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!

Bidding adieu to Dr A P J Abdul Kalam

There were three things Kalam stood for me. One was his pioneering effort in developing India’s first launch vehicle, presenting the story of the Indian space programme for me. Second was his creation of realistic visions that are achieveable ergo sometimes controversial. Third was his leadership style that presents a challenge in today’s heavily result oriented market.

I was introduced to Dr Kalam’s name in a book on the history of Indian space programme as the director of the SLV-3. He suddenly came into prominence when he was elected as the President of India. It was through his book, Wings of Fire that the Indian space programme became to me something more than an academic study. He introduced characters, events, trials and tribulations which made it more human. Compared to earlier texts which read more like a presentation of facts, figures and milestones, he shared the story in a language that any lay man could understand. The experiment, the calculation and every effort made to measure twice and cut once that was involved in the development of the SLV-3 perhaps presented what it meant to the whole nation to have a capability to become a space faring nation.

As President, he also presented a somewhat rational and more modern version of the vision of India as a developed country by 2020. The economic crisis in 2008 likely dampened the achievement of that vision, but it seems to have been laid by the side by subsequent governments. But, it was not replaced with anything better. No person or government has since sought to present a vision for the country and then work to get a popular consensus to work to achieve it. Since then, the country has had no clear vision on what it means to be a developed country in the 21st century. Our future has since then changed to the whims and fancies of politicians and economists.

Dr Kalam’s leadership style as presented in his books through anecdotes, is also something that inspired me. We don’t see leaders like those any more. He was one of the first who made a usable website understanding the role the web has to play, with inspirational quotes and quotations, opening up Rashtrapati Bhavan to visits for the common man and challenging the governments of the day to undertake ambitious projects that would work to inspire future generations. Leaders see things that others don’t. In his later days, he spoke of human presence on the Moon and Mars. He pushed ISRO to carry an impact probe on Chandrayaan-1 so that India touched the Moon on its maiden mission. These touch a vision that not many can see.

The only thing that I can think of doing is dust my old copy of Wings of Fire and read it again and perhaps gain a glimmer of inspiration that could perhaps push me to do something extraordinary. He may have passed away but his mission of making India and the world a better place to live in lives on.

ISRO to launch 5 British satellites as its first commercial launch in 2015

ISRO will launch 5 British Satellites on behalf of Antrix Corporation (which is ISRO’s commercial arm) on board the PSLV-C28 vehicle on July 10, 2015. This is the PSLV’s 30th mission. ISRO will use the PSLV’s Extended Length (XL) variant to launch 1440 kg payload consisting of 5 British satellites into orbit.

The 5 satellites are the Surrey Satellite Technology Limited’s (SSTL) DMC3 satellites and CNBT-1 satellites and the Surrey Space Center’s DeOrbitSail spacecraft.

DMC3 satellites

The DMC stands for the Disaster Management Constellation of 3 satellites built by the SSTL for it’s wholly owned subsidiary, DMCii (DMC International Imaging Ltd) which is executing this project for a Chinese company, 21AT.

A visualisation of the orbit and position of each satellite in the DMC constellation. Image Courtesy: SSTL
A visualisation of the orbit and position of each satellite in the DMC constellation. Image Courtesy: SSTL

The DMC constellation is a group of 3 small satellites placed in orbit 120 degrees apart, as shown in the image above. The idea is to quickly image areas which have been struck by disaster with high-resolution cameras (1 m resolution) with a capability to provide very fast down link in order to help make the images available quickly in order to assess damage and plan disaster response.


I could not read much about this satellite but it seems that the company that built it, SSTL will share more details after the launch. All that is known for sure right now is that it weighs 91 kg and is a technology demonstrator mission.


This is an interesting 7 kg 3U cubesat with dimensions of 10 x 10 x 34 cm. It contains a highly densely packed 4 x 4 meter sail which will be deployed in space in order to increase drag in order to cause the spacecraft to deorbit and return back to Earth. The project is developed by the Surrey Space Center (not the same as SSTL).


The Spacecraft mounted on the Launch adapter called the L-adapter. Image Courtesy: ISRO
The Spacecraft mounted on the Launch adapter called the L-adapter. Image Courtesy: ISRO

For ISRO, the challenge begins with the three DMC3 spacecrafts. It had to fit in these 3 satellites each of which has a length of 3 meters into the 3.2 m diameter, 8.9 m long payload fairing of the PSLV-XL. They resolved the issue by changing the launch adapter. A launch adapter is basically a platform on which the satellites are kept and launched from once the last stage of the PSLV reaches the designated orbit and orientation. The vehicle uses a new launch adapter which has a triangular deck and is called the Multiple Satellite Adapter – Version 2 (MSA-V2).

Illustration of the Multiple Satellite Adapter - Version 2 (MSA-V2) with the satellite mounted and showing the launch of various satellites. Image Courtesy:
Illustration of the Multiple Satellite Adapter – Version 2 (MSA-V2) with the satellite mounted and showing the launch of various satellites. Image Courtesy:

A success now will help cement the PSLV’s record and hopefully bring more business Antrix’s way. This launch shows that even commercial launches can make requirements on a proven launch vehicle that if managed would improve the agility of the variety of satellites that the PSLV is capable of putting into orbit. This agility lowers cost and enables Antrix to reach a wider market to sell launches on the PSLV. Wishing ISRO Godspeed.