Wednesday, June 11, 2014

ISRO’s Mission Mars set for tricky manoevre.

In football season, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is playing celestial soccer with its maiden mission to Mars, Mangalyaan. Today at 4.30 pm it will gently nudge India’s Mars Orbiter Mission closer to Red Planet! It is a risky operation and if things go wrong the Rs 450 crore mission launched on November 5, 2013 from Sriharikota could well get lost, extinguishing the dreams of a billion plus people of India! Almost twenty percent of the 51 global mission launched so far towards Mars have been lost en-route. Speaking to Pallava Bagla, ISRO chairman K. Radhakrishnan said `it is not a routine operation, great precision is required in calculating and correctly firing in the exact direction, the four small rocket engines on board the spacecraft’ adding Team ISRO is `confident’ of executing the commands such that Manglayaan hits `Bulls Eye’. In the process going ahead of its regional rival China in this 21 st century space race to reach Mars. ISRO confirms, India's mission to Mars is healthy and has covered about 466 million kilometre or about 70% of its treacherous journey, out of its arduous 680 million km journey to Mars. For the last six months after it departed from Earth almost like the demon `Kumbhakaran’ from the epic Ramayana it has been in a state of induced slumber. Today after waking it at 4.30 PM its rocket engines will be fired for a mere 16 seconds. It is a tricky manoeuvre and it has to be kicked it in the right direction. Solar wind yes there is something called solar wind, which makes inter-planetary spacecraft drift from course. The spacecraft can easily get lost if the firing goes awry. In this soccer season, the high flying Mangalyaan will be given just that gentle nudge by Bangalore so that it nets its goal on September 24, 2014 when it is supposed to rendezvous with the Red Planet. It will be first re-oriented and then commands that have been pre-loaded on to its computers will kick in to initiate the sequence. There are still a few more hazardous steps before ISRO can strike a `hole-in-one’ on its mission mars. Mangalyaan is currently travelling with a velocity of 28 km/s or about 100,800 kilometres per hour and is today under the influence of the Sun. It is now the fastest and farthest ever-traveling Indian object. It is so far away that it takes a radio signal almost 5 minutes to travel from Bangalore to the Mangalyaan. To be netted by Mars it has to reach within 440-560 km from the surface of Mars after its epic marathon. If it does India will be the third country in the world to achieve such an exacting target on the maiden journey. Pallava Bagla

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Big medical break through from India, After genome, the proteome: Bangalore lab maps human protein

From: The Indian Express Dated: May 29, 2014 Title: After genome, the proteome: Bangalore lab maps human protein By: Pallava Bagla

Meet India's new science minister -- Physicians Take the Helm at India's Science and Health Ministries

From: Science Title: Physicians Take the Helm at India's Science and Health Ministries Dated: May 27, 2014 By: Pallava Bagla Photo: Pallava Bagla All smiles on the first day. Science minister Jitendra Singh (center) has a word with top deputies Shailesh Nayak, secretary for earth sciences, and K. VijayRaghavan, secretary for biotechnology.

Indo-Pak dialogue -- SOS from monsoon chief: bring El-Nino on table

From: The Indian Express Dated: May 26, 2014 Title: SOS from monsoon chief: bring El-Nino on table By: Pallava Bagla

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Science in the time of elections: the BJP takes inspiration from a Muslim scholar; Congress forgets its `modern temples’; AAP sweeps aside ghost of Kudankulam!

