Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Active December

      It could be a action-filled month with regards to space and astronomy.

      First, if all is a `go' the three-stage indigenous Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) powered with a Russian cryogenic engine carrying the GSat-5p communication satellite is slated for launch between December 10 and 20. The original launch window was from December 10 to December 15.

      The India-made GSat-5p satellite weighing approx 2300 kgs, having a 12-year life span, has 24 normal c band transponders and 12 extended c-band transponders. Its role: to augment tv and telecommunication services. The satellite will replace the ageing Insat-2e satellite.

      The G-Sat-5p will be positioned in the geostationary orbit 36,000 kms above the equator.

      After this Isro can launch just one more GSLV with a Russian cryogenic engine. Following the final GSLV mission with a Russian engine, space experts wonder when the next launch of this rocket will be scheduled because it will be powered with an indigenous cryogenic engine. The maiden attempt to launch a GSLV with an Indian engine flopped in on April 15, 2010. Isro chief, K. Radhakrishnan, announced that day that within a year a GSLV will fly with an indigenous engine. This means that it will lift off between March and April 2011.

      Will Isro be able to adhere to this schedule?

       Another event which can occur this month is the launch of the final flight of Nasa's space shuttle ``Discovery,'' to the International Space Station. The earlier date fixed for the mission was December 17,2010. But in view of the huge amount of repairs which have to be carried out the shuttle's external tank following a series of cracks, Nasa officials are doubtful about launching the shuttle on that date.  Speculation is rife in space circles that the status will turn green for lift only in February 2011.

       On the astronomy front, the month will witness the annual Gemenid meteor showers and a lunar eclipse.

        Will announce the dates soon.

Mumbai goes to the moon

  On Monday morning, ``Beyond Moon and Mars, (BMM)'' was among the hundreds of visitors, mostly drivers in white uniforms with placards, hotel reps and a few family members, standing in the arrival zone of the swanky and renovated terminal 1a of Mumbai airport at Santa Cruz. The information board provided the updated flight data, Except for an extremely brief moment, there was a constant flow of pax from the arrival hall, most of them talking on their mobile,

  Spontaneously they, were received by the drivers and hotel reps who immediately grabbed the baggage trolleys and escorted their guests to the vehicles. This is has now become a mechanical process! Some had come with just a lap top to give a presentation and return by their evening flight. There was sense of excitement in the area because three sports people who had won medals at the Asian games had arrived and were giving bytes to the electronic media. 

   The time was 9.25 a.m. and the person whom I had come to receive from Hyderabad should be coming out any moment. But there was no sign of him. Though we are constantly in touch on the telephone,or e mail, this was the first time I was meeting him and I was looking forward to shaking hands with him. Wait, you will know who he is.

    The indicator showed that the Air India flight from Hyderabad was 30 minutes behind schedule. At 10.10 a.m., it said that the flight had finally landed. Five and 10 minutes passed and there was no sign of my friend from Hyderabad. Has he, by chance, missed the flight? Twenty minutes--where is my friend? A panic situation prevaled and I called my good friend, Dhaval Desai, of the prestigious think tank,Observer Research Foundation, and explained the situation. I started breaking into a cold sweat because I was wondering what would be the fate of the evening presentation by my friend organised by the foundation. 

   I tried reaching my friend from Hyderabad on the cell, but it was futile. The enterprising Dhaval atlast managed to access him---he was still inside the aircraft because the plane had not yet reached the parking bay! After several attempts I too at last got to speak to him Yes, he was waiting to disembark!  What a relief!

    I waited and waited and there he was---at last! He is none other than Syed Maqbool Ahmed, the man behind the discovery of water and carbon diaxide on the moon by Chandrayaan-1. He was the project manager of an instrument known as Chace (Chandra Altitudunal Composition Explorer) on board the 30-kg Moon Impact Probe (MIP) of Chandrayaan-1 which crash landed on the south pole region of the moon on the night of November 14,2008. Chace discovered water and CO2 during the MIP's 22-minute flight to the moon after it separated from the mother craft. It had made this sensational discovery even before the other scientific instruments of Chandrayaan-1 had become operational, I felt honoured to shake hands with him. What a moment.

    I know Syed likes to interact with students. So while driving out of the airport, I called my wife Usha, and inquired whether we could drop in for a few minutes at her office, Muktangan a NGO. Muktangan is partnering with the muncipal corporation in running schools. It was a tough day for Usha because she had an open day at Rimanika's (my daughter) school which is JB Petit. Honestly I am scared of these open days! Also she had to attend to our car's insurance. Despite this she said yes, and we went to her office at Worli en route home. 

    Usha introduced all her colleagues, including Sunil Mehta, managing trustee, Paragon Charitable Trust-Muktangan, to Syed. They seemed pretty thrilled and excited meeting the very person who is credited with discovering water and carbon diaxide on the moon through the Chandrayaan-1 mission. After spending a few minutes in the office, accompanied by Usha's helpful colleague, Kinjal, we went to the nearby Globe Mill Passage School which is backed by BMC and Muktangan.

     It was at this moment that Mumbaikars--both young and old--were rocketed to the moon on Monday--a day which one will never forget.

     Originally, Syed was supposed to interact with the youngsters and teachers only for a few moments, but it stretched to nearly 45 minutes. They put a variety of questions to him--about the moon, planets, human space flight and related areas--and he patiently answered all their questions. Pointing to the image of the MIP on my T-shirt he explained the role of this instrument in the Chandrayaan-1 mission. This T-shirt which Rimanika ordered for my birthday certainly had an educational role! Syed was extremely happy with the quality of the questions. A school volunteer, Sanjana Sheth, incidentally a ex-JB ite, came out of the room and asked Syed questions while we were leaving, which he answered in detail. ``The questions were wonderful. They are so intelligent and enthusiastic,'' he told Kinjal.

     From the school to my home in Breach Candy where I introduced him to Rimanika, showed him all that I had connected with Chandrayaan-1 mission---video recordings, books and posters. I also showed him Neil Armstrong's autograph on one of my books about the Apollo 11 mission---``First On The Moon.'' Syed was nice enough to copy his evening presentation about Chandrayaan and Chace to my computer. Thank u Syed. 

    I then took the moonman to lunch at a restaurant close home called ``The Sun.!'' While walking to the restaurant, he telephoned Pradeep Mohandas, my good friend, and secretary of India chapter of Moon Society. Syed was keen that Pradeep should attend his presentation because he writes an informative blog and has a good knowledge of the developments in the space sector. But unfortunately he could not make it because he has to appear for an examination on December 1. All the best Pradeep. Better luck next time!

   A quick vegetarian lunch and we were back home, Briefly showed him the dvd ``The Moon Wtihin Reach,---the Chandrayaan-1 Saga Continuos'' produced by an organisation which is an afflilate of Isro.Syed could only copy part of it on his pen drive,  It was brief because we had to leave for the ppt at the Observer Research Foundation. The time was around 3.30 p.m.

