Saturday, February 21, 2015

My piece on US media website Modern Notion titled "Is Russia Building an Orbital Space Station with China and India?"

Dear all, below is URL, verbatim text & images of my recently published piece on US media website Modern Notion where I'm a Science Writer. This piece is on how Russia is planning to propose building a new space station with China & India once International Space Station (ISS) retires.

International Space Station (ISS); Courtesy: Gray Lensman QX & Modern Notion

Russia may propose the joint development of a manned orbital space station in low Earth orbit (LEO) with China and India in the upcoming BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia, this coming July. A document released by the Russian Military Industrial Commission, the apex body controlling all Russian weapons and defense technology development, has strongly recommended that Russia push for a manned space collaboration with China and India to forge lasting “technological alliances.”

The ISS, the 15-nation operation, launched in 1998 is meant to wrap up in 2020. While NASA has proposed extending the program another four years, political tensions are once again at a high, making the exact future of the ISS unclear.

Although Russia spends 30 percent of its defense budget on ISS, it has little returns; ISS covers only five percent of Russian territory. And since 2007, Russia has leaked bits and pieces of a possible manned orbital station for when the ISS is retired.

In 2008, the first detailed concept of a new Russian station revealed that instead of a research lab, like the current ISS, the new station would function as an assembly point for missions to the Moon and Mars. 

In 2014, Russia signed an agreement with China to work together in space technology applications, and global speculation was rife with thoughts that Russia would abandon its space initiatives with the West to solely work with China on anew orbital station. But the director of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, clarified that Russia will continue to use the ISS beyond 2020, but that its focus will shift toward cooperating with China and their space stations.

Experts have long held, however, that since modules of the Chinese space station, its rockets and even its space suits are all derived from Russian technology, Russia has little to gain from China in terms of space technology.

In December 2014, Russian space officials also confirmed that instead of a separate space station from scratch, current and future Russian modules of ISS can work as independent orbiting units and can be assembled to act as the Russian successor to ISS.

While India appears to be the surprise new piece in this puzzle, Russia’s long term strategic interests and recent developments may have compelled the move. India has been Russia’s biggest arms and space technology buyer but was never considered by Russia for big ticket space projects.

It’s very likely that Western sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s creaking economy could have precipitated this new development. Again, ties between India and US are growing in defense and space technology. China also remains wary of Russia’s competence following the 2011 aborted launch of the Russian Mars probe Phobos-Grunt with a Chinese micro-satellite installed on it.

Global politics can be muddy. Add in the element of space, and things get even murkier. Looks like we’ll have to wait until the July BRICS summit to see what direction the emerging space frontier in Asia and Russia is heading.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

My new HuffPost Piece: Antibiotic Resistance Grows Dangerously As India Remains Unprepared

Dear All, below is URL and verbatim text & images as copied from Huffington Post's website where I'm a contributing writer. This is my latest article on a very critical public health issue globally & especially for India
Teixobactin--that's the name of the new antibiotic, the first one discovered recently since 1987 and is being touted as the solution to an imminent global healthcare disaster that most of us don't even know about. But teixobactin or similar future discoveries may still not work in India, the biggest hub of the growing menace.

In April 2014, a World Health Organization (WHO) report warned that the world may soon enter a 'post-antibiotic era'. Outside the medical community, few, especially in developing countries, have any inkling that antibiotics, one of the greatest advances of 20th century science, are fast becoming ineffective.

Antibiotics attack bacteria causing common infections like urinary tract infections, pneumonia, cholera and tuberculosis (TB). They either block the process of building cell walls in bacteria which ruptures the cells or inhibit functions of bacterial enzymes responsible for synthesizing proteins and vitamins thereby destroying bacteria's ability to reproduce.

These drugs save millions of vulnerable patients recovering from surgeries and cancer chemotherapy in bacteria rich environments like ICUs and hospital wards.

However, Alexander Fleming, who discovered the first antibiotic penicillin in 1928, had warned during his Nobel Lecture in 1945 that bacteria may eventually evolve to develop resistance to penicillin and similar drugs.
Scanning Electro Micorgraph image of one of the most dangerous antibiotic (methicillin)-resistant bacteria Staphylococcus aureus; Courtesy: Centers for Disease Control/ Janice Carr/ Deepak Mandhalapu, M.H.S.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since late 1980s, his prophecy began to take shape. Resistance is developed becausefew bacteria escape initial antibiotic attack due to evolved genetic traits over time as per Darwin's theory of natural selection. The escaped bacteria transfer strands of DNA in their genes containing these traits to vulnerable bacteria which undergo gene mutations and develop ability to fend off antibiotic attacks.
Thus, the tide of this war is gradually turning. A recent review by an expert group of the UK government put a lower estimate of total deaths annually due to Anti-Microbial Resistance (AMR - technical overarching term for antibiotic resistance) at 700,000. If left unchecked, antibiotic resistance will kill 10 million people per year by 2050, more than cancer deaths today.
While in US and EU, around 50,000 people died from antibiotic resistance in 2013, for India, the numbers are frightening. Over 58,000 children died in India in 2013while the AMR review pegged total deaths in India from this menace at two million by 2050 if nothing is done.
Deaths attributable to antimicrobial resistance every year compared to other major causes of death as per AMR review; Courtesy: Created by Jim O'Neill Chairman of the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance - Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Last year, colistin, the global antibiotic of last resort, registered resistance rates at four-five percent in some Delhi hospitals and a handful of cases were identified at other places. Colistin was phased out in late 1970s because of its toxicity but had a revival in India in mid 2000s due to increasing resistance (50-60 percent at some places) to carbapenems, the third and most powerful generation of antibiotics.
But, teixobactin and similar breakthroughs cannot save India from imminent disaster unless steps are taken on war footing to ensure such breakthroughs are implemented effectively. Antibiotic resistance in India has two dimensions--pre-infection and post infection.

