Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Halfway mark for the Parliament still elusive but India's Mission Mars does that with aplomb.

Landmark day for India's mission to Mars travels more than 300 million km Amidst the excitement whether some political party will cross the halfway mark to form the government or not, yet in this busy election season India's maiden mission to mars 'Mangalyaan' crossed the halfway mark of its arduous journey on April 9, 2014 morning at 9.50 am. Launched on November 5, 2013 -- well before elections were announced -- it has travelled some 337.5 million kilometers till now and is expected to rendezvous with the Red Planet on September 24, 2014 by when the new Prime Minister will greet it as it has become the farthest any Indian object has ever travelled. Made at a mere cost of Rs 450 crores the cheapest inter planetary mission ever to be conceived by humans. The main objective is to look for signatures of life on mars and to fulfill India's deep desire to beat China in reaching Mars. The latter seems on track as really nothing can rely stop it from reaching near Mars thanks to the nature of planetary forces and the precise orbit injection by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Some 500 scientists toiled day and night to ready this craft in a record 15 months. The journey to Mars is tough to say the least till date 51 missions have been launched and 27 have failed. If India reaches Mars it would be the first 'country' to achieve it on its maiden flight. Till date only USA, Russia and the European Space Agency have successfully reached the Red Planet. The journey that began from the Red Fort with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making that clarion call on August 15, 2012 to now when the spacecraft is halfway to its journey to the Red Planet it has been stupendous marathon run like a 100 meter dash. Go ISRO go boldly where no Indian has ever gone before! Pallava Bagla

Friday, April 4, 2014

Kudos to ISRO as it creates history with 25 successful launches in a row

The Indian space agency made history today by launching the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV successfully 25 times in a row, bringing India one step closer to its very global positioning system or the `desi’ GPS.
The 44 meter, 320 ton, PSLV rocket successfully lifted off into the clear blue sky at 5.14 PM from Sriharikota and 19 minutes later accurately placed India's second navigation satellite in space. A jubilant K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman, ISRO said `PSLV in its 25 th successive successful flight precisely injected India’s second regional navigation satellite.’ This latest launch brings the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) one step closer to start the Indian version of a satellite navigation system sometimes dubbed the `desi GPS’. Similar in function to the American Global Positioning System (GPS) but regional in coverage. India will be the sixth country in the world to have this system. This is vitally necessary in times of war since most modern precision bombs and missiles depend on accurate positioning. Some may naturally ask if this satellite navigation system by India were working would it have been possible to locate the lost Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, unfortunately the answer is no. If you are tech savvy then getting lost may soon become very difficult. India is progressing to install its own satellite navigation system, a fleet of 7 satellites that help provide precise locations within 20 meters. Till now most of us have relied on the American GPS or the Global Positioning System, very popular on smart phones but not good enough for military applications as it can’t be relied upon for seamless coverage in times of war and the in-built error makes it un-suitable for precision strikes. India becomes the 6 nation to embark on this after America, Russia, Europe, China and Japan. The constellation of Indian satellites will continuously beam down data that can be read by special hand held instruments which when calibrated using sensors based on the ground can help pin point location. India’s satellite system is designed to cover a region of about 1500 km on either side of the border, essentially covering the geographical region from where India has a perception of threat, both Pakistan and China are within the footprint. Today in its 26 flight India’s workhorse rocket the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV hoisted a 1432 kilogram special satellite that carries on it a precision clock called an atomic clock and a set of other home-made instruments that beam down accurate time and location data. The entire fleet of seven satellites is likely to be ready by 2016 when Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) will become operational. The first Indian navigation satellite launched last year in July is working normally. Late last year the PSLV had successfully sent India’s maiden mission to Mars the Mangalyaan, which is healthy and rapidly closing on the Red Planet and in a few months it will rendezvous with the Red Planet. ISRO is now gearing for the first experimental flight of its largest rocket the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III that will be launched sometime in June this from Sriharikota and will flight test India’s first crew module. Pallava Bagla in Bangalore

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Climate Change: IPCC finally acknowledges its `Himalayan Blunder’ says its glacier melt rate was `erroneous’!