    On the way to the foundation's office, located in the NKM International House at Backbay Reclamation, we stopped at the Saraswathi Temple near JB Petit High School and introduced Syed to the priest who is a good friend of mine. He was certaintly thrilled to see Syed.

      We reached ORF around 4.30 p.m.and met its chairman, the extremely affable Sudheen Kulkarni, in his office. Later, after the ppt Sudheen had an interesting story as to how the mission was named Chandrayaan--none of us knew this aspect. He has worked with former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee and was at the Red Fort on August 15,2003, when he made the grand announcement about the Indian moon mission and christened it, ``Chandrayaan.''  I plan to interview Sudheen about this and write a blog.

    Syed was happy to meet his former colleague from University of Hyderabad, Leena, who introduced him to the audience, after a curtain raiser by Sudheen. The guests included director of Nehru Science Centre, Anil Manekar, who readily agreed to preside over the function, and Nehru Planetarium director, Piyush Pandey.  

    In his ppt at the ORF Syed justified the Rs 386-crore Indian lunar mission, saying it had led to a lot engineering and technological spin offs, created new business opportunities for Isro’s commercial arm, Antrix Corporation, placed India on par with other global space powers, rejunuvated the mind of the younger generation, triggered a feeling of national pride and was the first step towards embarking on a mission to Mars.

  Also Chandrayaan-1 was the world’s first global effort in launching a mission to the moon, he said. Apart from the five Indian instruments there were six from abroad—two from Nasa, three from the European Space Agency and one from Bulgaria.

  The man behind India’s sensational discovery of water on the moon, said that benefits of the Chandrayaan-1 mission included the availability of spectacular three-d images of the moon and moon mineralogy maps at a five-metre resolution. The audience saw the moon first at a 100 km distance, then 40 kms and finally as close as 25 kms when its craters and other features were clearly visible. The pictures were taken by a camera on board the MIP. Nehru Science Centre, Anil Manekar, remarked: ``We really felt we had gone to the moon and come back safely tonight.’’

  According to Syed one of the important benefits of the Chandrayaan-1 mission was that it had completely scotched suggestions that Nasa’s Apollo manned flights to the moon were faked. ``Such rumours were spread in bad spirit by some eccentric people,’’ he said. ``The Terrain Mapping Camera of Chandrayaan-1 had taken shots of the descent stage of Apollo’s lunar module,’’ he said.

  He attributed the success of Chandrayaan-1 to what he called unbiased selection of projects, a thorough assessment of these projects by experts and more importantly the freedom given to junior team members to freely question their seniors ignoring hierarchy if they had any doubt. ``This is an important aspect of Isro’s work culture which has resulted in the success of many of its missions,’’ he told the audience.

  Referring to the discovery of water on the moon, he said while Nasa’s two payloads on board Chandrayaan-1, the Moon Minerology Mapper and the Mini-Sar used remote sensing methods to detect water, the indigenous Chace on the other hand employed direct measurement which in plain terms meant that it was the actual sampling of the lunar environment.

  According to him one of the reasons behind the success of Chace is because of meticulous planning by the design team in setting the instrument parameters in such a way that the equipment was kept in its ``highest sensitive regime.’’ ``This helped in overcoming the failures faced in earlier attempts employing similar mass spectrometer-based observations by Apollo-era experiments,’’ he  stated.

   Prior to launch the Chace instrument was subjected to severe vibration tests because it had to withstand 22gs during lift off by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) at Sriharikota.

   At the end I had dinner with Syed at the Chaitanya Tower guest house at Prabhadevi not far from the Siddhivinayak Temple, and left for home around 10 p.m.

    It was a memorable day. Thank U ORF for giving me this opportunity!      

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Italy--not just pizzas and pastas, But also rockets and satellites.

         Italy is not just about pizzas and pastas. But it is also about rockets and satellites.

        Recently, ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM)'' has embarked on a mission of making the unknown, the known. What does it mean?  It has started highlighting the achievements of space agencies which do not receive much publicity like for example, Nasa. Recently, Rosa, the Romanian Space Agency, figured in this blog.  Today it is the turn of Italy which launched into the space era in 1964 resulting in the formation of the Italian Space Agency in 1988.

        According to the Italian Space Agency, the nation's space adventure started at Nasa's Wallop's Island in the US. Incidentally, it was at this centre where Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and some other Indian rocket scientists received their initial training in the sounding rocket programme.

        Italy actually entered the space era with the launch of the San Marc satellite in December 1964 for studying the earth's atmosphere. This was a colloborative project between the University of Rome and Nasa. With this launch, Italy became the third country in the world after the former Soviet Union and the US to launch its own satellite.

        Following the formation of the Italian Space Agency, Italy has become one of the major players in the field of space sciences, satellite technologies and development of systems for exploring the universe. While a global space power like India is still debating whether it join the 17-member International Space Station, Italy is a participant through Leonardo, a logistics module, and also the interconnecting element between the space station's labs.

        Over the years, Italy has launched satellites for observing the earth relating to environmental monitoring and security.

        As a part of its international colloboration, an Italian satellite, ``Agile,''  dedicated to the critical field of astrophysics, was launched by Isro's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) on April 23, 2007. For the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn launched on October 15,1997, it developed the antennas.

        In 2013-14, the European Space Agency is launching the Beppi Colombo mission to Mercury. Again Italy will be on it with four experiments.

        Italy is spreading its wings deep into space and perhaps someday will launch its own flight to Moon and Mars. It has the capability. The countdown has started. Let us wait for this day. It is not far off.

        Italy therefore is not just about pizzas and pastas. It is also about rockets and satellites.


Hylas launch

   Another big event for India's space programme.                       

   On Saturday at 9 a.m. (IST) an advanced communication satellite HYLAS (Highly Adaptable Satellite),
built by ISRO in partnership with EADS-Astrium of Europe, was successfully launched by the European Ariane-5 rocket. The launch took place from the Guyana Space Centre at Kourou in French

   As the rocket thundered off the launch pad, the space scientists broke into an applause. And 35 minutes after its lift-off, HYLAS separated from the rocket after reaching the Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO).

    According to Isro officials, the Master Control Facility (MCF) at Hassan in Karnataka successfully received radio signals transmitted by HYLAS which indicated that the satellite's health is

    HYLAS satellite developed for Avanti Communications, UK consists of ten
high power transponders that use eight in Ka and two in Ku band frequencies.  The satellite is designed to deliver high-speed broadband services through its spot beams over Europe.

   The contract for building of satellite was won in the year 2006 after competing along other leading manufacturers of USA and Europe.

   Astrium had the responsibility for overall program management and delivery
of the communications payload and Antrix/ISRO provided the satellite bus
and also performed the satellite integration and testing at ISRO's
facility in Bangalore.

