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 radar image obtained by Cassini during a near-polar flyby on February 22, 2007, showing a big island in the middle of Kraken Mare on Saturn's moon Titan. Caption and credit: NASA

Why Titan is awesome #11

Titaaaaan!

Here we go again. 😄 As has been reported, NASA has been interested in sending a robotic submarine to Saturn’s moon Titan to explore the hydrocarbon lakes near its north pole. Various dates have been mentioned and in all it seems likely the mission will be able to take off around 2040. In the 22 years we have left, we’ve got to build the submarine and make sure it can run autonomously on Titan, where the sea-surface temperature is about 95 K, whose waterbodies liquid-hydrocarbon-bodies are made of methane, ethane and nitrogen, and with density variations of up to 30%.

So researchers at Washington State University (WSU) tried to recreate the conditions of benthic Titan – specifically as they would be inside Kraken and Ligeia Mare – by working with the values of four variables: pressure, temperature, density and composition. Their apparatus consisted of a small, cylindrical cartridge heater submerged inside a cell containing methane, ethane and nitrogen, with controls to measure the values of the variables as well as modify conditions if needed. The scientists took a dozen readings as they varied the concentration of methane, ethane and nitrogen, the pressure, sea temperature, the heater surface temperature and the heat flux at bubble incipience.

The experimental setup used by WSU researchers to recreate the conditions inside one of Titan's liquid-hydrocarbon lakes. Source: WSU/NASA
The experimental setup used by WSU researchers to recreate the conditions inside one of Titan’s liquid-hydrocarbon lakes. Source: WSU/NASA
The data logged by WSU researchers pertaining to the conditions inside one of Titan's liquid-hydrocarbon lakes. Source: WSU/NASA
The data logged by WSU researchers pertaining to the conditions inside one of Titan’s liquid-hydrocarbon lakes. Source: Hartwig and Leachman, 2017/WSU

Based on them, they were able to conclude:

  • The moon’s lakes don’t freeze over even though their surface temperature is proximate to the freezing temperature of methane and ethane because of the dissolved nitrogen. The gas lowers the mixture’s freezing point (by about 16 K below the triple point), thus preventing the formation of icebergs that the robotic submarine would then have had to be designed to avoid (there’s a Titanic joke in here somewhere).
  • However, more nitrogen isn’t necessarily a good thing. It dissolves better in its liquid-hydrocarbon surroundings as the pressure increases and the temperature decreases – both of which will happen at lower depths. And the more nitrogen there is, the more the liquids surrounding the submarine are going to effervesce (i.e. release gas).

What issues would this pose to the vehicle? According to a conference paper authored among others by Jason Hartwig, a member of the WSU team, and presented earlier this year,

Effervescence of nitrogen gas may cause issues in two operational scenarios for any submersible on Titan. In the quiescent case, bubbles that form may interfere with sensitive science measurements, such as composition measurements, in acoustic transmission for depth sounding, and sidescan sonar imaging. In the moving case, bubbles that form along the submarine may coalesce at the aft end of the craft and cause cavitation in the propellers, impacting propulsive performance.

  • The quantity of effervescence and the number of sites on the submarine’s surface along which bubbles formed was observed to increase the warmer the machine’s outer surface got.
The planned design of the submarine NASA plans to use to explore Titan's cold hydrocarbon lakes. Source: Hartwig and Leachman, 2017/WSU
The planned design of the submarine NASA plans to use to explore Titan’s cold hydrocarbon lakes. Source: Hartwig and Leachman, 2017/WSU

If NASA engineers get all these details right, then their submarine will work. But making sure the instruments onboard will be able to make the observations they’ll need to make and the log the data they’ll need to log presents its own challenges. When one of the members of the WSU team decided to look into the experimental cell using a borescope (which is what an endoscope is called outside a hospital) and a video recorder, this is what he got:

(Source)

Oh, Titan.

(Obligatory crib: the university press release‘s headline goes ‘WSU researchers build -300ºF alien ocean to test NASA outer space submarine’. But in the diagram of the apparatus above, note that the cartridge heater standing in for the submarine is 5 cm long. So the researchers haven’t built an alien ocean; they’ve simply reconstructed a few thimblefuls.)

