The Moon impact probe that went up on the PSLV C11 mission along with Chandrayaan 1. Credit: ISRO

For space, frugality is a harmful aspiration

Ref:

‘ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to cost lesser than Hollywood movie Interstellar – here’s how they make it cost-effective’, staff, Moneycontrol, February 20, 2018. 

‘Chandrayaan-2 mission cheaper than Hollywood film Interstellar’, Surendra Singh, Times of India, February 20, 2018. 

The following statements from the Moneycontrol and Times of India articles have no meaning:

  1. The cost of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was less than the production cost of the film Gravity.
  2. The cost of ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 mission is expected to be less than the production cost of the film Interstellar.

It’s like saying the angular momentum of a frog is lower than the speed of light. “But of course,” you’re going to say, “we’re comparing angular momentum to speed – they have different dimensions”. Well, the production cost of a film and mission costs also have different dimensions if you cared to look beyond the ‘$’ prefix. That’s because you can’t just pick up two dollar figures, decide which one’s lower and feel good about that without any social and economic context.

For example, what explains the choice of films to compare mission costs to? Is it because Gravity and Interstellar were both set in space? Is it because both films are fairly famous? Is it also because both films were released recently? Or is it because they offered convenient numbers? It’s probably the last one because there’s no reason otherwise to have picked these two films over, say, After Earth, Elysium, The Martian, Independence Day: Resurgence or Alien: Covenant – all of which were set in space AND cost less to make than Interstellar.

So I suspect it would be equally fair to say that the cost of C’yaan 2 is more than the budget of After Earth, Elysium, The Martian, Independence Day: Resurgence or Alien: Covenant. But few are going to spin it like this because of two reasons:

  1. The cost of anything has to be a rational, positive number, so saying cost(Y) is less than cost(X) would imply that cost(X) > cost(Y) ≥ 0; however, saying cost(Y) is greater than cost(X) doesn’t give us any real sense of what cost(Y) could be because it could approach ∞ or…
  2. Make cost (Y) feel like it’s gigantic, often because your reader assumes cost(Y) should be compared to cost(X) simply because you’ve done so

Now, what comparing C’yaan 2’s cost to that of making Interstellar achieves very well is a sense of the magnitude of the number involved. It’s an excellent associative mnemonic that will likely ensure you don’t forget how much C’yaan 2 cost – except you’d also have to know how much Interstellar cost. Without this bit of the statement, you have one equation and two variables, a.k.a. an unsolvable problem.

Additionally, journalists don’t use such comparisons in other beats. For example, when the Union budget was announced on February 1 this year, nobody was comparing anything to the production costs of assets that had a high cultural cachet. Rs 12.5 crore was Rs 12.5 crore; it was not framed as “India spends less on annual scholarships for students with disabilities than it cost to make Kabali“.

This suggests that such comparisons are reserved by some journalists for matters of space, which in turn raises the possibility that those journalists, and their bosses, organisations and readers, are prompted to think of costs in the space sector as something that must always be brought down. This is where this belief becomes pernicious: it assumes a life of its own. It shouldn’t. Lowering costs becomes a priority only after scientists and engineers have checked tens, possibly hundreds, of other boxes. Using only dollar figures to represent this effort mischaracterises it as simply being an exercise in cost reduction.

So, (risking repetition:) comparing a mission cost to a movie budget tells us absolutely nothing of meaning or value. Thanks to how Moneycontrol’s phrased it, all I know now is that C’yaan 2 is going to cost less than $165 million to make. Why not just say that and walk away? (While one could compare $165 million to mission costs at other space agencies, ISRO chief K. Sivan has advised against it; if one wants to compare it to other PSUs in India, I would advise against it.) The need to bring Interstellar into this, of course, is because we’ve got to show up the West.

And once we’re done showing up the West, we still have to keep. Showing up. The West. Because we’re obsessed with what white people do in first-world countries. If we didn’t have them to show up, who knows, we’d have framed ISRO news differently already because we’d have been able to see $165 million for what it is: a dimensionless number beyond the ‘$’ prefix. Without any other details about C’yaan 2 itself, it’s pretty fucking meaningless.

Please don’t celebrate frugality. It’s an unbecoming tag for any space programme. ISRO may have been successful in keeping costs down but, in the long run, the numbers will definitely go up. Frugality is a harmful aspiration vis-à-vis a sector banking on reliability and redundancy. And for fuck’s sake, never compare: the act of it creates just the wrong ideas about what space agencies are doing, what they’re supposed to be doing and how they’re doing it. For example, consider Sivan’s answer when asked by a Times of India reporter as to how ISRO kept its costs down:

Simplifying the system, miniaturising the complex big system, strict quality control and maximising output from a product, make the missions of Indian space agency cost-effective. We keep strict vigil on each and every stage of development of a spacecraft or a rocket and, therefore, we are able to avoid wastage of products, which helps us minimise the mission cost.

