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!

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.

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.


IIT-B developing microsatellite

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on December 19, 2007 as per the timestamp. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

I got a great shock today morning reading the newspapers. Got the news that IIT-B is developing a 10-kg micro-satellite.

This is a growing trend of developing small satellites that I am so happy to see in India. I have been wanting to see something like this happen ever since I saw the CalPoly Cubesat page that was filled with student satellite projects from other countries.

While the newspaper article quotes only the other satellite developed by Anna University, there are satellites under development at IIA, IISc and VIT besides the one at IIT-B and Anna University. I also hear reports of a college in Hyderabad starting their own small satellite project as well. SEDS-India also has a small satellite project that you will hear from soon.

It’s a small satellite project in the making and I can name atleast a dozen colleges which can take up the project if there are interested students there. IIT-Kanpur is one of them.  Hopefully, this student satellite space race will lead to something more substantial in the future.

With so many student satellites in the offing, the Indian rocketry community has a great opportunity in their hands. Anyone listening?

India’s first military satellite and my thoughts

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on June 29, 2007 as per the timestamp. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

I am not a big fan of the militarization of space and also can’t get to spell it properly. So, I was not too happy when I read this.

India’s first military satellite – CARTOSAT-2A is going to be launched on the PSLV sometime in August.

I was so happy that India has been using space for peaceful purposes for so long and despite so many roadblocks put in by the US and Europe. So, it seemed like this was a bit odd. But, not really. What dictates this is basically geo-politics and not the people of our country.

China and Pakistan seems to be what this satellite would be looking at. Basically. And they’re watching them for our own protection. So, doesn’t really make sense to rant about that.

The launch of CARTOSAT 2A has been timed to coincide with the scheduled delivery of the country’s first airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft by Israel. So, basically we get the whole range from the ground to the stratosphere. It’s good to keep all the bases covered. Just in case.

GIS in India

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on February 20, 2007 as per the timestamp. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

The NSDI has been trying for a long time to implement GIS in India with the aims of “to ensure that departments open their trove of information maps and data on forests, minerals, town planning, rainfall, archaeology for being placed on a proposed Geospatial Information System (GIS) backbone”.Yesterday, they must have had the happiest day of their life (I’m just thinking here) when they read this half-page report.

The Indian Government has finally decided to release data stored in files, cans and what not to the modern GIS. This comes as a surprise even for the NSDI. GIS will also provide imagery.

As the report goes on: “The NSDI web-user interface will provide open access of the information processed by the project. But further access to its metadata, data about data or a cataloguing system, will be secure. The metadata server will be the brain of the system and guide access and use of the NSDI agency server which contains the spatial data.”

There are also talks of releasing .8 m resolution satellite images available thanks to CartoSat 2. Let’s see how thinks go. The Defence establishment has already given the green signal.

Korolev’s Birth Centenary

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on February 05, 2007 as per the timestamp. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

It’s a time for personal upheveal. I am not able to write anything in my main blog. But, have lots of work related to space.

Coming up later this week, I’ve been invited to attend the birth centenary of Sergei Korolev. He’s the man responsible for the first satellite and the first man in space – Yuri Gagarin for which you guys get to party on Yuri’s Night.

Let’s see how things go from there on.