  1. Why Titan is awesome #1
  2. Why Titan is awesome #2
  3. Why Titan is awesome #3
  4. Why Titan is awesome #4
  5. Why Titan is awesome #5
  6. Why Titan is awesome #6
  7. Why Titan is awesome #7
  8. Why Titan is awesome #8
  9. Why Titan is awesome #9
  10. Why Titan is awesome #10

Featured image: A radar image obtained by Cassini during a near-polar flyby on February 22, 2007, showing a big island in the middle of Kraken Mare on Saturn’s moon Titan. Caption and credit: NASA.

Note: This post was republished from late February 15 to the morning of February 16 because it was published too late in the night and received little traffic.

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.

The significance of Cassini's end

Many generations of physicists, astronomers and astrobiologists are going to be fascinated by Saturn because of Cassini.

I wrote this on The Wire on September 15. I lied. Truth is, I don’t care about Saturn. In fact, I’m fascinated with Cassini because of Saturn. We all are. Without Cassini, Saturn wouldn’t have been what it is in our shared imagination of the planet as well as the part of the Solar System it inhabits. At the same time, without Saturn, Cassini wouldn’t have been what it is in our shared imagination of what a space probe is and how much they mean to us. This is significant.

The aspects of Cassini’s end that are relevant in this context are:

  1. The abruptness
  2. The spectacle

Both together have made Cassini unforgettable (at least for a year or so) and its end a notable part of our thoughts on Saturn. We usually don’t remember probes, their instruments and interplanetary manoeuvres during ongoing missions because we are appreciably more captivated by the images and other data the probe is beaming back to Earth. In other words, the human experience of space is mediated by machines, but when a mission is underway, we don’t engage with information about the machine and/or what it’s doing as much as we do with what it has discovered/rediscovered, together with the terms of humankind’s engagement with that information.

This is particularly true of the Hubble Space Telescope, whose images constantly expand our vision of the cosmos while very few of us know how the telescope actually achieves what it does.

From a piece I wrote on The Wire in July 2015:

[Hubble’s] impressive suite of five instruments, highly polished mirrors and advanced housing all enable it to see the universe in visible-to-ultraviolet light in exquisite detail. Its opaque engineering is inaccessible to most but this gap in public knowledge has been compensated many times over by the richness of its observations. In a sense, we no longer concern ourselves with how the telescope works because we have drunk our fill with what it has seen of the universe for us…

Cassini broke this mould by – in its finish – reminding us that it exists. And the abruptness of the mission’s end contributed to this. In contrast, consider the story of the Mars Phoenix lander. NASA launched Phoenix (August 2007 to May 2010) in August 2007. It helped us understand Mars’s north polar region and the distribution of water ice on the planet. Its landing manoeuvre also helped NASA scientists validate the landing gear and techniques for future missions. However, the mission’s last date has a bit of uncertainty. Phoenix’s last proper signal was sent in November 2, 2008. It was declared not on the same day but a week later, when attempts reestablish contact with Phoenix failed. But the official declaration of ‘mission end’ came only in May 2010, when a NASA satellite’s attempts to reestablish contact failed.

Is it easier to deal with the death of someone because their death came suddenly? Does it matter if their body was found or not? For Phoenix, we have a ‘body’ (a hunk of metal lying dormant near the Martian north pole); for Cassini, we don’t have a ‘body’. On the other hand, we don’t have a fixed date of ‘mission end’ for Phoenix but we do for Cassini, down to the last centisecond and which will be memorialised at NASA one way or another.

Spectacle exacerbates this tendency to memorialise by providing a vivid representation of ‘mission end’ that has been shared by millions of people. Axiomatically, a memorial for Cassini – wherever one emerges – will likely evoke the same memories and emotions in a larger number of people, and all of those people will be living existences made congruent by the shared cognisance and interpretation of the ‘Cassini event’.