The pre-infection causes relate to both humans and animals. Firstly, a large population cannot be immunised because of existing conditions like diabetes, heart diseases and cancers. Then, India has the world's highest number of people (594 million in 2012) defecating in the open which are breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses.
Our ill-equipped government hospitals and health centres fare no better. In Rajasthan, a UNICEF survey of 94 district hospitals and health centres revealed 78 percent had no soap, 70 percent had contaminated water and 67 percent of all toilets were sanitarily unfit.
The problem is compounded by incessant antibiotics use in poultry and animal husbandry. A June 2014 notification by India's agriculture ministry highlighted how indiscriminate antibiotics use especially in feeding poultry and animals to increase their weights left antibiotic residues in dairy and meat products. Post consumption, these residues can develop antibiotic resistance in humans.
In fact, Delhi based science NGO Centre for Science & Environment's (CSE) 2014 study of chicken samples in Delhi-NCR had found 40 percent of samples with antibiotic residues.

The post infection scenario is no better. Doctors in millions of private clinics and small hospitals prescribe excessive antibiotics owing to all illegal culture of 'gifts' (read commissions) from drug companies. The most ignorant practice is antibiotic prescriptions and over the counter sales for common cold, flu and sore throat, caused overwhelmingly by viruses not bacteria.
A 2012 circular by drug regulator Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) estimated that 70-80 percent of antimicrobial drug prescriptions by healthcare providers were probably unnecessary.
In 2007 only, a CDSCO study of market data stated that 1800 out of 2000 brands of fixed dose antibiotic combinations had wrong or unnecessary compositions. Fixed dose combinations are drugs with compounds aimed at multiple ailments and carry higher risks as wrong combinations can be dangerous inside the body.

India came out with an antibiotic resistance policy in 2011. But it has rarely moved beyond paper due to wrangles between ministries and departments. Hence, the nexus between drug makers and health officials continues unabated.

The only solution lies in a strong antibiotic regulatory mechanism ensuring accountability of health officials in implementing focused antibiotic use. Both over the counter sales and prescriptions of antibiotics especially for cold, flu and sore throats must be banned.
On the pre-infection front, missions like Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan must proactively involve state governments, local communities and municipalities to ensure upgrading of hygiene and sanitation standards. Government must ban antibiotics critical or dangerous for humans in poultry and animal husbandry and restrict general antibiotic use as a feed additive.
However, ensuring sufficient toilets and sanitation facilities for such a large population remains the greatest challenge. This can only happen by sustained increase in public healthcare spending (central govt. healthcare budget was shockingly cut by 30 percent for 2014-15 recently).
While India may not discover a breakthrough antibiotic in near future, it can certainly ensure it doesn't lag behind in adopting from others and effectively using it to save millions.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Orion - NASA spacecraft to take Humans to Mars achieves success on maiden test flight

Orion, the spacecraft aimed to carry the first humans to Mars one day, ventured beyond the skies on its maiden flight on December 05, 2014. It was an experimental test flight launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, America’s most used space launch port.

The flight has been termed near perfect as per National Aeronautics & Space Administration’s (NASA) mission control center once Orion successfully splashed down into the Pacific Ocean near California after orbiting the earth twice.

Orion taking off from Cape Canaveral on Dec 05 on board the Delta IV Heavy launch Vehicle; Courtesy -, NASA

This flight only included the crew module which is meant for housing the astronauts during deep space voyages to asteroids and Mars. The fully functional Orion will contain the crew module developed by Lockheed Martin, the service module developed by Airbus and a Launch Abort System (LAS) which will allow astronauts to detach the crew module from Orion assembly and abort mission in case of a launch failure.

The Orion made its reentry into earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 20,000 miles per hour (36,000 km per hour) and had a mass of 21,000 pounds (9530 kg). It slowed down to a speed of 300 miles per hour when the system of 11 parachutes took over to bring it safely down to 20 miles per hour and drop it in the Pacific. This first flight was called Exploration Flight Test-1 and cost $370 million

While it was not a red letter day in NASA’s history, the event has created some euphoria among the public for the world’s largest and most advanced space agency which has been plagued by budget constraints in last 10 years.