If I didn’t know Sivan was saying this, I’d have thought it was techno-managerial babble from Dilbert (maybe with the exception of QC). More importantly, Sivan doesn’t say here what ISRO is doing differently from other space agencies (such as, say, accessing cheaper labour), which is what would matter when you’re rearing to go “neener neener” at NASA/ESA, but sticks to talking about what everyone already does. Do you think NASA and ESA waste products? Do they not remain vigilant during each and every stage of development? Do they not have robust QC standards and enforcement regimes?

Notice here that Sivan isn’t saying “we’re doing it cheaper than others”, only that doing these things keeps the space agency “cost-effective”. Cost-effective is not the same as frugal.

Featured image: The Moon impact probe that went up on the PSLV C11 mission along with Chandrayaan 1. Credit: ISRO.

A Falcon 9 lifting off in 2014. Credit: SpaceX

ISRO v. SpaceX doesn’t make sense

Though I’ve never met the guy, I don’t hold Pallava Bagla in very high regard because his stories – particularly of the Indian space programme – for NDTV have often reeked of simplistic concerns, pettiness and, increasingly of late, a nationalistic pride. The most recent instance all these characteristics were put on display was February 12, when NDTV published a 20-minute video of Bagla interviewing K. Sivan, ISRO’s new chairman.

The video is headlined ‘New ISRO Chief Rocket Man Sivan K, A Farmer’s Son, Takes On SpaceX’. What a great story, innit? A farmer’s son taking on SpaceX chief Elon Musk! But if you’re able to stop there and ask a few questions, you’re going to realise that the headline is a load of tosh. First off, the statement that Sivan is a “farmer’s son” is a glancing reference, if not more, to that New York Times cartoon – the implicit jingoism of which we really must get past soon. The national government has been building false narratives around supporting farmers but here we are, valorising the son of one.

Also, referring to Sivan as a “farmer’s son” IMO reduces the man to that one factoid (particularly to serve a narrative Sivan himself may not wish to pursue), as if that’s all we’re going to choose to see about his origins, neglecting what else could have enabled him to succeed the way he has.

Second: ISRO “takes on SpaceX” is a dumb statement. ISRO is a public sector organisation; SpaceX is a private corporation. Their goals are so markedly different that I’m not entirely sure why whoever crafted the headline (not necessarily Bagla) feels ISRO might be threatened by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch (on February 4); I’m less sure why Bagla himself went on to spin his story thus. Case in point: SpaceX is going bigger to be able to take humans to Mars within 10 years; ISRO’s going smaller to help Antrix capitalise on the demand for launching micro and nanosats as well as bigger to launch heavier telecom satellites. Additionally, I know for a fact that ISRO has been cognisant of modularised launch vehicles for at least three years, and this isn’t something Sivan or anyone else has suddenly stopped to consider following the Falcon Heavy launch. The idea’s been around for a bit longer.

All of this is put on show in an exchange about five minutes into the video, as Bagla goes hard at the idea of ISRO possibly lagging behind SpaceX whereas Sivan says (twice) that the PSLV and the Falcon 9 can’t be compared. Transcript:

KS: We can’t compare how much the launch vehicles cost. It depends on the environment in which the manufacturing is realised. I can assure you that our costs are very low because of the way we are manufacturing, the materials we’ve chosen to work with – this way, our costs are always low. But I don’t want to compare because this is always subjective.

PB: But at the same time, we are known for our very low cost missions. For a Falcon 9, they charge about $70 million per launch (ballpark figures) while India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price. This included the rocket and the satellite, going all the way to Mars. Does that make us feel like we’re very, very competitive in pricing, which is why so many foreign customers are also coming to India?

(ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was a technology demonstrator. The endeavour’s primary mission was to provide a proof of concept of an Indian orbiter at Mars. Second, the satellite’s size and capabilities were both limited by the PSLV’s payload capacity; to wit, MOM’s scientific payload weighed a measly 15 kg whereas the NASA MAVEN, which launched in the same window as MOM, had instruments weighing 65 kg. Third, not many scientific papers have been published on the back of MOM-specific findings. When Bagla says “India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price” as a single Falcon 9 launch, I also invite him to consider that ISRO has access to cheaper labour than is available in the West and that the MOM launch was noncommercial whereas the Falcon 9 is a rocket developed – and priced – for commerce and profit.)

KS: Foreign customers are coming to India for two reasons. One is, as you said, we’re cost effective – mainly by way of manufacturing and selection of materials. We also make simple rockets. The second reason customers prefer us is the robustness. The reliability of our PSLV is large. When a customer comes to us, they want to make sure there’s a 100% chance their satellite reaches its orbital slot.