However, Phoenix’s ‘mission end’ wasn’t spectacular. The lander – sitting in one place, immobile – slowly faded to nothing. Cassini burnt up over Saturn. Interestingly, both probes experienced similar ‘deaths’ (though I am loth to use that word) in one sense: neither probe knew the way an I/AI could that they were going to their deaths but both their instrument suites fought against failing systems all guns blazing. Cassini only got the memorial upper hand because it could actively reorient itself in space (akin to the arms on our bodies) and because it was in an environment it was not designed for at all.

The ultimate effect is for humans to remember Cassini more vividly than they would Phoenix, as well as associate a temporality with that remembrance. Phoenix was a sensor, the nicotine patch for a chain-smoking planet (‘smoking’ being the semantic variable here). Cassini moved around – 2 billion km’s worth – and also completed a complicated sequence of orbits around Saturn in three dimensions in 13 years. Cassini represents more agency, more risk, more of a life – and what better way to realise this anthropomorphisation than as a time-wise progression of events with a common purpose?

We remember Cassini by recalling not one moment in space or time but a sequence of them. That’s what establishes the perfect context for the probe’s identity as a quasi-person. That’s also what shatters the glaze of ignorance crenellated around the object, bringing it unto fixation from transience, unto visibility from the same invisibility that Hubble is currently languishing in.

Featured image credit: nasahqphoto/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The bad, avoidable and useless forms of journalism

Bad journalism: A Hindustan Times report on March 2 claims a high-schooler from West Bengal won a “prestigious” scholarship sponsored by NASA to study at Oxford University, having been selected on the back of a theory she had developed on blackholes. The piece was one-sided.

Sketches - 6

Avoidable journalism: The report – one among a dozen others, all on the same lines – turned out to have many holes. One of the first giveaways as usual was the language used to describe the science. Huffington Post India was (among) the first to publish NASA’s clarification, that such a scholarship as the student had claimed didn’t exist. I wrote about it in The Wire.

Sketches - 8

Useless journalism: On March 4, Hindustan Times reported that the high-schooler’s claims were a hoax, writing “her claims [had] been widely published in the Indian media, including [on] TV channels and reality shows.” It conveniently overlooked that Hindustan Times itself had published the report as well. So, what should’ve been a retraction ended up being another article – as if its March 2 report had been a bit of news.

Sketches - 9

Archiving:

Sketches - 11

Summing up the 'water on Mars' announcement

I wrote an explainer summing up (almost) all we know about the recent NASA announcement of finding water on Mars for the Mumbai Mirror. An excerpt:

Some time in its past, a fifth of the Martian surface was thought to be covered in oceans, kilometres deep, before something happened for all that liquid to disappear. In time, what was also thought to be a thicker atmosphere dissipated, supposedly leaking away into space through a series of chemical reactions, leaving Mars to be the desolate land it is today. These are two of the more important mysteries that scientists want to understand for signs of whether something similar could happen on Earth as well as to make sense of our immediate planetary neighbourhood.

Because with large oceans of liquid water and an atmosphere rich in gases like oxygen, Mars could’ve harboured life — at least life that resembled the life that exists on Earth. Imagine how exciting that would be, to find out that at some point, there was someone next door. For this, many of the world’s space-faring nations have spent billions building, launching and operating orbiters, satellites that get into orbit around Mars and study the atmosphere and surface properties; landers that drop down on the surface; rovers, the little cars loaded with science instruments moving around, drilling into rocks, probing the dust.

On September 28, NASA announced that it had found evidence of liquid water flowing on Mars. This is a deceptively ambiguous statement for many reasons. Foremost is that NASA has been announcing similar news since the 2000s because there are many ways to infer the signs of liquid water, but the only thing that will tell us for sure if there’s liquid water on Mars is if we spot liquid water itself. This hasn’t happened yet.

Space is necessarily multifarious, ISRO

Here’s a great example of why space-exploration is a multifarious industry where it takes excellence on multiple fronts at the same time to make each mission a success, even on seemingly unrelated fronts. The example also shows the pride of financial frugality can last only for so long.

Despite many firsts, ISRO mum on MOM’s findings – Times of India

Answering a specific question after the launch of Astrosat, India’s first astronomy satellite, on September 28, Isro chairman AS Kiran Kumar told TOI: “I cannot get into the specifics. I can, however, say there are several firsts that MOM has found. But it is only fair that the principal investigators (scientists who made the payloads) claim it first in scientific journals.”