Initially, Orion was a part of the Constellation Program, started by President George W Bush in 2004 to take Americans back to the moon by 2020 and eventually to Mars.

But Constellation was cancelled by current President Barack Obama in 2010 on the recommendation of an expert committee that the program was not financially feasible under then NASA budgets in the near future since then global recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had put huge pressure on US government annual budgets.

Since the golden age of space exploration in the 1960s and early 70s when US & Soviet Union locked horns in a fierce space race. Soviet Union took the first humans into space while NASA took the first humans to moon on a series of Apollo spacecraft missions. But since then, it has been a downhill slide for NASA.

The last person walked on the moon in 1972 as the Apollo program was terminated post that both due to budget constraints and the cancellation of Soviet Union’s fledgling moon program.

Apollo 17 Scientific Instrument Module bay on the Service Module, seen from the Lunar Module in orbit around the Moon; Courtesy - NASA

Eugene Cernan, the last human to walk on the moon performing the last lunar excursion, December 13, 1972; Courtesy - NASA
Apollo was replaced by the Space Shuttle, a semi reusable space launch vehicle (aka rocket) that took humans back only in the low earth orbit (LEO altitude range is 160km to 2000 km above earth’s surface). The first operational flight mission of the space shuttle was in 1982 and it was retired in 2011 after 135 missions.

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The shuttle, partly similar to a plane, used to lift vertically on attached combinations of solid and liquid booster rockets and upon reentry and descent into earth’s atmosphere, used to glide down and land horizontally on a special runway partly reminiscent of landing a small plane.

The STS-133 mission, Space Shuttle Discovery touches down similar to a small plane at the Shuttle Landing Facility; Courtesy - NASA/Kim Shiflett 
The Obama administration initiated and US Congress passed legislation in 2010 mandating NASA to create a new deep space launch vehicle called Space Launch System (SLS) that can carry Americans in Orion beyond LEO and eventually to Mars. The future travel to and from LEO was targeted through the commercial crew and cargo development programs (the economics and financial aspects of US space program and the private sector aiming at Mars will be dealt with in a future Blog post)

Orion aimed at carrying 3 humans to moon under the Constellation program. Then, the new NASA Act passed by US Congress in 2010 salvaged Orion and made some modifications to enable it to carry 4 humans not just to the ISS but up to Mars using the under development SLS rocket.

Artist's rendering of Space Launch System (SLS) After Launch-20140827; Courtesy - NASA/MSFC & licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 
Thus, the December 05 Orion’s maiden flight was launched on the Delta IV Heavy rocket belonging to the Delta family of expendable (use once & throw) launch rockets developed by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The Delta family has been mostly used to launch US military and navigation satellites.

Only rockets carrying telescopes, satellites and landers & robotic probes to moon, Mars and other destinations in the solar system have ever crossed LEO. And this is where Orion’s flight is deemed historic.

Orion reached an altitude of 3630 miles (5790 km), over 15 times higher than any human spacecraft has reached since the last Apollo (Apollo 17) landing in 1972. The space shuttle only ever reached a maximum of 350 km in its 135 mission history. However, Orion’s flight was not aimed at breaking a four decade plus hiatus for a human spacecraft to go beyond LEO.

The primary objective of this flight was to test Orion’s heat shield upon the craft’s reentry into the earth’s atmosphere where it is engulfed by a ball of plasma attemperatures in excess of 4000 degree Fahrenheit. The space shuttle experienced temperatures up to 1500 degree Fahrenheit (º F) only.

NASA originally targeted a heat shield made of a newly developed composite material but after a lot of R&D, concluded that Avcoat, the same coating which protected the Apollo spacecrafts upon reentry over 4 decades ago,  is still the best.

Some minor changes were made in the new shield like 30 percent extra material to fit onto the larger sized Orion. The coating had not been in manufacturing for decades and it took NASA 8 months to redevelop it.

The shield consists of a fiberglass overlay with 320,000 cells which are filled with Avcoat. This fiberglass overlay is built around a titanium skeleton upon which a carbon fiber skin is fitted. The stand out property of the heat shield is that a significant percentage (20 percent in this test flight) of the Avcoat coating burns away in the extreme heat generated by the plasma ball surrounding the spacecraft during descent through the atmosphere.

But flights to moon and Mars will be an entirely different ballgame. An Orion capsule returning from the moon will hit the Earth’s atmosphere at about 25,000 miles per hour raising temperatures upto 5,000 º F.

If returning from Mars, it’ll make reentry at a mind boggling 33,500 miles per hour, highest speed ever for a man-made object re-entering earth’s atmosphere. The temperature of the plasma ball will be a scorching 5,500 º F.

While there’s no way to test a return from Mars reentry conditions, the test flight in 2018 is planned around the moon and will be launched on SLS. Then comes a series of LEO missions on SLS-Orion followed by the major proposed asteroid mission to be carried out by 2025.