PB: So are we cheaper than SpaceX or not?

🤦🏾

KS: Again, I don’t want to compare because it is not correct to compare. If the two rockets were made in the same timeframe, in the same place with equivalent amounts of effort, we can compare. But the rockets have been made in different parts of the world, according to different needs. What I can say is that we have a low-cost vehicle.

Almost exactly a year ago, I’d argued the same thing for The Wire, in an article that didn’t go down well with most readers (across the political spectrum). The thrust of it was that the PSLV had been designed from 1977 onwards to launch Indian remote-sensing satellites and that ISRO receives all its funding from the Department of Space. OTOH, SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 to fit prevailing market needs and, though the company receives a lot of money through NASA contracts, its raison d’être as a private entity is to make money by commercialising launch services. Excerpt:

Casting the GSLV, presumably the Mk-III, as a super-soldier in the space-war arena could be misguided. Unlike SpaceX or Arianespace, but much like Roscosmos, ISRO is a state-backed space agency. It has a mandate from the Department of Space to be India’s primary launch-services provider and fulfil the needs of both private entities as well as the government, but government first, at least since that is how policies are currently oriented. This means the GSLV Mk-III has been developed keeping in mind the satellites India currently needs, or at least needs to launch without ISRO having to depend on foreign rockets. …

On the other hand, Arianespace and SpaceX are both almost exclusively market-driven, SpaceX less so because it was set up with the ostensible goal of colonising Mars. Nonetheless, en route to building the Falcon Heavy, the company has built a workhorse of its own in the Falcon 9. And either way, together with Arianespace, it has carved out a sizeable chunk of the satellite-launching market. …

Thus, though Antrix is tasked with maximising profits, ISRO shouldn’t bank on the commercial satellites market because its mix of priorities is more diverse than those of SpaceX or Arianespace. In other words, the point isn’t to belittle ISRO’s launchers but to state that such comparisons might just be pointless because it is a case of apples and oranges.

Sadly for Bagla – and many others like him looking the fools for pushing such a silly idea – our own space programme assumes value only when compared to someone else’s agenda, irrespective of whether the comparison even makes sense. I also wonder if Sivan thinks such are the questions the consumers of NDTV’s journalism want answered – an idea not so farfetched if you consider that not many journalists get access to ISRO’s top brass in the first place – as well as what fraction of the Indian citizenry consumes the success of the Indian space programme simply relative to the successes of others and not as an enterprise established to serve India’s needs first.

We don’t have a problem with the West, we’re just obsessed with it

When you don’t write about scientific and technological research for its inherent wonderfulness but for its para-scientific value, you get stories born out of jingoism masquerading as a ‘science’ piece. Take this example from today’s The Hindu (originally reported by PTI):

A new thermal spray coating technology used for gas turbine engine in spacecraft developed by a Rajasthan-based researcher has caught the attention of a NASA scientist, an official said.

Expressing his interest in the research, James L. Smialek, a scientist from NASA wrote to Dr. Satish Tailor after it was published in the journal Ceramics International and Thermal Spray Bulletin, said S.C. Modi, the chairman of a Jodhpur-based Metallizing Equipment Company.

This story is in the news not because a scientist in Rajasthan (Tailor) developed a new and better spray-coating technique. It’s in the news because a white man* (Smialek) wrote to its inventor expressing his interest. If Smialek hadn’t contacted Tailor, would it have been reported?

The article’s headline is also a bit off: ‘NASA keen on India-made technology for spacecraft’ – but does Smialek speak for NASA the organisation? He seems to be a senior research scientist there, not a spokesperson or a senior-level decision-maker. Additionally, “India-made”? I don’t think so. “India-made” would imply that a cohesion of Indian institutions and laboratories are working to make and utilise this technology – whereas while we’re fawning over NASA’s presumed interest, the story makes no mention of ISRO. It does say CSIR and DRDO scientists are “equally” interested but to me “India-made” would also then beggar the question: “Why cut funding for CSIR?”

Next, what’s a little funny is that while the Indian government is busy deriding Western ‘cultural imports’ ruining our ‘pristine’ homegrown values, while Indian ministers are constantly given to doubting the West’s scientific methods, some journalists are using the West’s acknowledgment to recognise Indian success stories. Which makes me think if what we’re really doing is being obsessed with the West instead of working towards patching the West’s mistakes, insofar as they are mistakes, with our corrections (very broadly speaking).