Pallava Bagla Science and Technology may not form part of the daily vitriol that is spewed in election speeches, but scientists need not despair. In the science section of their political manifestoes, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) draws inspiration from an Islamic scholar, the Congress has almost forgotten about Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘modern temples’ and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has failed to even mention its allergy to nuclear energy. The fruits of indigenous science and technology, the 1.4 million electronic voting machines (EVM) made in India, form the bedrock for the efficient management of the general election. The indelible Indian ink on voters’ fingers, flaunted in selfies everywhere, is another great Indian innovation. This brings us to the question: how do science, technology and innovation fare in the various manifestoes of political parties? Space in manifestoes The Congress, whose first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru coined the phrase ‘scientific temper’ and described dams and power plants as ‘modern temples,’ in its 2014 election manifesto barely even has a paragraph on science and technology (S&T). It merely says: ‘The Indian National Congress will increase the annual expenditure on science and technology to at least 2 per cent of GDP. This has to come from both government and industry. Steps will be taken to encourage the corporate sector to invest in Research and Development.’ This promise of doubling the budget, made possibly for the first time in 1989 by Rajiv Gandhi and repeated over the last decade, still remains a distant dream. In contrast, the BJP has devoted more than two full pages on issues relating to S&T. The party, often described as ‘Hindu nationalist,’ in the manifesto’s preface draws inspiration from and quotes an 11th Century Spanish Muslim scholar Al-Andalusi, saying that ‘the first nation to have cultivated science was India.’ The BJP promises an ‘innovative and technologically-driven society’ in its pledge. Not surprisingly it says ‘India has been a knowledge economy and has been a leader in S&T from ancient times’ and adds that the ‘BJP recognises the need to create an ecosystem for fundamental research and innovation …scientific education and technology needs to be encouraged, promoted, practised and leveraged with renewed vision and vigour.’ This should be music for India’s vast science, technology and innovation network. The BJP promises to build world class regional centres of excellence in the fields of nanotechnology, materials science, and brain research, seeking to establish ‘institutes of technology for rural development.’ It also aims to establish a central university dedicated to ‘Himalayan technology,’ whatever that means. However, the AAP, which has captured the imagination of the middle class and many well-meaning scientists, has not even mentioned in its manifesto what it promises to do for S&T. The section has been swept aside completely, probably by the party’s symbol. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has about a third of a page on S&T and promises to ‘enhance public funding of indigenous research in science and technology to 2 per cent of GDP as against 0.8 per cent to promote self-reliance.’ True to its DNA, the CPI(M) says it will ‘stop training and orientation of Indian Patent office personnel by U.S. and European Patent offices.’ Genetically Modified Organisms: A hot potato The Congress does not mention what it plans to do with policies relating to genetically modified organisms (GM), even though the party’s nominee in 2010, the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh, imposed an indefinite moratorium on the release of genetically modified Bt Brinjal. Taking a highly precautionary position on this issue, the BJP says: ‘Genetically Modified foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on its long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers.’ This seems to fly in the face of the so-called success of the much touted Narendra Modi-led ‘Gujarat model,’ where India’s first GM crop, the Bt Cotton, has been a ‘runaway success.’ Even the AAP takes a cautious stand on the issue. ‘We will regulate genetically modified crops to ensure that safety to food, human health and environment is ensured before the introduction of irreversible technologies,’ the party’s manifesto says. If the manifestoes are an indication of which way the wind is blowing, the going may not be easy for the widespread diffusion of GM crops in India. Power of the atom speaks loud The future of his government was at stake when, in 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh adopted nuclear energy; yet, in the 2014 manifesto, it appears merely as a passing footnote. The manifesto states: ‘We will give a new thrust to new and renewable energy, including hydel, solar and nuclear energy.’ What a climb down. Today, we do not even know if Rahul Gandhi loves or hates nuclear energy or whether he even knows the difference between ‘fission and fusion energy,’ as he has never spoken about it openly. In contrast, the AAP, whose party ideologue advocate Prashant Bhushan stridently argued in the Supreme Court against the opening of the nuclear power plant at Kudankulam, does not even mention what its policy is on issues related to nuclear energy, despite nominating the activists who spearheaded the agitation against the Kudankulam atomic reactors as the party’s candidates for the election to the Lok Sabha. Even the CPI(M) that pulled out of the United Progressive Alliance says it will be ‘revising the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement, will not import foreign nuclear reactors, and pursue self-reliance in civilian nuclear energy based on domestic uranium and thorium reserves.’ The BJP has thrown up a surprise in the area of nuclear energy by seeking to ‘study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it,’ even though party chief Rajnath Singh and prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi have clarified that there will be no ‘rethink’ on the policy related to ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons. On the side of nuclear energy the BJP asserts more than once that it will ‘invest in India’s indigenous thorium technology programme,’ while also stating that it ‘will follow a two-pronged independent nuclear program, unencumbered by foreign pressure and influence.’ True to its form, the party also cites the presence of ‘vast thorium deposits’ which would form part of its ‘consideration’ when it decides on the Sethusamudram channel, which might cut across the much revered, yet mythical, Ram Setu in the Palk Strait, off Tamil Nadu. A close reading between the lines of the BJP manifesto suggests that the import of light water reactors from the U.S., Russia and France could be in for a major reassessment. There is, however, unanimity among most mainstream parties in accepting that India cannot abandon its pursuit of fission power. So, the country’s abiding love affair with the power of the atom remains steadfast. Science matters While S&T may not form part of the daily vitriol that is spewed in election speeches, Indian scientists need not despair as it at least matters to the ‘big two’ of the political spectrum. The Congress in its manifesto may not have found enough space for S&T, but its leaders say they still believe in the sage advice of Jawaharlal Nehru: ‘It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy … the future belongs to science and those who make friends with science.’ But the youth of today seek to hear a more catchy tune; hence the BJP manifesto, which has the stamp of physicist Murli Manohar Joshi, chairman of its manifesto committee, states: ‘India innovates and India leads.’ When the dust finally settles, the true winner is the voter who casts his vote on the simple briefcase-sized EVM: the hallmark of a free and fair election. (Pallava Bagla is a correspondent for Science and the Science Editor of NDTV. The views expressed are personal.)

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