  HYLAS satellite weighing 2541 kg at lift-off is
the heaviest satellite built by ISRO for I-2K bus capable of operating for
over 15 years mission life as demanded by the customer.  The satellite's
solar panels generate a maximum of about        3200 Watts of power.

  Antrix/ISRO is also responsible for the post launch operations of HYLAS,
which are being conducted from the Master Control Facility, Hassan.  The
operations include firing of the satellite's Liquid Apogee Motor (LAM) in
three phases to place the satellite in geostationary orbit. The first
firing of LAM is scheduled for the early hours of November 28, 2010.

Friday, November 26, 2010

An unknown story about Chandrayaan's success

     ``You paid Rs 2,200 for the dvd,'' was the instant response of my good friend, Pradeep Mohandas, when I told him that I had brought the dvd of the famous film, ``The Dish,''  which is a fictionalised account of the role of the Parkes Observatory in Australia in the Apollo 11 mission. The high quality pics of the Neil Armstrong getting off the ladder of the lunar module and stepping on the surface of the moon, were indeed from this observatory.

     My reply to him was that if it was concerned with space, I do not mind paying such a huge the amount! After all this dvd is not readily available in the market. My search for the dvd on Thursday evening was prompted by a news given to me by a close friend that that the deep space network in Canberra in Australia had supported the Chandrayaan flight. I visited a new swanky dvd showroom at Kemps Corner, not far from where I stay, and inquired about the disc. The store keeper first said; ``Sorry.We do not have it."' But, then he clarified: ``I think we have it. Let me check.'' He checked his computer, and yes he had it.After a 15-minute search of all the shelves, he managed to locate it and gave it to me, but not before playing the first part in his system.

     On Friday,  I watched the nearly two-hour film on my computer. To say it was great would indeed be an understatement. The reason: it was absolutely superb and in all probability I may be seeing it again on Saturday night. I told Pradeep that it was certainly worth more than Rs 2,200 and he laughed.

     One of the scenes in the film depicts an animated conversation among the Parkes team during dinner which focussed on how many in the world would watch on TV, the first man on the moon. Some one rattled off figures. When it came to India, one of them said a lot of people would see it, ``but there is just one telly.' On hearing this everyone broke into laughter. There was a note of sarcasm in his answer because he clearly meant that India was a backward country with just one TV set!

    This was in July 1969  But in 2008 the situation changed and India has been acknowledged as an emerging space power and what better proof of this than the success of the Chandrayaan-1 mission?   
    ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM) has learnt that the Deep space network of Canberra, Australia was used by ISRO's Chandrayaan-1 lunar craft for maintainence. This is an hitherto unknown story of the Indian moon mission. Australians who in 1969 thought India was a backward nation, now supported its lunar programme! Truly there is a twist of irony in this development.

     Chandrayaan-1 lunar craft was designed for two years mission life. However some observations during he early phase of the mission time line called for the accelerated operations of the science instruments to accomplish the mission objectives in the shortest time frame.

      So, to operate the lunar craft on 24 X 7 basis, the support of Canberra station was sought by ISRO. The ready acceptance and the extented co-operation by the DSN operation crew enabled ISRO to operate Chandrayaan-1 lunar craft 24 X 7 basis. ``This ensured all the science instruments of Chandryaan-1 to deliver more than 7 TB of data covering the entire moon within an year. This was the secret behind the success of Chandryaan-1 even though the mission survived only 10 months,'' said an official.

    The support provided by Canberra station which was not originally planned prior to the start of the mission, has it's own share in the historical discovery of water on the lunar surface and lunar ice in the craters of lunar poles etc, says the official.

     Rs 2,200 for ``The Dish,'' was certainly worth it!


Thursday, November 25, 2010

IAA and Planetary robotic exploration

     Not many perhaps are aware that all these years there has been a rivalry between two of Nasa's key space centres--the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Pasadena in California, and the Johnson Space Centre at Houson which is dedicated to manned space flights.

     While the former has always insisted that unmanned interplanetary space probes have made a lot of new discoveries and attained scientific breakthroughs, and thus are better than manned space missions, the Houston team feels just the opposite.This controversy has raged for years and top officials of Nasa at the agency's HQ in Washington are also divided on this issue. In the opinion of ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM)'' while the Apollo manned missions to the moon between 1969 and 1972 were undoubtedly a great technogical feat, scientifically,however, were of little significance--a fact aknowledged by none other than Nasa itself. Also what was the real scientific gain by astronauts and cosmonauts visiting the International Space Station?

     It is in this context, that the equal importance given to human space flight as well as planetary robotic exploration at the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) conference on November 17 2010 in Washington assumes significance.

     BMM on Thursday had highlighted IAA's report about human space flight project. Today it is about planetary robotic exploration, though not in much detail.

     The report says: ``We have reached the stage at which our robotic explorers must be even more sophisticated and capable, and they must operate successfully in a wider range of environments throughout the solar system, if we are to answer the next set of compelling scientific questions, many of which are directed at the age-old question: ``Did life arise elsewhere outside the earth?''

      It says a programme of significantly expanded breadth and depth will be required that is well beyond the means of any given nation to pursue alone.

      According to the IAA document the robotic explorers ``should pave the way for expanded human exploration through attainment of critical knowledge of relevant destinations.''

      When it talks about life outside the earth, could it mean planets other than Mars? 

      This question needs to be answered.


     Sorry Discovery.

         The highly jinxed space shuttle ``Discovery's'' launch could be resked into Christmas or even February 2011.

         This has become necessary because of the massive repairs which have to be carried out to the shuttle's external tanks.

         The other factor which is upsetting the launch sked is the uncertain weather at the Kennedy Space Centre.

         When Discovery roars off the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Centre--whenever it is--be sure of a rousing send off! And also a grand welcome when it returns after 11 days. This will be its last mission---assuming of course that the shuttle does take off someday!!  

Navalgund and disaster management--at the Washington space summit

        None other than the director of the Ahmedabad-based Space Applications Centre, the very affable R.R.Navalgund, has made a critical assessment of the state of earth observation satellites during the heads of space agencies summit in Washington on November 17, 2010. It was orgnised by the International Academy of Astronautics to mark its 50th year.

        The thrust of his presentation was that there was a need to strengthen the constellation of earth observation satellites for monitoring disasters.

        Navalgund, who chaired the disaster management group at the Washington space summit, in his ppt made the following points. These are just few of them:-

        * Geostationary satellites provide data over large areas( eg 1/2 an hour) and are appropriate for detecting, monitoring and providing early warning for some of the meteorological disasters such as tropical cyclones. But, they do not provide adequate spatial and spectral resolution for most of the other disasters.

        * Satellites with microwave payloads provide information over cloud-covered regions. But, they are limited in number.