The second funny thing about this story is that, AFAIK, scientists writing in one part of the world to those in other is fairly regular. That’s one of the reasons people publish in a journal – especially in one as specific as Ceramics International: so people who are interested in research on the same topic can know what their peers are up to. But by reporting on such incidents on a one-off basis, journalists run the risk of making cross-country communication look rare, even esoteric. And by imbibing the story with the quality of rareness, they can give the impression that Smialek writing to Tailor is something to be proud of.

It’s not something to be proud of for this reason simply because it’s an artificial reason. It’s a reason that doesn’t objectively exist.

Nonetheless, I will say that I’m glad PTI picked up on Tailor’s research at least because of this; akin to how embargoes are beacons pointing journalists towards legitimate science stories (although not all the time), validation can also come from an independent researcher expressing his interest in a bit of research. However, it’s not something to be okay with in the long-term – if only because… doesn’t it make you wonder how much we might not know about what researchers are doing in our country simply because Western scientists haven’t written to some of them?

*No offence to you, James. Many Indians do take take some things more seriously because white people are taking it seriously.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

Awk CZTI result from Crab pulsar

An instrument onboard the ISRO Astrosat space-telescope has studied how X-rays being emitted by the Crab pulsar are being polarised, and how such polarisation varies from one pulse to the next. This is very important information for understanding how pulsars create and emit high-energy radiation – information that we haven’t been able to obtain from any other pulsars in the known universe. The underpinning study was published in Nature Astronomy on November 6, 2017.

Quick recap: CZTI stands for the Cadmium Zinc Telluride Imager, a 16-MP X-ray camera and, as The Wire has discussed before, one of the best in its class – in the league of the NASA Fermi and Swift detectors and even better in the 80-250 keV range. Pulsars are rotating neutron stars that emit focused beams of high-energy radiation from two polar locations on their surface. (As it rotates, the beams sweep past Earth like a lighthouse sweeping past ships, giving the impression that it’s blinking, or pulsating). We study them because they’re extreme environments that can help validate theories by pushing them to their limits.

There are two things notable about the current study: how CZTI studied the pulsar and what it found as a result.

1. How – The Crab pulsar, the remnant of a star that went supernova in 1,058 AD, is located 6,500 lightyears away in the direction of the Taurus constellation. Second, pulsars – despite their remarkable radiation output – emit few X-ray photons that can be studied from near Earth. Third, the Crab pulsar has a rotation period of 33 ms (i.e. very fast). For these reasons, CZTI couldn’t just study the pulsar directly and hope to find what it eventually did. Whatever X-ray was collected would’ve had to be precisely calibrated in time. So the CZTI team* partnered up with the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope in Pune and the Ooty Radio Telescope in Muthorai (Tamil Nadu) for the ephemeris data. In all, there were 21 observations made over (CZTI’s first) 18 months.

2. What – Like a Ferrero Rocher from hell, a pulsar is a rotating neutron star on the inside, wrapped in a very strong magnetic field. Astronomers think charged particles are accelerated by this field and the energy they emit is shot into space, as X-rays + other frequencies of radiation. So studying how these X-rays are polarised could provide more info on how a pulsar produces its famous sweeping pulses. The CZTI data had a surprise: hard X-rays are being emitted by the Crab pulsar in the off-pulse – or the-beam-is-not-pointing-at-us – phase. In other words, the magnetic field isn’t involved in producing these X-rays; the neutron star itself is. Dun dun duuuuuuun!

It’s always nice to get science results that send researchers back to the proverbial drawing board, like the CZTI result has. It’s sweeter still when local researchers are involved – and even sweeter to be reminded that we haven’t been entirely left behind in non-theoretical particle physics research. There’s even more X-ray astronomy in India’s future. After Astrosat, launched in September 2015, ISRO has okayed a proposal from the Raman Research Institute (RRI), Bengaluru, to build an X-ray polarimeter instrument that the org will launch in the future (date not known). Called Polix, it is similar to the NASA GEMS probe that stalled in 2012.

*The CZTI team had scientists from Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad; Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai; Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune; IIT Powai; National Centre for Radio Astronomy, Pune; Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram; ISRO, Bengaluru; and RRI.

Featured image: A composite image of the Crab Nebula showing the X-ray (blue), and optical (red) images superimposed. The size of the X-ray image is smaller because the higher energy X-ray emitting electrons radiate away their energy more quickly than the lower energy optically emitting electrons as they move. Caption and credit: NASA/ESA.

The Wire
November 7, 2017

Do your bit, broaden your science menu

If you think a story was not covered by the media, it’s quite likely that that story didn’t feature in your limited news menu, and that it was actually covered by an outlet you haven’t discovered yet. In the same vein, saying the entirety of India’s science media is crap is in itself crap. I’ve heard this say from two people today (and some others on Twitter). I’ll concede that the bulk of it is useless but there are still quite a few good players. And not reading what they are writing is a travesty on your part if you consider yourself interested in science news. Why I think so is a long story; to cut it short: given what the prevailing distribution mechanisms as well as business models are, newsrooms can only do so much to ensure they’re visible to the right people. You’ve got to do your bit as well. So if you haven’t found the better players, shame on you. You don’t get to judge the best of us after having read only the worst of us.