In this, SLS is supposed to lasso an asteroid via a robotic spacecraft and put it in orbit around moon and then the first humans aim to land on the asteroid to conduct experiments and collect samples. The asteroid mission is aimed to be the final test bed for humanity’s odyssey to Mars.

The second major objective of Orion’s flight was to test the system of 11 parachutes which were deployed like a choreographed ballet sequence beginning at an altitude of 20,000 feet (around 3.8 miles or 6.1 km) when the capsule had slowed down to a speed of 300 miles per hour.

Orion Crew Module descending through the last 3.8 miles (6.1 km) after the system of parachutes were deployed in a unique sequence; Courtesy - NASA
Apart from the above major objectives, Orion crew capsule had 1200 sensors fitted on it to record flight data on critical variables like temperature, pressure, speed and radiation. The next few years will involve data analysis of values of all the variables recorded by the sensors to prepare detailed knowledge about flight conditions and make necessary changes for next test flight scheduled for 2018.
As Orion lay peacefully in the waters of the Pacific Ocean waiting to be captured, the officials at NASA know that this is just the beginning of next phase of a decades’ long journey. A recent Congressional committee came out with a reportstating that NASA’s SLS launch vehicle and Orion crew capsule program iswoefully underfunded and major technological challenges remain before it can ever take off to Mars – some call it a nonstarter.

On the technological front, cosmic and solar radiation remains the biggest obstacle. The amount of radiation that astronauts’ bodies are estimated to absorb on a trip to Mars with the same shielding that was used on the Apollo moon missions will prove to be lethal. Thus a radiation shielding of an entirely new structure and size is required.

One of the most oft discussed radiation shielding solutions is water. But Orion will need a water shield atleast 1 meter thick for the least time consuming trajectory to and from Mars. That largely reduces the amount of payload that can be carried to Mars which would include astronauts’ belongings, food and all landing and habitat equipment to live on Mars. Most research into other radiation shielding materials has not reached beyond lab testing.

Then there is the issue of the astronauts spending the longest ever time in micro gravity conditions experienced by any human. Micro gravity makes the muscles and bones to atrophy and there’s no experiment conducted or data available as yet that can simulate the micro gravity conditions for both the onward and return journeys.

Thus this is one small step for humanity especially NASA and it’ll take hundreds of such steps before we make the next giant leap to Mars.

Monday, April 28, 2014

ISRO's bold steps to put India in Top 5 on earth with own GPS Satellite System

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) took another step towards becoming a global force to reckon with in the space sector with the successful launch of its second navigation satellites, the IRNSS 1B, in orbit around earth on Friday, April 04. The satellite was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota (SDSC SHAR) using India’s workhorse launch vehicle, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The satellite is part of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) programme, which involves launching of seven navigation satellites by mid 2015.

IRNSS 1-B satellite in the clean room at ISRO's Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sri Harikota;
Image Courtesy: ISRO

Navigation satellites, known to the general public as GPS satellites, after the official name of the system of twenty four US navigation satellites, provide positioning and tracking services for users in a plethora of fields. The IRNSS 1B was initially placed in an intermediate orbit by the PSLV version code named PSLV C-24 from where, 5 orbit raising maneuvers will be performed over next few days to place it in the intended geosynchronous circular orbit (a geosynchronous orbit is one in which a satellite takes 24 hours to revolve around the earth) at a height of 36,000 km.

An ISRO press release stated “After a flight of about 19 minutes, IRNSS-1B Satellite, weighing 1432 kg, was injected to an elliptical orbit of 283 km X 20,630 km, which is very close to the intended orbit. After injection, the solar panels of IRNSS-1B were deployed automatically. ISRO's Master Control Facility (at Hassan, Karnataka) assumed the control of the satellite.”

PSLV C24 rocket takes off from spaceport at Sri Harikota with the IRNSS-1B navigation satellite; Image Courtesy: ISRO

The IRNSS system will be a critical national asset delivering terrestrial, marine and aerial navigation services including disaster management, mapping services, vehicle tracking and visual voice navigation apart from future strategic applications like in guided missile defense systems and other military purposes. 

India already became the fifth nation after the GPS system of US, Russian GLONASS, China’s Beidou and EU’s Galileo to launch an indigenously developed navigation satellite as part of a navigation system when it launched the first in the series, the IRNSS 1A, in July 2013. IRNSS’s primary service area will stretch upto 1500 km beyond the nation’s borders. The design and technology involved has scope for enhancing the coverage area by adding four satellites beyond the seven but ISRO has stated that this would be considered only if future need arises. 

IRNSS-1A, India's first 'GPS' satellite, integrated with PSLV C22 rocket at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sri Harikota before launch in July 2013; Image Courtesy: ISRO

The genesis of IRNSS programme occurred ten years ago with the aim of creating a system entirely in control of the Indian government to provide accurate real time positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services for both civilian and military purposes. It was approved by the Indian government in June 2006 and the project has an estimated cost of Rs.1420 crore with each satellite costing around Rs.125 crore and the ground based infrastructure valued at Rs.300 crore.