        * Constellation of satellites specifically designed for disaster management have been initiated by some space agencies. But, they are limited and need improvement. 
        * Satellites with specific payloads for early warning of natural disasters are few in number.

        * While earth observation data is helpful in mapping flood inundation,drought severity assessment, cyclone tracking and mitigation measures, lacunae exist in:-

        a----predicting the cyclone landfall point and intensity accurately.

        b----Flood forecasting in particular flash floods.

        ``Beyond Moon and Mars,'' has not reproduced the extremely informative and interesting ppt completely. It will do so in the coming days after studying them. But, the points made by Dr Navalgund which have been reproduced here are of extreme importance and significance and the authorities should respond to them.



Wednesday, November 24, 2010

India does it again

         Once again India has made its presence felt on the stars. And that too stars from different countries. This starry gathering (pl do not misunderstand it for either bollywood or hollywood)--far from it--was in Washington on November 17,2010. The occasion was the prestigious meeting of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA)  to mark the 50th year of the organisation.

        The one day international space meet saw the presence of 30 heads of space agencies, 500 academicians, world leaders and experts, India was represented in all the four groups--human space flight, robotic planetary exploration, disaster management and climate change. It was the heads of space agencies summit.

        None other than G.Madhavan Nair, former Isro chief, is in the commander's seat of the IAA--he is its  president. Nair arrived in Mumbai on Tuesday night from Washington after the attending the conference, and attempts to reach him immediately failed because ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM), forgot to take his mobile for a dinner meeting. But BMM managed to reach him at Mumbai airport early on Wednesday morning when Nair was boarding a flight for Bangalore and speak to him for a few minutes.

        A point of signficance was that India had played a key role in framing the final reports relating to all the four groups. This according to him was nothing, but a clear endorsement of India's status as an emerging space power.

        Since the human space flight document had emphasised about the importance of the 17-member International Space Station (ISS), Nair said the IAA will play a catalystic role in making India a part of the space station. ``Though we cannot play an executor's role, we will lobby with the government regarding the advantage of India becoming a part of the ISS,'' he said. He recalled the US deputy secretary of state, James Steinberg, who represented secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, at the conference welcomed more countries participating in the ISS, especially India.

        A conference document states: ``Just as Russia joining the International Space Station was a powerful symbol of the end of the Cold War, so too would be the joining of China, India and others with the ISS partners in a co-operative effort to explore the moon, near earth objects and Mars, be a powerful symbol of hope for the 21st century.''

       Remember what present Isro chairman, K.Radhakrishnan had said on September 27,2010 at the International Astronautical Congress in Prague?--There were no plans of India joining the ISS. It was an evolving process.'' What happened during the visit of President Barack Obama to India? He and PM Manmohan Singh issued a joint statement on November 7,2010 and one of the points was that India and the US will continue discussions regarding this country joining the ISS! When this contridiction was mentioned in The Times of India by BMM, Radhakrishnan got upset!

       The conference declaration states that ``human mission to mars are the long term goal of space exploration. Keeping this in view IAA has recommended continuing to support the work of the International Space Exploration Co-ordination Group which is formulating plans for global space exploration efforts.''

      Some of the other points of the space summit declaration:-

      * Acknowledge the need of maintaining human space  exploration in low earth orbit, and of extending it in a stepwise approach to those destinations where humans may one day live and work eg moon and near earth objects, building on carefully planned series of robotic precursor missions.

     * Recognise the importance of the International Space Station as an integral part of the exploration initiative and its utilisation for the benefit of all mankind.

     * Stress the importance of co-ordinating research on human factors in preparation for space missions beyond LEO (low earth orbit). LEO extends upto 2000 kms.

     * Acknowledge thce need to define an integrated public engagement plan to support a sustainable human exploration programme.

     * Invite new and emerging space faring nations to co-operate on human space flight activities in view of the benefits involved and in order to ensure that this becomes a global endeavour.

      It says:  ``The development of new capabilities of rising space powers like India and China will allow a global exploration programme with higher frequency and diversity of human exploration missions''

      The report says that ``Recent technological studies on human space flight scenarios have led to a proposal to the Indian government for a first manned mission in the 2016 time frame and an ambitious programme of human space flight to follow. The government has not yet accepted the proposal,'' it says.

      Nair said that while the government has approved the design and development of a man rated space capsule for the human spaceflight mission,t, Isro is awaiting the green signal in certain other areas connected with this project,

      Asked what is meant by ``ambitious programme of human spaceflight to follow,'' Nair said that conceptual studies were in progress for a manned mission to the moon and Mars by India around 2025. ``We have the capability,'' he added


Monday, November 22, 2010

Blooming space countries

        When it comes to talking or writing about space missions, what does one immediately think of?  Any guess? One is immediately reminded only of Nasa, the European Space Agency, the the Russian Space Agency, Chinese National Space Adminstration and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. Of course, sometimes India's Isro gets bracketed with this powerful group, since this country is now an acknowledged space power.

        Unfortunately, not much is really known about the space programmes of other smaller countries because they do not have the capacity to publicise their progress, though perhaps limited, like for example Nasa. Henceforth, therefore, periodically ``Beyond Moon and Mars,'' will attempt to highlight the achievements of those space agencies which are not much in the lime light.

        To begin with, how many are aware that Romania has its own space programme and is managed by the Romanian Space Agency? Again while much has been written about the numerous experiments which will  flyi in the final flight of space shuttle, ``Discovery,'' tentatively slated for December 3,2010, to the International Space Station (ISS), do you know that a project of the Romanian Space Agency is also a part of this much-delayed mission?

        According to the agency, the Romanian experiment has been created for the ISS by the Romanian Institute For Space Science. The experiment deals with the survival of coloured fungi in space. It is an experiment designed to determine the effect of microgravity and cosmic radiation on the growth and survival of coloured fungi species.

       The Romanian Space Agency also called Rosa was first established in 1991 and reorganised by a government decision in 1995. Since its inception is has undertaken a number of space projects having both national and international interests. The international projects have been designed and developed under the authority of the European Space Agency, the European Commission and the United Nations.

       Rosa colloborated with the Romanian minstry of defence, ministry of foreign affairs, ministry of agriculture and environment, ministry of interior, ministry of telecommunications and IT and also the Romanian Intelligence Service.

       Romania became a full member of the European Space Agency this year and participates in its missions.

      God Speed Romania.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sail Sail all the way! US follows Japan.


       The US has followed Japan with regards to demonstrating solar sail experiment.

       At about 7 a.m. (IST) on Saturday a 78-foot tall Minotour-4 rocket lifted from the Kodiak launch zone in Alaska carrying seven satellites with 16 experiments.

       One of the experiments related to the demonstration of an innovative solar sail experiment which will evaluate new propulsion technologies. The cost of this project? Less than a million dollar.