And I like to think The Wire is among the best of us (but I can’t be the final judge). Here are some of the others:

  1. The Telegraph – Among the best in the country. They seldom undertake longer pieces but what they publish is crisp and authoritative. Watch out for G.S. Mudur.
  2. Scroll – Doesn’t cover a lot of sciencey science but what they do cover, they tend to get right.
  3. The Hindu – The Big Daddy. Has been covering science for a long time. My only issue with it is that many of its pieces, in an effort to come across as being unafraid of the technicalities, are flush with jargon.
  4. Fountain Ink – Only long-form and does a fab job of the science + society stories.
  5. Reuters India – Plain Jane non-partisan reportage all round.

I’m sure there are other publishers of good science journalism in India. The five I’ve listed here are the ones that came quickest to mind and I just wanted illustrate my point and quickly get this post out.

Note: This is the article the reactions to which prompted this post.

Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay.

Auditing science stories: Two examples from the bottom rungs

There are different kinds of science stories. I don’t just mean the usual long-form, short-form stuff. I mean there are qualitatively different kinds of stories. They inhabit a hierarchy, and right at the bottom is getting something wrong.

Like the way Livemint did on April 20, 2017, reporting that ISRO had plans to mine resources from the Moon to help manage India’s energy needs. ISRO has no such plans. The report’s author, Utpal Bhaskar, is likely referring to comments made by the noted space scientist Sivathanu Pillai at the Observer Research Foundation’s Kalpana Chawla Space Policy Dialogue 2017, held in March. Pillai had said mining helium-3 from the Moon was possible – but he didn’t say anything about ISRO planning such a thing. India TV then quoted Livemint and published a report of their own, not a detail changed.

Right on top of getting something wrong on the quality hierarchy is the act of reporting something that doesn’t deserve to be – the way The Guardian did, also on April 20. Ian Sample, the newspaper’s science editor, published a piece titled ‘No encounters: most ambitious alien search to date draws a blank’. What he seems to make no big deal of is mentioned – to be fair – in the first paragraph, but without playing up its significance in this context: Breakthrough Listen, the search mission, has been online for only a year.

And in this time, nobody expected its odds of finding anything would be noticeable. I’d say the deeper flaw in the story is to pay heed to the fact that this is humans’ most ambitious project of this kind yet. Well, so what if it is? It’s still not big enough to have better odds of finding anything in its first year of ops (the story itself says how they used one telescope last year and that it scanned 629 stars – both puny numbers). In other words, this is a null result and no one expected anything better. At best, it should’ve been a tweet, a status update for the records – not a news report suggesting disappointment. So in a way Sample’s effort can be construed as a null result reported wrong.

Finally, I will not speculate if Sample, who’s probably attending the Breakthrough Discuss conference (also being live-cast through Breakthrough’s Facebook page) on April 20-21, has been obligated by the organisers to publish a report on the subject – but I will say I’m tempted to. 😉 And I recommend just following Paul Gilster’s blog if you’re interested in updates on the Breakthrough Initiatives.

Featured image: The Green Bank radio telescope, West Virginia. Credit: NRAO/AUI, CC BY 3.0.

Is it so blasphemous to think ISRO ought not to be compared to other space agencies?

ISRO is one of those few public sector organisations in India that actually do well and are (relatively) free of bureaucratic interference. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before we latched on to its success and even started projecting our yearning to be the “world’s best” upon it – whether or not it chose to be in a particular enterprise. I’m not sure if asserting the latter or not affects ISRO (of course not, who am I kidding) but its exposition is a way to understand what ISRO might be thinking, and what might be the best way to interpret and judge its efforts.

So last evening, I wrote and published an article on The Wire titled ‘Apples and Oranges: Why ISRO Rockets Aren’t Comparable to Falcons or Arianes‘. Gist: PSLV/GSLV can’t be compared to the rockets they’re usually compared to (Proton, Falcon 9, Ariane 5) because:

  1. PSLV is low-lift, the three foreign rockets are medium- to -heavy-lift; in fact, each of them can lift at least 1,000 kg more to the GTO than the GSLV Mk-III will be able to
  2. PSLV is cheaper to launch (and probably the Mk-III too) but this is only in terms of the rocket’s cost. The price of launching a kilogram on the rocket is thought to be higher
  3. PSLV and GSLV were both conceived in the 1970s and 1980s to meet India’s demands; they were never built to compete internationally like the Falcon 9 or the Ariane 5
  4. ISRO’s biggest source of income is the Indian government; Arianespace and SpaceX depend on the market and launch contracts from the EU and the US

While spelling out any of these points, never was I thinking that ISRO was inferior to the rest. My goal was to describe a different kind of pride, one that didn’t rest on comparisons but drew its significance from the idea that it was self-fulfilling. This is something I’ve tried to do before as well, for example with one of the ASTROSAT instruments as well as with ASTROSAT itself.