A navigation satellite emits microwave signals periodically which contain the exact time when a signal leaves the satellite. Any receiver on the ground, like in a mobile phone, picks up the signal and then based on the time difference between the transmission and reception of the signal, measures the distance of the satellite from the receiver. Thus, as in case of GPS, a receiver gets signals from four satellites and is thereby able to calculate its own precise location.

Thus one critical element in satellite navigation is time measurement upto the smallest possible fraction of a second. Each IRNSS satellite contains 3 rubidium atomic clocks, which keep time upto a few tenths of a trillionth of a second in an hour. Currently, ISRO is importing these clocks but work is on to develop these clocks within the country. Since the accuracy of these clocks gets affected by vibrations, electrical interference and if their temperature goes 1 degree Celsius either way beyond their optimum operating temperature, ISRO designed the satellites accordingly from scratch.

With regards to ground based control and management, the ISRO release added “A number of ground stations responsible for the generation and transmission of navigation parameters, satellite control, satellite ranging and monitoring, etc., have been established in as many as 15 locations across the country”.

The IRNSS is estimated to provide position accuracy within 10 metres on the Indian landmass and position accuracy within 20 metres in the ocean and area within 1500 km of the borders. The position accuracy of US GPS receivers is about 15 metres for civilian purposes. However, civilian use of IRNSS will require separate receivers which the standard GPS receivers cannot meet. ISRO ‘s Space Applications Centre at Ahmedabad is already in advanced stages of development for appropriate IRNSS receivers.
The third and fourth satellites are slated to be launched by the end of this year while the remaining three are targeted for launch in March 2015. The IRNSS 1B launch was the twenty fifth consecutive successful launch of PSLV. The PSLV configuration that was used for this mission is the ‘XL’ version which had been used in the past to launch 5 missions, including India’s maiden moon (Chandrayaan 1) and Mars (Mangalyaan) missions.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mars Orbiter Mission - One of many seeds that'll grow to serve Humankind

Posterity, perhaps, will judge the first 2 decades of the 21st century for either one of 2 reasons. It will either reaffirm the unwritten unsaid faith of a vast majority of realists and almost every pessimist that this is yet another decade when the disparities between the haves and have-nots will widen further and the Earth, for most of its inhabitants, would become an even tougher place to survive. Courtesy an ever increasing income chasm between the rich and the poor especially in the developing world coupled with an ever increasing mercury of the planet, these 20 years might just prove to the pivotal point for humanity towards an apocalyptic world we got glimpses of in the recent Matt Daemon flick Elysium.

However, the second reason might just come true if only the pivot, or in fact the pivots, are placed at the right location and the right time. And one such pivot might be how the 2 most populous nations on Earth are sowing the first seeds of the largest industry in the future of human civilization. For, China & India’s recent small steps to take their own giant leaps into capturing the final frontier might just prove to be the critical links towards humankind’s march to becoming a multi-planetary species (and perhaps interstellar species?)

Video Link: Mars Orbiter Mission Launch; Courtesy: Euronews & DD News

While India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) raged first ever truly public debates in independent India’s history over a science and technology project, China, in its own diplomatically pompous manner, launched its first ever moon rover mission, the Chang’e 3 on December 2, 2013. Since expression of dissent against any state policy/project is a mild synonym for treason in China, there was an almost unanimous applause within the People’s Republic for crossing another cosmic milestone and, as has been the norm in the last decade, the applause was echoed around the world. But India’s MOM, while largely receiving positive views among the scientific community across the globe, has been lambasted in many significant media outlets and by prominent intellectuals from various fields both within and outside the country. But the real Pandora’s Box here is the myopic viewpoint.
Video Link: China's Chang'e 3 Lunar Lander Launch on Long March 3B Rocket; Courtesy: CCTV America

Before questioning the motive, relevance or usefulness of such a mission for a nation consisting of the world’s largest number of poor, we must first define the context under which such questions are raised. And this is where many, both for and against India’s MOM, miss the point. First of all, the context here is that the current level of scientific and technological knowledge coupled with economic potential has enabled both India and China to take bigger and bolder steps in space exploration and space science since the turn of the century. Secondly, there is a massive and indisputable body of evidence in favor of offshoots and derivations from space technology having found applications in day to day life for masses across the globe (refer to my blog post last year dated July 06, 2012 - “The Indian LSD Deficiency Syndrome").

Products from everyday cellphone communication and water filters to services like TV broadcasting, weather monitoring and remote sensing are all possible due to direct application or indirect spin offs of technologies developed for space missions. But, then, a very relevant and obvious question is – Why are we not focused on only launching better and diverse satellites which directly aim at improving the lives of the poor in India instead of wasting Rs.460 crore (US$73 million in terms of average dollar to rupee exchange rate in last 6 months) gazing at Martian red dust?