       Designated as the NanoSail-D mission, the project envisages a 100 square foot polymer sail being unfurled from a satellite which will be the size of a loaf of bread. The 8.5 pound sail will harness light pressure from the sun to change its orbt, which will reduce the craft's speed, lowering its orbit and burning up in the earth's atmosphere, according to SpaceFlight Now.

       According to the website, solar sails do not generate much thrust. But, they propel lightweight spacecraft long distances into the solar system for years and months. A Japanese solar sail mission, launched on May 21, 2010, is on its way to Venus.

      The NanoSail-D is packed inside a larger Nasa spacecraft called Fastsat--Fast Affodable,Science and Technology. Either on November 27 or a few days later NanoSail-D will be spring ejected from Fastsat. Shaped like a rectangular prism, NanoSail-D will orbit the earth at an altitude of about 400 miles.

       Depending upon the atmospheric conditions, NanoSail-D will remain in orbit between 70 and 120 days.

       Scientists connected with this project have been quoted as saying that the advantage of such a mission is that has what is known as an ``enabling capability for quick response science.'' Dean Alhorn, principal investigator of NanoSail-D says ``it will give us an understanding how solar cells operate.''


Zooming into secrecy--powerful US spy satellite launched.

      Launch complex 37 Cape Canaveral, Florida: 4.30 a.m. (IST) Monday November 22: ``T-10-9-8-7-6-ignition sequence start, 3-2-1, engines running, commit and lift off! Lift off of the Delta-4 heavy rocket, guarding America's security with another critical satellite launch for the National Reconnaissance Office.''

      When the countdown hit the zero mark, a mighty powerful rocket lifted off the launch pad with an awesome roar which reverberated all over the launch zone. Its mission: to place in orbit a spy satellite code named NROL-32. It is such a secretive project that even the NRO website does not have any information about it.

      Described as the world's largest satellite, its primary role is to monitor communication of those nations which are not considered friendly to the US. The Delta-4 of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) is stated to be the US's biggest unmanned rocket. The NRO operates intelligence-gathering satellites.

      The eavesdropping satellite will be placed in the geo synchronous orbit at an altitude of 22.300 miles above the equator. According to Spaceflight Now, on reaching its designated home in the geo synchronous orbit, it will unfurl an light but huge antenna shaped like an umbrella to monitor enemy communications. The massive antenna will span upto 328 feet and can be compared to the size of a football field.  It is also equipped with sensitive radio receivers.

       ULA and the USAF had earlier scheduled the launch last Thursday, but it got postponed on account of technical problems. Technical issues once again resulted in the launch being scrubbed on Friday. Finally, the rocket took off early on Monday morning (IST). 

       A space website ``Spaceports blogspot.com'' has reproduced a Youtube video of the launch.

       Space-related websites have carried some bits of information about this top secret mission by contacting unofficial sources. By and large data provided by them is accurate. ``Beyond Moon and Mars'' is not surprised that no further information available about the satellite.

        According to Spaceflight Now, this was the 351st Delta launch since the programme's maiden flight in 1960, the 14th mission of a Delta-4 and the fourth one by the most powerful Delta-4 heavy configuration rocket.


The day which launched India though in a small way into the space age.

        THUMBA: NOVEMBER 21 1963:   Forty-seven years ago today a huge crowd of space scientists had gathered at this picturesque rocket launching station near Thiruvanathanapuram airport for an important space event which was to take place in the evening.

         At twilight, the first rocket from an Indian soil would be lifting off. There was a lot of excitement, understandbly mixed with a feeling of nervous apprehension. The scientists, which included APJ Abdul Kalam, were waiting for the big historical moment.

        Dusk was setting and as the countdown clock was nearing the zero mark, there was a lot of excitement in Thumba and Tamilnadu.

        T-0 and we are a go for launch. At this point the grand moment arrived. A two-stage Nike-Apache sounding rocket supplied by Nasa thundered off the launch pad triggering a loud round of applause among those who had gathered to witness the launch. In a way India had entered the space age at that very moment. A sounding rocket is used for carrying out atmospheric studies.

        As this rocket lifted off, the Kerala Legislative Assembly was adjourned for a few minutes to allow its members to witness the grand take off. The two-stage rocket, weighing 715 kg, powered by solid propellants rose to an altitude of 208 kms, releasing sodium vapour which lit up the sky, Former Isro chairman, Madhavan Nair, who was standing on the roof of the building of the engineering college at Kolathoor remarked: ``It was a proud moment. There was a trail of sodium vapour. It was a remarkable sight for younsters like me,'' he said   APJ Abdul Kalam was among those present during the launch.

       E.V.Chitnis, who was a part of the rocket team called the launch as an international effort. The Nike Apache rocket was from Nasa, the sodium vapour payload was French and the range clearance was provided by an MI-4 helicopter, a product of the former Soviet Union and of course the rocket and payload engineers were from India.      

      The mating of the rocket and the payload was carried out at the St.Mary Magdelene's Church in Thumba. The mission was not trouble-free. There were problems in integrating the payload, but they were sorted out.

      For example,there were hitches while integrarting the payload with the rocket. But, they were resolved. The project was a mixture of the past and present  The space age components were ferried to the launch complex, not by a modern vehicle, but a bullock cart.

     The launch of this Nasa-supplied rocket opened the way for new chapters in Indian space history eventually culminating in Chandrayaan-1, India's first mission to the moon.

     How may are aware of this? Not many, It is a story from the St Mary Magdelene's Church to the moon which began today----November 21, 1963,

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Voice From Shanghai

          My wife, Usha, visited Shanghai twice this year in a span of eight months on an official assignment, and has been full of happy memories about her trip. As far as I am concerned, the closest I got to Shanghai was on Thursday evening thanks to my good friends, Sudheen Kulkarni and Dhaval Desai, of the Observer Research Foundation at the Backbay Reclamation at the end of Marine Drive. My access to Shanghai was made possible thanks to a superb and very informal talk by an Indian journalist, Bivash Mukherjee, about China, Shanghai and related topics. Bivash has lived in Shanghai for the last 20 years.

         His speech, which was preceded by a film about Tagore in China, triggered a lively q-and-a session. The nearly 30-minute film was made by Bivash. The hall was packed to the capacity.

         On that day I did not get much of an opportunity to interact with Bivash because even after his talk, he was mobbed by several members of the audience who were curious to know more about China. I, therefore, telephoned him the on Friday afternoon and briefly interviewed him on my favourite topic---space.

         Bivash, a veteran China watcher, believes that there is a race to the moon between India and China. ``Yes, that is the perception and I think this is something quite inevitable. What India does, China will do and what China does India will do,'' he told ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM).''

         ``Space creates a huge feeling of pride. It is this feeling of pride which drives China to attempt a manned landing on the moon,'' he said. Told that China is planning to go in for human lunar landing in 2020, Bivash replied: ``Do not be surprised if they do it in 2019.'' His earlier statement is significant because India has not totally ruled out the possibility of a manned lunar landing around 2020.