In fact, when discussing #3, it became quite apparent to me (thanks to the books I was quoting from) that comparing PSLV/GSLV with foreign rockets was almost fallacious. The PSLV was born out of a proposal Vikram Sarabhai drew up, before he died in 1970, to launch satellites into polar Sun-synchronous orbits – a need that became acute when ISRO began to develop its first remote-sensing satellites. The GSLV was born when ISRO realised the importance of its multipurpose INSAT satellites and the need to have a homegrown launcher for them.

Twitter, however, disagreed – often vehemently. While there’s no point discussing what the trolls had to say, all of the feedback I received there, as well as on comments on The Wire, seemed intent ISRO would have to be competing with foreign players and that simply was the best. (We moderate comments on The Wire, but in this case, I’m inclined to disapprove even the politely phrased ones because they’re just missing the point.) And this is exactly what I was trying to dispel through my article, so either I haven’t done my job well or there’s no swaying some people as to what ISRO ought to be doing.

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We’re not the BPO of the space industry nor is there a higher or lower from where we’re standing. And we don’t get the job done at a lower cost than F9 or A5 because, hey, completely different launch scenarios.

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Again, the same mistake. Don’t compare! At this point, I began to wonder if people were simply taking one look at the headline and going “Yay/Ugh, another comparison”. And I’m also pretty sure that this isn’t a social/political-spectrum thing. Quite a few comments I received were from people I know are liberal, progressive, leftist, etc., and they all said what this person ↑ had to say.

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Compete? Grab market? What else? Colonise Mars? Send probes to Jupiter? Provide internet to Africa? Save the world?

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Now you’re comparing the engines of two different kinds of rockets. Dear tweeter: the PSLV uses alternating solid and liquid fuel motors; the Falcon 9 uses a semi-cryogenic engine (like the SCE-200 ISRO is trying to develop). Do you remember how many failures we’ve had of the cryogenic engine? It’s a complex device to build and operate, so you need to make concessions for it in its first few years of use.

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“If [make comparison] why you want comparison?” After I’ve made point by [said comparison]: “Let ISRO do its thing.” Well done.

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This tweet was from a friend – who I knew for a fact was also trying to establish that Indian and foreign launchers are incomparable in that they are not meant to be compared. But I think it’s also an example of how the narrative has become skewed, often expressed only in terms of a hierarchy of engineering capabilities and market share, and not in terms of self-fulfilment. And in many other situations, this might have been a simple fact to state. In the one we’re discussing, however, words have become awfully polarised, twisted. Now, it seems, “different” means “crap”, “good” means nothing and “record” means “good”.

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Comments like this, representative of a whole bunch of them I received all of last evening, seem tinged with an inferiority complex, that we once launched sounding rockets carried on bicycles and now we’re doing things you – YOU – ought to be jealous of. And if you aren’t, and if you disagree that C37 was a huge deal, off you go with the rocket the next time!

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The Times of India even had a cartoon to celebrate the C37 launch: it mocked the New York Times‘s attempt to mock ISRO when the Mars Orbiter Mission injected itself into an orbit around the red planet on September 27, 2014. The NYT cartoon had, in the first place, been a cheap shot; now, TOI is just saying cheap shots are a legitimate way of expressing something. It never was. Moreover, the cartoons also made a mess of what it means to be elite – and disrupted conversations about whether there ought to be such a designation at all.

As for comments on The Wire:

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Obviously this is going to get the cut.

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As it happens, this one is going to get the cut, too.

I do think the media shares a large chunk of the blame when it comes to how ISRO is perceived. News portals, newspapers, TV channels, etc., have all fed the ISRO hype over the years: here, after all, was a PSU that was performing well, so let’s give it a leg up. In the process, the room for criticising ISRO shrank and has almost completely disappeared today. The organisation has morphed into a beacon of excellence that can do no wrong, attracting jingo-moths to fawn upon its light.

We spared it the criticisms (offered with civility, that is) that would have shaped the people’s perception of the many aspects of a space programme: political, social, cultural, etc. At the same time, it is also an organisation that hasn’t bothered with public outreach much and this works backwards. Media commentaries seem to bounce off its stony edifice with no effect. In all, it’s an interesting space in which to be engaged, as a researcher or even as an enthusiast, but I will say I did like it better when the trolls were not interested in what ISRO was up to.