That’s where most miss the critical pieces in this jigsaw puzzle. Those pieces are categorically 2 in number. First one is the mastering of certain critical technologies that will go a long way in launching heavier payloads, both diverse satellites as well as future complex scientific payloads. ISRO’s launch vehicle which carried Mangalyaan, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), positions payloads upto 1900kg either in the Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO) or the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) (these orbits are used by earth observation and weather satellites) raised the bar many notches with MOM.

PSLV has, for the first time, mastered a much longer 4 stage ignition lasting 43 minutes than the usual nearly 18 minutes to put a remote sensing satellite in orbit (roughly put, every launch vehicle has multiple stages in terms of fuel containing boosters in each stage which are fired at the right time, right position and right orientation of a spacecraft to place it in the right orbit or to raise the orbit) to place Mangalyaan in the appropriate orbit around Earth from where the spacecraft's own engine took over.

From there, Mangalyaan’s own propulsion system, were fired in 6 maneuvers to provide it the requisite velocity to leave Earth’s Sphere of Influence (SOI) (sphere of influence is roughly a huge sphere around earth in which Earth’s gravity is more than that of the sun. There are similar SOIs for every planet and moons) and follow a trajectory towards Mars. This process of igniting the 440 Newton engine of the spacecraft to make it leave Earth orbit and slowly move out of Earth’s SOI is called TransMars Injection (TMI) and India is only the 5th nation apart from US, Russia, EU and Japan to have achieved that.

The second and perhaps the standout technological achievement for ISRO will be the 3 levels of autonomy provided to Mangalyaan once they work effectively throughout the duration of the mission. When Mangalyaan is at Mars, any signal will take a little above 20 minutes to travel from Earth to Mangalyaan and vice-versa. Thus there’s a 42 minute delay in a command from earth to reach back Mangalyaan after Mangalyaan sends any signal about any glitch or change required in maneuvering the craft when it is near Mars or in Mars orbit. Thus the 3 level autonomy has ensured that all necessary mission tasks at various stages be completed by Mangalyaan itself once it is at substantially huge distances from Earth without needing commands from Earth especially when the craft is close to Mars or in Mars orbit.
Now, achieving the above technological capabilities in carrying out complex navigation in deep space, orbital raising/lowering maneuvers and system autonomy achieved by PSLV during MOM will be critical assets for India to be a major player in the emerging global space industry which is the 2nd piece in the jigsaw puzzle justifying the credibility of MOM and similar deep space missions for India. And herein lies the real motive behind this mission. In 2012, the global space economy size was $304 billion, a growth of 5% while the global satellite industry grew 7% clocking $190 billion in sales. Satellite launch industry revenues, which reflect revenues through launches made in an year, grew 35% year-on-year (yoy) from 2011 to 2012 with US revenues alone reaching $2.2 billion from $1.4 billion. Within the space industry, satellite manufacturing revenues, again portraying in-year satellites launched, rose 23% to $14.6 billion.

Since ISRO, has already made over 100 launches since its inception around 50 years ago, this is like missing out on the Great California Gold Rush despite being very close to the gold mines. ISRO has over 400 registered companies providing components and small parts to be used in various space based and ground level systems used in various missions and ground settlements of the agency. However, successive governments are still stuck in the socialist era mindset of restraining to unleash the commercial potential lying idle under the ‘pious’ aim of working for nation building and providing better life standards to the common people. As usual, our policymakers forget that huge productive assets have been created which can add massive value both in terms of India's own communication, earth observation and weather monitoring satellites and also providing massive services to other countries in areas like satellite launch/manufacturing and other space based services.

Until now, ISRO’s major workhorse, the Geo Synchronous Launch vehicle (GSLV) has developed its first variant, the GSLV Mk1 (a), (b) & (c) with Mk 1(a) & (b) having maximum load carrying capacities of 1500 kg and1900 kg respectively to Geosynchronous Orbit (this is the orbit in which communication satellites are placed). The first ever successful flight of GSLV took place in 2001 and it has had some success with 2 successful launches, one partial success and 2 failures. The second variant, GSLV Mk2, able to carry upto 2500 kg took 10 years to develop till 2010 for its first test flight but hasn’t had a successful commercial flight yet. The 3rd and latest variant GSLV Mk3, targeted to carry in excess of 4000-5000 kg is in development stages as of now. But, the GSLV Mk1 & Mk2 cannot place heavier communication satellites generally used across the globe. However that’s not the case with PSLV.

GSLV MkIII mock-up; Courtesy: ISRO

As per a Euroconsult report in 2009, a Paris based research & analyst firm, over 76% of all communication satellites (not other categories of satellites) to be launched in the period 2012-2018 weigh over 3500 kg which means India still doesn’t possess the proven launch capability to cater to that market but can target the remaining 24% with its GSLV Mk 1 variants. But, as per Euroconsult, there would have been 951 satellites (earth, weather observation, navigation etc.) in the sub-1900kg category to be launched in the period 2009-2018 as per declared private and government programs. All these can be carried by PSLV which has already had 23 successful launches till date in the sub-1900 kg category.