Amidst the doomsday scenario presented by the UN panel on climate change there is one silver lining, at least the glaciers in the Himalayas are not disappearing for at least a couple of centuries! The billion plus people who inhabit the fertile flood plains of the Ganga, Indus and Brahmaputra can breathe easy that the rivers which nurture them are not drying up anytime soon. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had earlier asserted that the glaciers in the high Himalayas also dubbed the `third pole’ would disappear by 2035. Now in the latest report released in Yokohama, Japan on March 31, 2014 it says “it is virtually certain that these projections [the current glacier melt rates] are more reliable than an earlier ERRONEOUS assessment of complete disappearance by 2035.” What a climb down from the highly alarmist situation that the Himalayan glaciers would melt in another 11 years to a point where it acknowledges they will be around much more than our lifetimes! I am not a climate change denialist but am certainly against the trumpeting of exaggerated claims many a times made only on the basis of extrapolations of mathematical models. The 2007 error had badly tarnished the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize winning IPCC. Now Chris Field the lead scientist for yesterday’s report acknowledges that the Himalayan glacier error was `really serious’. According to the French news agency the AFP, in the massive Fifth Assessment Report on climate impacts the IPCC said Himalayan glaciers would shrink by 45 percent by 2100, if Earth's average surface temperature rose by 1.8 degrees Celsius. Under a far warmer scenario of 3.7 C, the reduction would be 68 percent. Field says `we've tried to double check and triple check and quadruple check everything in this report’. In its 2007 or the last assessment the IPCC had committed what came to be known as the `Himalayan Blunder or Glacier-gate’ when it asserted that Himalayan glaciers “are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.” It had then relied on un-published grey literature. In 2009, against odds I had pursued an investigation that the UN panel on climate change had got its facts very wrong on the state of glaciers in the Himalayas. That was a heady time for climate change, all eyes were on the Copenhagen climate summit and there I was, researching a story that went totally against the prevailing tide. Believe me it was tough, very tough to even conceive a story that would question the claims of that `holy cow’ of climate change, the IPCC. I had heard subdued murmurs since 2007 that IPCC’s Himalayan glacier claim was absurd, but like glaciers, glaciologists also move slowly in publishing their results and it was the explosive Indian government report that gave me the right peg to hang the story, I had been researching for almost two years! I was attacked for having written what we did in 2009 and the chairman of the IPCC Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri even dubbed the glacier report as `voodoo science’. In 2009 then India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh released a study on Himalayan glaciers that suggested that they may be not melting as much due to global warming as it was widely feared. Jairam accused the IPCC of being "alarmist" he told Science, “we don’t need to write the epitaph for the glaciers, but we need a concentrated scientific and policy focus on the Himalayan ecosystem since the truth is incredibly complex.” Dr Pachauri dismissed the Indian government report prepared by seasoned glaciologist V K Raina as "voodoo science" and said the IPCC was a "sober body" whose work was verified by governments. Subsequently as part of the major reform process the IPCC `strengthened’ its procedures and was even subjected to an extended probe by the Inter Academy Council from Netherlands. It was not easy and as a journalist I was attacked for ehat I had written. Richard Stone, then Asia Editor for Science said in 2010 `in the weeks that followed, Pallava’s coverage did indeed draw criticism. IPCC chair Rajendra K. Pachauri expressed `disappointment’, while far less polite remarks came from scientists who seemed to believe that the IPCC report was sacrosanct. Pallava has said that all of his skills as a journalist were tested, but in fact he never flinched.’ As a mark of recognition the story fetched me what some dub as the `Oscar of Science Journalism’, the prestigious Perlman Award for 2010 given by the highly regarded American Geophysical Union (AGU). The report of the Perlman Award selection committee said it “applauds Bagla's articles for addressing "a very serious issue in the earth sciences. His articles serve as a reminder to journalists to question sources, to think harder about the agendas and ideas of those people about whom they are reporting, and to stop the steamroller of opinions or ideas when the facts just don't back them up. Although Bagla's articles reveal embarrassing foibles of scientists, ultimately they also illustrate science's ability to self-correct." I was honoured for two articles. “No sign yet of Himalayan meltdown, Indian report finds,” published in Science, which explored the dissent among glaciologists about a prediction that Himalayan glaciers would imminently disappear. “Himalayan glaciers melting deadline ‘a mistake,’” published by BBC News, that investigated the possibility that the controversial prediction resulted from a typographical error. Yet all was not lost as there is a huge silver lining in all this heartburn since in less than 10 weeks after we wrote about the exaggerated melt rate in 2009, the IPCC formally gave its now famous and till date only `regret’. Now five years later it has finally accepted that it was an `erroneous’ assertion. All internal procedures failed at IPCC and it was left to a journalist to show a mirror to this august body of 2500 of the world’s best climate scientists. Self-correction is such an important part of practicing good science. Pallava Bagla