Isro was to make this data public on September 24, MOM’s first anniversary in the Martian orbit. The agency, however, had a low-key event on the day and did not reveal anything.

Equipping instruments to be able to capture and relay 1 TB of data a year is only half the job done, the other being to be able to process and publicise it. And without the need to innovate rapidly nor clamour for public support, I don’t think ISRO will ever reform this slow-moving attitude. This is NASA really cashing in – there’s no reason ISRO should be able to, too. Later in the same piece,

So between September 24, 2014 and September 24, 2015, when MOM completed one year in the Martian orbit, it could have taken 456 pictures, of which Isro has made public 13 pictures, with some repetitions of the same spot on Mars.

Defending my review of 'The Martian'

I wrote my first movie review for The Martian and I wonder if I’ve done it some disservice, although I think it is defensible (from myself, not anyone else). In a wonderful interview of Salman Rushdie published in Mint recently, the author says it’s not his responsibility to tell the truth or document history, but only to exercise his creative imagination. Similarly, it was never on Andy Weir or Drew Goddard (who wrote the script for the movie) to present a realistic picture of interplanetary space exploration in their works. But Weir did and that’s where the book scored.

My apparent disservice to the review was done in two ways: by repeatedly comparing the movie to the book, and by expecting the movie to be closer to the truth than an improbable adventure, which Ridley Scott, the director, is fond of transforming tales into. The book’s story progresses on Earth like a traditional novel and on Mars as a series of log entries that the stranded astronaut Mark Watney leaves in a video journal. The log entries are not available for every day but Watney/Weir provides for the gaps between them to be filled by hints at the end of previous log entry. As a result, the book presents a continuous picture of what Watney is up to. For me, that became a very important part of the book: the tedium. It provided a fullness to the story and was emotionally satisfying, too, especially to someone who’s spent the last few years covering many space stories and knows it to be a part of space-based lifestyles. Without the tedium, the story swings closer to fiction. Without the tedium, and while watching the movie, I constantly interrupted myself with questions about what Watney was doing while the plants grew, how he was able to put the trailer-rover together so quickly, etc.

Speaking for myself: the book was worth celebrating when it hit the mainstream press because it was different. It was awesome not because it was a science-fiction adventure set on Mars but because it was an adventure set on Mars. It brought humankind’s future journeys to Mars much closer home and situated the experience in plausibility, not freakishness. Scott, in my opinion, presented a movie that downplayed these aspects, leaving the audience with one overwhelming takeaway: Mark Watney survived for what seemed like a week on Mars while time flew faster on Earth as NASA went not-quite-berserk trying to bring a marooned man home.

I say “not-quite-berserk” for two reasons. In the book, I believe Weir was careful in choose Mark Watney’s personality to be goofily optimistic in order to circumvent the many psychological issues that could erupt when a man is forced to live it out on Mars for 500 days. But Goddard’s recreation isn’t quite Watney – Damon gets quite emotional in scenes where Watney didn’t, and is prone to soliloquising now and then. Such personality traits betray a person who’s a little less optimistic than Watney was and just that much more prone to a stronger psychological impact. In other words, there must be a trait-wise price to be able to soliloquise but Goddard/Damon take the liberty to be like Watney in some situations and like someone else in others. That doesn’t sit well.

Second, the casting of Sean Bean as an apologetic Mitch Henderson. I quote from my review, written for The Wire:

In the movie, Henderson is essayed by Hollywood’s favourite fall-guy, Sean Bean, who’s got more resignation wrought on his face than gumption. Spoiler alert: after the scene where he gets Commander Lewis and her crew to mutiny but is pulled up by Teddy for breach of procedure, Bean looks shifty and apologetic. In the book, Henderson’s giving Teddy the lowdown, which is more emotionally satisfying and likely closer to the truth for a man of Henderson’s character: a man given to taking risks with five astronauts on a half-planned rescue mission between the orbits of Earth and Mars. In fact, through all parts of the movie where NASA is involved, there’s not enough tension in the air, not enough of a clash of emotions, not enough sleeplessness.

