international experts challenged the DRDO claim of the impact of the ASAT test. ISRO scientist don’t put out such news because they don’t know whether they can say it. Information comes out in the form of tweets, in form of access to ISRO Chairman’s office, some of the press notes or updates on the ISRO website etc.

NP then asked VM to share the toolkit that he uses to cover ISRO given this lack of information. VM replies that he uses Google, CelesTrak (where he’s playing with orbital visualisations), he uses crawlers that frequently crawl on the ISRO website where information is put out but not easily available/visible like PDFs etc, Twitter, WhatsApp and the ISRO sub-reddit. VM shares The Wire story that he did on the ISRO sub-redditors and other sources of ISRO news.

VM and NP think that clamping up when failure strikes is a cultural issue that ISRO needs to tackle. VM sympathises with ISRO with regards to the loss of signal issue during the Vikram landing as they may not be comfortable doing this. He feels that they would have done much better to keep quiet rather than to make absurd claims like 95% mission success etc. This is because of the lack of training of journalists they would report anything that ISRO says without questioning.

At another earlier point in the conversation, VM and NP had discussed that lack of good questions came from lack of well-trained journalists who follow space. VM had then argued that there was no point having good journalists when there was not enough people to answer said good questions. Existing journalists have also been made to bureaucratic hoops to cover ISRO events.

ISRO has also lost many opportunities for public science participation. Finding Vikram and Moon Impact Probe were good use cases. Images could easily have been released of the landing site and help taken from the public to find the lander. Also, NP points out that ISRO had a lot of support from the public in many fora, despite a failure and this makes ISRO statements like the 95% success rate unnecessary.

NP then asks on the possibility of using tools like the RTI. VM says RTI provisions are getting diluted and it is getting more difficult to get information through RTI in other areas. However, an RTI request could easily be blocked citing National Security reasons. So, VM wonders if it is worth the investment of time to apply a RTI query. He also says that information regarding a program under taken by ISRO should be put out voluntarily. VM says that commercial use of ISRO images and spacecrafts like the PSLV launch of Mars Orbiter Mission for the movie, Mangalyaan should have been made available easily for commercial use.

NP suggests that given ISRO’s lack of response, one of the ways in which good questions can be put to ISRO may be through the Parliamentary Standing Committee. He suggests it as one of the ways for getting information from ISRO. VM reiterates his stand that information should be forthcoming voluntarily from ISRO.

They both agree that the issue with answering questioning and putting out information is a cultural issue with ISRO.

NP then asks if there must be independent thinking and tracking of the space program, similar to efforts of T S Kelso and Jonathan McDowell. VM thinks that the lack of information availability makes this sort of analysis difficult in the Indian context.

NP then asks VM about what we can look forward to in the future from The Wire Science. VM says they are looking to add more videos and educational material. He believes that having a more informed audience improves the type of journalism that they can do.

They discuss how more senior and retired ISRO journalists could contribute more in the education and discourse if they wrote after their times at ISRO. VM thinks this is also not part of their culture. The books coming out currently are anecdotal or technical. U R Rao’s book is quoted as an exemption and an example to follow. ISRO scientists like Tapan Misra take to Facebook to write about current events at ISRO.

VM ends by saying that he is happy that more diverse newsrooms are now covering space. He gives Firspost as an example for this, whereas earlier the Hindu science pages was the go-to for this sort of information.

VM has posted an addendum to this conversation on his blog and Ohsin also shares his feedback on the ISRO sub-reddit along with his lament about how ISRO image policy leads to loss of images used for coverage of ISRO on Wikipedia. The about community for ISRO’s sub-reddit page perhaps encapsulates the whole episode: For anything related to Indian Space Agency we love but hardly know.