Featured image credit: dlr_de/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

TIFR's superconductor discovery: Where are the reports?

Featured image: The Meissner effect: a magnet levitating above a superconductor. Credit: Mai-Linh Doan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

On December 2, physicists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) announced an exciting discovery: that the metal bismuth becomes a superconductor at a higher temperature than predicted by a popular theory. Granted the theory has had its fair share of exceptions, the research community is excited about this finding because of the unique opportunities it presents in terms of learning more, doing more. But yeah, even without the nuance, the following is true: that TIFR physicists have discovered a new form of superconductivity, in the metal bismuth. I say this as such because not one news outlet in India, apart from The Wire, reported the discovery, and it’s difficult to say it’s because the topic was too hard to understand.

This was, and is, just odd. The mainstream as well as non-mainstream media in the country are usually quick to pick up on the slightest shred of legitimate scientific work and report it widely. Heck, many news organisations are also eager to report on illegitimate research – such as those on finding gold in cow urine. After the embargo on the journal paper lifted at 0030 hrs, I (the author of the article on The Wire) remained awake to check if the story had turned out okay – specifically, to check if anyone had any immediate complaints about its contents (there were two tweets about the headline and they were quickly dealt with). But then I ended up staying awake until 4 am because, as much as I looked on Google News and on other news websites, I couldn’t find anyone else who had written about it.

Journal embargoes aren’t new, nor is it the case that journalists in India haven’t signed up to receive embargoed material. For example, the multiple water-on-Mars announcements and the two monumental gravitational-waves discoveries were all announced via papers in the journal Science, and were covered by The Hindu, The Telegraph, Times of India, Indian Express, etc. And Science also published the TIFR paper. Moreover, the TIFR paper wasn’t suppressed or buried in the embargoed press releases that the press team at Science sends out to journalists a few days before the embargo lifts. Third, the significance of the finding was evident from the start; these were the first two lines of the embargoed press release:

Scientists from India report that pure Bismuth – a semimetal with a very low number of electrons per given volume, or carrier concentration – is superconducting at ultralow temperatures. The observation makes Bismuth one of the two lowest carrier density superconductors to date.

All a journalist had to do was get in touch with Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the lead author of the paper as well as the corresponding author, to get a better idea of the discovery’s significance. From my article on The Wire:

“People have been searching for superconductivity in bismuth for 50 years,” Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the leader of the TIFR group, told The Wire. “The last work done in bismuth found that it is not superconducting down to 0.01 kelvin. This was done 20 years ago and people gave up.”

So, I’m very curious to know what happened. And since no outlets apart from The Wire have picked the story up, we circle back to the question of media coverage for science news in India. As my editor pointed out, the major publications are mostly interested in stuff like an ISRO launch, a nuclear reactor going critical or an encephalitis outbreak going berserker when it comes to covering science, and even then the science of the story itself is muted while the overlying policy issues are played up. This is not to say the policies are receiving undeserving coverage – they’re important, too – but only that the underlying science, which informs policy in crucial ways, isn’t coming through.

And over time this disregard blinds us to an entire layer of enterprise that involves hundreds of thousands of our most educated people and close to Rs 2 lakh crore of our national expenditure (total R&D, 2013).

ISRO to launch India's first astronomy satellite on September 28

India’s first astronomy satellite will be launched on September 28. ISRO has noted that while it has launched payloads capable of making astronomical observations before, this is the first time one dedicated to astronomy will be launched. Called ASTROSAT, it was first scheduled for launch in 2005, then in 2010, and finally in 2015 with delays largely due to putting the scientific payload together. ASTROSAT will be a multi-wavelength mission, observing the cosmos in X-ray, visible and UV light.

ASTROSAT is one of two scientific missions that have long been overdue – the other being the Aditya-1 mission to study the Sun. ASTROSAT comprises five scientific instruments, all of which had been delivered to the ISRO Satellite Centre by 2014. They are the UV Imaging Telescope, the Scanning Sky Monitor, the Cadmium-Zinc-Telluride Imager, the Soft X-ray Telescope and three identical Large Area Xenon Proportional Counters. The Soft X-ray Telescope reportedly took 11 years to be built.

X-ray and UV radiation fall in the short-wavelength part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and their emissions in the universe can’t be detected at ground level because the high-energy photons that constitute the radiation can’t easily penetrate Earth’s atmosphere. The opposite is true for long-wavelength radiation like radio waves. As a result, the most powerful and effective X-ray and gamma-ray satellites are in Earth-orbit whereas radio-telescopes – with their giant telltale antenna dishes – are on ground.