To what extent have we lost because of our government & policymakers’ innate desire to rarely look beyond the 2-3 year election cycles (since major states’ elections happen almost every 2 years) can be gauged from the fact that average satellite costs for this decade (2010-2019) is estimated at $99 million with average launch price at $51 million. 5 years have passed in that 10 year time period. So, around half of that market might be already captured by now and remaining would soon be gone. 

I will dedicate an entirely separate blog post to the total commercial opportunity available in global space industry in future and how India and China fit into the picture and to what extent India has lost its way to the space goldmines despite being so close in last few years. But, as far as MOM is concerned, just like innumerable spinoff space technologies became ubiquitous in our daily lives, in what unfathomable ways will deep space navigation and system autonomy capabilities going to find applications in various fields where the masses will benefit remain undiscovered.

And that's where the issues of relevance and usefulness which I mentioned in the early part of this article gain ground. But until we take those small steps, we’ll never get to take the giant leap. But to wait to bask in the glory of an elusive utopian state where the state will first provide toilets, drinking water and power to every head in the soon to be most populous nation on earth and then to think about investing in new age science and technology is nothing but a self defeatist ideology.

We have had atomic energy, space technology, mobile phones, internet and biotechnology which have served the entire population in bettering their lives some way or the other but we still haven’t provided toilets, drinking water and power to 40% of population. Simply because there is no accountability in the system to ensure where the allotted money for every field is going and not because $73 million has been robbed off from a ‘forever poor’ Indian’s would be toilets and packed in bags to orbit around Mars.  

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Uttarakhand & Himalayan Destruction - Environmental Science has the Answers

(2nd article in my series on Himalayan & Uttarakhand's environmental destruction after my previous post on August 04, 2013) 

Environmental Costs Equal Lives of Poor

The recent disaster in Uttarakhand where more than 6000 people lost their lives has been portrayed as a ‘natural disaster’ by the state and central governments and by some sections of media but, in reality, its nature’s first major counter strike against our country’s incessant mindless destruction of the most diverse yet one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet in the name of development.

In the wake of the current disaster, it is critical not just for real sustainable development of the mountain states of India but more so for the very survival of the people living in the Himalayas to avoid any plausible similar disaster from happening in the future but also highlight and continuously reduce the long term environmental costs that are, both literally and metaphorically, never borne by the perpetrators who enjoy the so called ‘fruits’ of development in the Himalayas.

One simple example out of many which proves my point – In Lodhama region of Darjeeling district of West Bengal, the state government partnered with some MNC to develop a Mini-Hydel power project under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). CDM is an emissions trading scheme under Kyoto Protocol in which, if a project is emitting less pollutants than a baseline value (as calculated from emissions of other similar projects), then the emissions that were not emitted are given as credits to that company which has invested in the project. These credits can then be traded in the carbon trading markets.

So, while this Darjeeling based project made money for its owner company through power generated, they also earned carbon credits for some other MNC which has the go ahead for continuing to pollute (as has been the case with numerous CDM projects which on the ground never make actual emission reductions), the locals who have the first right on the natural wealth have got no share of the electricity generated from the project. At the same time, water diverted from the stream has crippled crops grown nearby and biodiversity of the stream (ruining small fishermen). Imagine the impact on the locals with the poorest earning just Rs.8/day.

The Neglected Science

(most of the environmental science issues explained in this section is the summary of an enlightening discussion I had with India's preeminent geologist Prof. K.S. Valdiya some time back)

The landmass of the present day Indian subcontinent is pushing against mainland Asian landmass consisting especially of the Tibetan Plateau at a rate of 5cm/year. Thus, the Himalayas, on average, are rising by 5mm/year. Active fault lines as deep as 20 miles at places exist wherein rock layers push with intense force against each other. Thus, unregulated blasting and tunneling activity through the rocks for diverting river courses is severely disturbing the surface layers of soil consisting of trees and other vegetation which are unstable and have settled on the slopes only in last some decades. Thus, the first major rainfall is a perfect recipe for landslides. That is exactly what happened during the once in a generation cloudburst that occurred during 15-17 June 2013. And, the mushrooming of dam projects including operating, under construction and proposed ones in Indian Himalaya is the most lethal combination. 

Because of the active geological fault lines, explosive activity has been a catalyst for increased seismic activity resulting in greater probability of earthquakes. Already there are numerous examples (sometimes hidden by the local administration) wherein, walls of houses and hotels have collapsed and cracks have occurred in many more structures in villages and towns nearest to the blasting and mining sites even due to minor tremors. We must remember that Uttarakhand and much of Himachal Pradesh lie in either Seismic Zone 4 or the worst, Seismic Zone 5 meaning highest probability of large earthquakes.