With Henderson being what he was in the movie, there wasn’t enough of a drive for the conclusion to be reached at NASA, at least in the span and with the spirit that it did.

There’s one more reason, too, and though it may seem too stringent, I think it applies. Hollywood’s space-movies have been setting the tone of the genre with scientific accuracy, which I think is the right way to go because it does a world of good for the genre: by showing it’s possible for the story to be great without resorting to imaginative failures in the “fabric of science”. So, claiming to be accurate but then leaving out small things that could’ve been included implies Scott was willing to bend the story to fit traditional cinematographic attitudes that probably made it easier for him to recreate particular emotions. A couple instances:

  1. The huge dark-grey cloud that descends out of nowhere on the edges of the screen during thoughtful soliloquies – Mars is not known to have such dense cloud cover, much less an atmosphere that could support such large quantities of water vapour. However, their appearance did make for a ponderous mood.
  2. The groaning noises of metal grating against metal could be heard in space during the last few minutes of the film – This is impossible because space is a vacuum and can’t transmit sound. But when the audience gets to hear them, it makes for foreboding moments as a crew prepares to rescue Watney.

I’d have liked it if Scott had tried other ways to recreate the emotions (Gravity used the silence, remember?).

These are the reasons why I didn’t like the movie. While you may dismiss them as being defined by my intricate expectations, I do think it wasn’t losslessly done.

The Planetary Society says humans orbiting Mars is important before they land on it

On Thursday night (IST), the Planetary Society announced the results of a workshop it hosted earlier this week to re-engage with the future of human spaceflight. The advocacy group concluded that humans orbiting Mars was a crucial step before humans could land on Mars.

The workshop, called “Humans Orbiting Mars”, was held with officials from the aerospace industry, scientific community and NASA in attendance. They addressed the question of whether human spaceflight to Mars by 2033 was feasible if NASA’s budget increased only by 2-3% between now and then (to keep up with inflation), and assuming the agency’s contribution to the International Space Station would end by 2024. The answer was ‘Yes’ conditional to the orbit-first-land-next strategy.

Some results from the workshop were made public by Scott Hubbard, former director of the NASA Ames Research Center, and John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, in a presser. The Society’s president and popular science communicator Bill Nye also presented some tidbits, but none of them were forthcoming about the precise details of the Society’s strategy.

Hubbard said that having humans orbit Mars first before landing was important to break “this very challenging effort into smaller, more executable pieces”, differentiating it from some private sector approaches to the red planet that Logsdon said “exist but don’t seem credible”. They admitted they were conscious of the strategy’s parallels to the Apollo 8 mission, which invigorated public interest in space exploration by carrying the first humans into an orbit around the moon in 1968 and giving humanity its first view of Earthrise.

A notional timeline for the 2033 mission was presented also, with crewed test-flights in cislunar orbits being planned for 2025 and 2027. Mars missions are fixed to launch windows every 26 months to coincide with the planet’s opposition, when it comes closest to Earth. However, the launch window in 2033 provides a suitable focus year also because NASA hopes to have tested the necessary spaceflight technologies and experience through its Asteroid Retrieval Mission in the 2020s.

The Society’s space-policy writer Casey Dreier concluded on his blog:

Over the next few months, we will work to publish as much of the content presented at the workshop as we can. And later this year, we will release a report based on the discussions and feedback from this meeting formalizing our thoughts and ideas on this path forward.

However, the presser only left reporters with more questions than answers. It may have been wiser to announce all the results of the workshop alongside the report instead of releasing vague details now, even if it appears the Planetary Society has a detailed architecture of the concept in place.

And – as if to have the Society reconsider its barb about infeasible private missions to Mars – the report’s release later this year could coincide with SpaceX’s much-awaited announcement of the details of its Mars Colonial Transporter, a transport vehicle that CEO-CTO Elon Musk has promised will be very different from the Dragon and Falcon 9 rockets it currently operates. Musk is also expected to announce new spacesuit designs meeting utility requirements by the end of 2015.

Featured image credit: NASA