         About the fantastic coverage given to the Chang'e-2 mission on China TV's website, Bivash said that their capacity was fantastic. ``I know that India has a great space programme and its mission to the moon was a success. But, I think that they need more publicity in the Chinese media,'' Bivash stated.

         The Chinese space programme is of great interest to space addicts like me. That is why each time Usha goes to Shanghai I ask her to get me a model of the moon which was manufactured and sold during China's first mission to the moon. ``Chang'e-1''  as a part of the public outreach project, But,with her tight sked she has not been able to locate the model. I hope she is lucky the next time she goes to Shanghai and gets me the model!

         It was a great interaction with Bivash and I hope I have more of this in the days ahead.

         Thank you Sudheen. Thank you Dhaval.

         Thank you Observer Research Foundation. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

International Academy of Astronautics----50 years and counting

        On November 17, an important space event was held in Washington which marked 50 years of the prestigious International Academy of Astronautics, which is headed by former Isro chief Madhavan Nair.

        The academy was founded in 1960 by famous space pioneers like Von Braun, Von Karman, Oberth, Sanger, Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong.

        Called the ``Heads of Space Agencies Summit,'' India is represented, not by Isro chairman, K.Radhakrishnan, but director of the Ahmedabad-based Space Applications Centre, R.R.Navalgund and associate director, Kiran Kumar. Their centre is playing a key role in the design and development of a number of key components relating to the Chandrayaan-2 mission slated for lift off in 2013. The programme of the conference states that APJ Abdul Kalam was one of the key participants in the opening session.

        The focus of the meeting was on four specific areas. These were human space flight, planetary robotic exploration, climate change and disaster management. According to the sked, Jitendra Goswami, director of the Ahmedabad-based Physical Research Laboratory, is participating in a session related to the lunar exploration working group. In the human spaceflight programme, Ramakrishnan Sundaram, and Unnikrishnan Nair Sreedharan, have been mentioned.

        The primary aim of the meet is to reach a broad consensus on international co-operation and co-ordination. The academy wants to avoid any duplication of on-going efforts, but to foster closer and broader international co-ordination across the four topics.

         Where does India stand in this?

         ``Beyond Moon and Mars,'' will report about the delibrations of the conference as and when they are available.



Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The story of the solar system--Hayabusa particles

          On the night of June 13 2010 (IST), world space history was created when a spacecraft returned to earth carrying particles for the first time from an asteroid 300 million kms away--twice as far as the sun.

          The epoch-making mission called Hayabusa was operated by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) and it landed in an Australian desert. A Mumbai-born aerospace scientist, Shyam Bhaskaran, working at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, played a key role in navigating the spacecraft.

           Ever since the spacecraft zoomed back to earth, a team of Jap scientists have been analysing the particles brought back from the astroid called Itokowa, and have concluded that most of them were of extraterrestrial origin from Itokowa. Jaxa said that about 1500 grains were identified as rocky particles,were hard and green in colour.

          A further analysis of these tiny particles,whose size is less than 10 micrometers,is expected to throw light about the history of the solar system dating back to nearly 4.6 billion years ago. Celestial bodies are believed to retain material from the solar system's earliest days.

          According to Jaxa, handling these particles calls for special skills and techniques for which the space agency is developing methods and preparing the necessary equipment. The unmanned Hayabusa mission executed a precise touchdown on Itokowa five years ago.

          Japan's science and technology minister, Yoshiaki Tagaki, told mediapersons in Tokyo on Wednesday that it was the world's first and remarkable accomplishment since `` it brought home material from a celestial body other than the moon.''

         Junichiro Kawaguchi, Hayabusa project manager remarked: ``Hayabusa's return itself was like a dream and how could I describe what beyond a dream.'' Tomoki Nakamura, an associate professor of planetary science, who analysed the particles has been quoted as saying: ``When I saw the crystal, I pumped my fist in my mind in triumph.''

         The particles will be sent to other labs and universities all over the world for further studies, including Nasa. The Hayabusa mission also demonstrated the success of the ion engine technology which will power  future deep space missions.

         Hayabusa-2 is slated for launch in 2013.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Flying with Chang'e-2

        On Monday night just before I switched off, I accessed the US Planetary Society blog and guess what happened?  It seemed as though I was flying near the moon with the unmanned Chinese mooncraft, Chang'e-2 which was launched on October 1,2010. This was made possible thanks to Emily Lakdawalla, a planetary geologist, who writes a regular interesting and informative blog in the Planetary Society website.

        Emily managed to get videos of the various critical stages of the Chang'e-2 mission and insert it in her blog. I saw them a number of times and it was exciting and thrilling especially the one when the spacecraft flew just 15 kms above the lunar surface. I have saved all the five videos and be sure I will be seeing them regularly as I have a passion for space exploration. In short I am a space buff! I must also thank my good friend Pradeep Mohandas, secretary of the India chapter of the Moon Society, for referring me to the videos. He has always been of great help.

       Just to reproduce Emily's blog, she writes: ``I would not believe these videos when I first saw them; five views from engineering cameras of important events in the Chang'e-2 spacecraft's journey to the moon. It's a thrill to see actual human-built artifacts out there in space and I do not believe I have ever seen actual video of such key mission events on robotic missions, except from rocket-mounted cameras before.''

       ``The videos relate to the solar panel deployment, Chang'e-2 entering lunar orbit, the spacecraft's first orbit trim manouvres, the second orbit trim manouvres and the 15-km flight over the moon,'' she writes.

       I strongly recommend these videos to space crazy guys like me!  I also accessed the original video source and saw them again. Apart from them being thrilling and exciting, they are also educative as they provide clear and precise details of the moon's surface.

       Thank U Emily.

       Yes, Isro has hosted the video of Chandrayaan's Terrain Mapping Camera flying over the moon. I like it and it has been praised by a number of people. But, I really wonder why it has not yet put the video of the Moon Impact Probe (MIP) zooming towards the moon even after two years. Chandrayaan-1 was launched on October 22,2008 and the MIP flight was on November 14,2008.

       I have a dvd of the Chandrayaan-1 mission called ``The Moon Within Reach--the Chandrayaan-1 saga continuos.''  This dvd has the sequence of the MIP heading towards the moon. But, how many can see it? Not many. The reason-- because of some outdated policy the public do not have an access to this dvd. I managed to obtain it thanks to a good friend who has contacts with a certain division of Isro.

       Though it is not a great video, I still think it should be available in the open market. Does anyone disagree with me? 


        Talking about Chinese space programme, a 32-year-old transport pilot, Wang Yaping, is expected to be China's first woman taikonaut. She is with the People's Liberation Army Air Force.