Millions of tonnes of rubble generated due to massive excavation both for tunneling and road construction is indiscriminately dumped in the river beds (since developers save on costs of removing and transporting the millions of tonnes of rubble to safe dumping grounds, mother nature bears the costs). Thus, the volume of the river bed is severely reduced on the side of the dumping. Hence, during rainy season, the river charts out a new course with huge force and starts cutting the opposite slope from the base moving upwards thereby triggering land slide tendencies on both the slopes. Now, since rampant unregulated construction (homes, hotels and restaurants) happened all along the river banks totally neglecting dangerous flood marks, thousands of such constructions were washed away during the June floods.

Many agricultural and local flora based livelihood lands were lost due to flood waters crossing all previous highest flood levels during the Uttarakhand tragedy. Similarly, the rubble and the diversion of rivers due to tunnels have massively reduced the irrigation capacity of many downstream agricultural areas that were fed for millennia by the rivers’ natural flow. This has nearly destroyed local fisheries and aquatic life based industries apart from affecting the freshwater resources of communities at various altitudes all along the river basin.

Dam and real estate construction was and is being done on slopes where the top soil layers are already loose due to deforestation and thus, are easy to excavate making construction less expensive as against tougher and socially isolated rocky terrains. Thereby, explosive activity and digging coupled with deforestation all act as perfect catalysts for landslides. Secondly, another long term damaging effect of deforestation and tunneling is that the rainwater seeps in through the barren slopes and eroded soil in these tunnels. Consequently, natural water resources like numerous springs which have served the local village population for centuries have dried up in the last 15-20 years coinciding with massive dam construction and deforestation. Villages in many Himalayan districts have been facing a severe water crisis in the last 15 years or so.

The perpetration of this slow destruction isn’t restricted to land and water. Dams are a major source of Methane gas which is a bigger heat trapping greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A recent study by an international research institution categorically stated that India’s current dam density is the highest source of global warming as compared to all other countries in the world. However, the biggest alarm bells have been rung by a very famous research study published early in 2013 which stated that India’s predicted dam density in terms of dams per kilometer of river length after the proposed dams are built will be 62 times the world average. This will submerge 170,000 hectare of forests and affect nearly 90% of Himalayan valleys and 27% of those dams will affect dense forests with unique biodiversity.

The Establishment’s Tawdry Muck

On the governance front, there has been a complete lack of a Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA) of dam and hydroelectric projects and the existing system of Environmental Impact Assessment under the Environment Act is carried out by voluntarily appointed environment auditors which lack credibility and there is negligible or zero local community involvement anywhere both in terms of getting clean chit from the locals and providing them alternate means of livelihood and homes.

However, the road to stopping this rampant plundering of our greatest natural wealth seems ready to be broken even before it’s built. As per the Supreme Court directive issued in August this year, the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) was to form an expert committee to investigate and come out with a report on the cumulative impact of all existing as well as proposed hydel projects in Uttarakhand. The committee was formed last month and no guesses, it consists of numerous government officials and 2 senior members of the former Expert Appraisal Committee (see my previous blog post dated August 04, 2013) of the MoEF, the same ‘clique’ that cleared more than 250 hydel projects across Himalayas since April 2007 and did not stop a single one for any environmental flaw or disregard. And this committee which has been directed by MoEF to come out with its report within 3 months, to cover more than 30 projects and asses each one of them separately, this committee sure will do an ‘expert’ job with no conflict of interest!!

The Panacea & Potential for Green Growth

In the short to medium term, the first step that must be taken should be the consolidation of existing settlements governed through land-use planning rather than unplanned growth of new ones. Secondly, flow paths for river beds and flood plains must be clearly demarcated and regulation zones put in place to protect them. For example, the entire watershed of the Bhagirathi river for the 135km stretch between Gaumukh and Uttarkashi must be declared as an eco-sensitive zone as per the EPA, 1986. The draft River Regulation Zone (RRZ) notification, that controls hotels and townships constructed along the river, lying in some dusty drawer in the MoEF, must be immediately notified.

India suffers from 35% transmission and distribution losses which can be reduced to the global average of less than 20% if only a little political will can be applied and civil society needs to highlight this on every possible forum and platform. Secondly, there are numerous examples of villages and communities not just across the globe but in India as well where small and micro hydel projects provide electricity to the nearby villages and communities ensuring economic development and negligible environmental impact.

Then, the concepts of green development or ecopreneurship applied to the Himalayan states must be implemented. This includes mainly 2 areas - creating sustainable employment opportunities in the areas of watershed development, horticulture and floriculture based industries AND valuation of ecosystem services like the carbon absorption capacity and water retention capacity of forests which is a huge long term cost not accounted for when such forest areas are removed.  

Solar and wind power have massive potential not just in plains and coastal areas but also in the sunny sides and windy slopes of Himalayas which is a natural resource for us that has never even been studied or experimented with. Thus, there are scientific solutions available which can be applied both in the Himalayas as well as in the plains and other geographic areas to drastically reduce the impact of current destructive model and almost change it completely in the long term.