Transmission properties of radiation of different wavelengths. Source: Caltech
Transmission properties of radiation of different wavelengths. Source: Caltech

One of the better known examples of multi-wavelength space-borne observatories is the Hubble Space Telescope, which makes observations in the UV, visible and infrared parts of the spectrum. However, comparisons between the telescopes are unfounded because Hubble’s optical mirror is eight-times as wide as ASTROSAT’s, allowing for a deeper field of view and much better imaging. Nonetheless, ASTROSAT will be able to contribute in the study of time-variable sources of radiation by being able to observe the sources in UV and X-ray wavelengths simultaneously.

Eleven years after the project was first okayed, the satellite is slated to be launched on board a PSLV rocket on its 30th flight from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota on September 28. Four smaller American, one Indonesian and one Canadian satellites will also be launched as part of the same mission. ISRO has stated that open observing time will be available on the satellite’s instruments from September 2016, from their perch in the near-Earth orbit at an altitude of 650 km. ASTROSAT cost Rs.178 crore.

A telescope that gives India a new place in the Sun

The Wire
July 8, 2015

An attempt to make sense of anything in the Solar System cannot happen without first acknowledging the presence, and effects, of the Sun at its centre. And in an effort to expand this understanding, the Udaipur Solar Observatory, Rajasthan, recently added a versatile telescope to its line-up.

The USO is part of a network of six observatories on Earth, a network that continuously monitors activities on the Sun’s surface to determine why solar flares occur and what their impacts are. Flares are violent ejections of particles, heat and magnetic energy by the Sun. Even if Earth’s magnetic field constantly keeps the particles from coming too close, satellites are constantly under threat of being struck by them, disrupting electronic communications. Flares also intensify auroras around latitudes close to the poles.

On June 16, the new Multi Application Solar Telescope was flagged off. According to ISRO, it significantly expands the observatory’s capabilities and makes for a versatile tool with which to study the Sun’s complex magnetic fields. Its setup was funded by the Department of Space under the Ministry of Science and Technology. In addition to helping astronomers study solar eruptions, MAST will also complement the existing GREGOR and SOLAR B telescopes, both also studying the Sun. GREGOR is located on the Canary Islands and is operated by Germany while SOLAR B, now called Hinode, is in a sun-synchronous orbit in space and was launched by the Japanese space agency in 2006.

MAST is a Gregorian-Coude telescope with an aperture of 50 cm. The Gregorian in its genus alludes to the use of a combination of lenses and mirrors in a telescope in which the final image is not upside-down but upright. The coude – French for elbow – is a structural arrangement where the observation deck doesn’t move when the telescope does.

A proposal for MAST was first pitched by USO in 2004, the optical elements were fabricated in 2008 and the telescope was installed in 2012 following which it underwent testing. USO itself is situated in the middle of Lake Fatehsagar in Udaipur, and its location proved apt for MAST as well. When a telescope on land makes an observation, the light it receives will be distorted by the hot air it passes through. The hotter the air is, often because of the surface underneath, the more the distortion. But in the middle of a lake, the distortion is minimised because air above the lake is relatively cooler and less prone to ‘dancing’ around.

In the next five years, MAST hopes to help obtain a 3D image of the Sun’s atmosphere during times of increased activity. When particles are accelerated to high energies, solar spots form, and magnetic fields whip through in strange patterns. Even if these patterns are recognisable, many of their causes and effects are unknown while periodic shifts in their intensity and distribution are known to be associated with different phases of a star’s life of billions of years.

Researchers working on telescopes like MAST, GREGOR, BBSO, Hinode, the Solar Dynamics Observatory and others hope to collaborate and resolve these mysteries. The USO in particular hopes to use MAST to chart the directions of magnetic fields that move through the Sun’s photosphere – its outermost layer from which sunlight emerges – and the chromosphere – the atmospheric layer right above the photosphere.

The observations it will make will also be beneficial to the ISRO’s plans – for research as well as, and leading up to, space exploration. Effects of events that play out on the Sun’s surface have consequences that reach well beyond the orbit of Pluto, shaping the composition and atmospheres of all planets on the way. In fact, it was thanks to a solar flare in March 2012 that humankind found out the Voyager 1 probe had exited the Solar System. So plans to chart the interplanetary oceans must accommodate the Sun’s tantrums.

At the time of the GSLV Mk-III launcher’s first test flight in December 2014,  K. Radhakrishnan, who headed ISRO at the time, had said that the agency was envisaging a human spaceflight programme commencing in 2021, at the cost of Rs.12,400 crore. And to manufacture a space-borne capsule that is ‘human-ready’, it must just as well be ‘Sun-proof’. The knowledge necessary for such engineering will siphon data from MAST as well as ADITYA and the NASA STEREO telescopes.