        The Chinese media had mentioned Wang as one of the five pilots from the province of Shandong and was a part of the 15 women candidates. Currently, she is undergoing training at the Chinese astronaut training centre, near Beijing, with another woman pilot.

         Though the date of her first flight is a matter of speculation, it is stated that she will fly in the Shenzhou-10 mission, which will dock with the Tiangong-1 orbital module in 2012. Shenzhou-10 is a planned manned spaceflight of China's Shenzhou programme. It will have a crew of three astronauts.

         China started training woman astronauts in 2005. When the announcement was first made, there were 200,000 applications, of which 30 were short listed.

         If Wang makes it, she will join the ranks of Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams.

         We look forward to the miission.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Kounotori---the Japanese mission to the ISS

        It has been christened Kounotori meaning white stork. Any idea what has been named after this bird?
It happened on Thursday November 11,2010.
        The beautiful name has been given to a Japanese cargo transfer vehicle which will carry supplies to the ISS in January 2011.  The name was chosen because a white stork carries an image of conveying an important thing--a baby, happiness and joyful events, says the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

        According to Jaxa, there were 17,236 suggestions for naming the spacecraft from the public. Of these 217 proposed the name of Kounotori and was accepted.

        The spacecraft which can carry upto 6000 kgs of supplies to the ISS will be launched by the Japanese H11-B rocket no 2 at around 3.29 p.m. (Japan Standard Time) on Thursday, January 20 2011. Known as the HTV, the 16-tonne spaceccraft will join the ranks of the Russian Progress spacecraft, the US space shuttle, and the Automated Transfer Vehicle designed and developed by the European Space Agency. But, what makes the HTV different is that it will be the only unmanned spacecraft which will have the capability to fly both pressurised and unpressurised cargo.

         The mission plan envisages the HTV being grappled by the ISS's remote manipulator system known as Canadarm-2 and being berthed to the space station. After the supplies such as food, clothes and variety of experiment equipment are unloaded, the spacecraft will be loaded with waste materials, including used experiment equipment or clothes. After this process is completed, the HTV will separate from the ISS and re-enter the atmosphere and burn up either over the Pacific Ocean or Indian Ocean.

          According to Jaxa, the HTV technical demonstration vehicle was successfully launched on September 11, 2009 from the Tanegashima Space Centre. The test flight was a super success encouraging the Jap space fraternity to go in for the operational flight in Jan 2011.

         Assuming that the mission is a success, Jaxa plans to launch either one or two HTVs annually to ferry supplies to the ISS. The flight assumes significance in the context of Nasa phasing out the space shuttles next year.

         Keeping this in view do not be surprised if more countries join to operate such vehicles to the space station.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Second anniv of India landing on the moon--Nov 14 2010

       Nov 14 2008. 7 p.m. Children's Day and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday were being celebrated all over India. In about 90 minutes or so India will be making world history. But for a different reason. There was an air of excitement and thrill in our house at Breach Candy in Mumbai. I switched on the TV, paper and pen in my hand, and sat in front of it watching the live coverage of a thrilling unfolding drama, at the end of which India will be catapulted into the Big League of Nations.

      What was the coverage all about? It was about the first unmanned landing on the moon by India which was about 90 minutes away. The Moon Impact Probe (MIP) with the tri colour painted on all its sides having three payloads--the Chandra's Altitudunal Composition Explorer (Chace), a radar altimeter and the Moon Imaging System-was zooming towards the moon at that very moment and will be crash landing close to the Shackleton crater in the south pole region of the moon at 8.31 p.m. Saying that I was excited would indeed be an understatement!

    . The MIP was one of the 11 payloads on board Chandrayaan-1 and is often described as Dr Abdul Kalam's baby since he conceived the idea of India embracing the moon during the Chandrayaan-1 mission. . Needless to say of all these it was Chace which has become visible both nationally and internationally because it successfully detected water and carbon diaxide on November 14,2008. Congrats Syed. Keep it up. My good friend Syed Maqbool was the project manager of Chace.

      All the tv channels were covering the moon landing in considerable detail, both from the Isro telemetry, tracking and command network (Istrac) at Bangalore and the Indian Deep Space Network at Byalalu close to Bangalore. I recorded the quotes of the top scientists which I planned to include in my report of course acknowledging the channels. One major channel whose chief screams and shouts, in his enthusiasm to give viewers about the history of global moon missions, especially the Apollo landings erronously said the first human lunar landing was in August 1969!. Shocked, I picked up my cell called him in his studio and told him that it was July 1969. He asked me: ``Are you sure about your facts?'' I then provided him various websites and requested him to find out who was right and wrong! In flat two minutes the correction was flashed!  

     Then a second after 8.31 p.m. when the channels declared ``India Lands On the Moon,'' I turned emotional, and honestly could not control my tears of joy for a brief moment! I shouted with excitement and immediately called my dad and mom in Pune and gave them the happy news. Hearing me scream with joy, my wife, Usha and my daughter, Rimanika, rushed to the TV and congratulated me !!!!!!  Usha was teaching Rimu at the very moment when India landed on the moon because the latter had a test the next day. But, I knew that India had passed with flying colours the toughest test! 

     I am sure that there would have been a similar display of emotion among the scientists at Istrac and Byalalu who have slogged for the last few years 24X7 to make this mission a success and bring honour to India. What a great moment it was. We had done it, and I felt it was time to uncork the champagne bottle.

     With considerable difficulty, I managed to access some of the scientists at Istrac and got their comments. My good friend, Guruprasad of Isro, connected me to some of them. I had already interviewed Dr Kalam earlier and published the report regarding the significance of MIP. Sitting in front of the TV at Mumbai I could sense the excitement and feeling of accomplishment among the scientists. India had landed on the moon, becoming the sixth nation to join the exclusive global lunar club--the other five being China, Japan, the European Space Agency, the former Soviet Union and the US.

      My excitement drove me instantly to my computer and I began punching the report for The Times of India which was waiting for my copy. For me as a space journalist, it was the most challenging piece of reporting I have ever done!. How on earth does one write in a way which will be reader-friendly about the significance and excitment of  India landing on the moon? Anyway I did it, and the report landed on the computer terminals in the news desk of TOI just before 11 p.m.---pretty late for a daily newspaper. But, I must say that the editorial team was extremely co-operative that historic night and waited patiently for my report. The team even went to the extent of holding the front page till 1 a.m. to carry the first pix sent from the moon. The edition of November 15,2008, splashed the article on Page 1 along with the pics from the moon.

      Nov 14,2009:  The first anniv of India landing on the moon and the detection of water and carbon diaxide by Chace. I asked my friends at Isro in Bangalore whether they will be celebrating it in any way. They said that nothing has been planned, Honestly, I was a bit surprised. But, we in Mumbai decided to celebrate in our own way, On that day I launched my book about the Chandrayaan-1 mission, ``Moonshot India,'' at the Nehru Planetarium. The launch button was pressed by my good friend Piyush Pandey, the director of the planetarium,

     We also used the opportunity to launch the India chapter of the Moon Society. For this launch, the activation button was pressed by Pradeep Mohandas, the secretary of the India chapter of the society and, of course, also my good friend. Pradeep made a nice and brief speech on the occasion and introduced the society to the audience whose number unfortunately would not have exceeded a huge number of 10! The turn out was poor because of other Children's Day events in Mumbai and also the publicity for my book launch was inadequate. It was quite a contrast to the launch in Bangalore on October 22,2009.

     Nov 14 2010:  Third anniv of India landing on the moon, To mark the occasion I contacted my good friend Syed--the project manager of Chace--at Hyderabad this morning and interviewed him. Reproduced below is the interview.






    Keep it up Syed. We are proud of you.

    On Thursday, November 18, he is speaking at the Jawaharlal Nehru Technical University in Hyderabad.

    For the third anniv of the moon landing and my birthday, thanks to my daughter, Rimanika, I got a t-shirt designed, two key chains and a water bottle all with the MIP on them.

    This evening I will be wearing the MIP t-shirt.

    My hope is that someday I should wear this t-shirt, meet Syed, shake hands with him and take his autograph.

     I hope it happens soon.    



Friday, November 12, 2010

Cold war space rivals 2 team up again on Nov 14

       Once again the US and Russia are all set to team up in space--this will happen on November 14, 2010 at 8.29 p.m. (Moscow time) when a Russian rocket with an American communication satellite will be launched from the Baikonour cosmodrome.

       The satellite will provide broadband wireless coverage to consumer electronic devices in North and Central America. Manufactured by Boeing, the spacecraft will operate in the geo stationary orbit over North America. Essentially, it is a commercial communication satellite.

       Originally, it was to have been launched by Sea Launch. However, following the collapse of Sea Launch company, it was decided to use the Proton-M rocket . The earlier plan envisaged the satellite being launched on May 15,2007. But, technical problems resulted in the launch being resked to November 14.

       On November 13, it was what Russian space scientists call ``Spare Day,'' at the Baikonour cosmodrome. The Proton-M rocket with the Breeze-M upper stage was rolled to the launch pad on November 11, followed by autonomous tests of the launcher and the upper stage, as well as the integrated tests of the control systems. They also simulated the tanking procedures.

       The Proton-M is the latest version of the Proton rockets having the capability to place in orbit satellites weighing between three and 3.2 tonnes into the geo synchronous orbit.

       The Breeze-M also known as Briz-M is a Russian orbit insertion upper stage manufactured by Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre and is used on the Proton-M rocket. The upper stage Breeze-M is used for placing heavy or large payloads into the low, medium or high geosynchronous orbit. It can also take payloads to earth escape trajectories.

       The Breeze-M upper stage had its maiden flight on May 2000 when it delivered the Gorizont communication satellite into orbit. The combination of Proton-M and Breeze-M has successfully carried satellites like Intelsat, Hispat, Direct TV, Worldsat-3 and Arabsat-4a into orbit.

       So, on November 14 if the mission is a success it will once again be a grand handshake in space of two countries which were once major rivals. The US and the former Soviet Union, a part of which is Russia.

       All the very best.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pak Independence Say---we r a go for launch in China

      August 14 2011. As Pakistani celebrates its independence day, people in that country will be eagerly awaiting news from China?  Why? On that day if all goes well China will launch a communication satellite for Pakistan designated as Paksat-Ir.

      The satellite, weighing about 1050 kgs at launch, will be flown by a Chinese rocket called CZ-3B otherwide known as Long March 3B, a three-stage rocket stated to be the most powerful member of the Long March rocket family and the heaviest of the Long March 3 rocket group which is mainly used to fly communication satellites. The launch centre for Paksat-Ir is Xichang Satellite Launch Centre.

      The operator for this satellite is Pakistan's Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, a state-owned body. It will replace Paksat-1 and its main payload is the very high resolution radiometer to study radiation.

      Although it appears that the main satellite is being designed and developed in China, Suparco scientists successfully developed a prototype primarily to enhance the know-how of scientists and engineers about communication satellites engineering.

     The Pak-Sino space tie up began in 2006 when China committed to work with Pakistan to launch three earth resource satellites over the next five years. In May 2007, China agreed as a strategic partner and signed an accord with Pakistan to enhance co-operation in the areas of space science and technology.

     In one of the earlier blogs, ``Beyond Moon and Mars'' had stated that this colloboration will further strengthen in the days ahead perhaps even leading to a mission to the moon or Mars. Maybe at a later stage there could even be a joint manned mission to the moon.

     What is the message?  India should take note of these developments and fully support the human space flight programme.

     Unfortunately this is not happening at the moment.    

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The James Webb Space Telescope----critical viewing

      It will be 100 times more powerful than Nasa.s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and has been called a techncal marvel. It is the awesome Janes Webb Space Telescope JWST for short--also of Nasa--which is expected to be be launched in September 2015. It will replace the HST.

      While the HST operates at an altitude of 560 kms, the mighty JWST will fly at 1.5 million kms opening a new great chapter in the world of astronomy and astrophysics.

      Even as space scientists, astronomers and astrophysicists are eagerly awaiting the launch of this new telescope, an Independent Comprehensive Panel Review has come down heavily on the way the JWST project is being managed by Nasa.

      On account of sloppy management, its minimum cost has shot up from 5.1 billion dollars to 6.5 billion dollars. Nasa adminstrator has admiited that ``cost performance and co-ordination have been lacking. No one is more concerned about the situation we find ourselves in than I am and that is why I am re organising the JWST project office at hq and at the Goddard Space Flight Centre,'' he said in a statement.

      Dated October 29, 2010, the report which was released on November 10,2010, says hat the JWST project was endorsed in 2000. ``It's cost has been escalating and there have been schedule delays. These are associated with budgeting and programme management and not technical performance. The technical performance on this project has been commendable and often excellent,'' the report states.

      According to the report, what has delayed the project ``is the lack of an operational and effective cost and progammatic analysis capability at Nasa hq.''  It says that the JWST project office at Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Centre should be restructured to ensure that the ``project is now managed with a focus appropriate to the implementation phase.''

      It says that because of management problems, the launch of JWST has moved from June 2014 to September 2015. ``The project budget was fundementally flawed and the hq also lacked a robust independent cost and programme analysis capability. This capability within the agency plays a crucial role in checking project budget plans. Historically, the agency had such a capability that reported to the adminstrator. But, that function has not existed over a decade,'' it says.
     The report points out that corrective action taken by executive officials in response to what is known as ``red'' reports was not sufficient to correct the problems. Keeping all this in view the report has emphasised the need for improved communication between JWST project and the Goddard Space Flight Centre and Nasa hq.

     It has regretted that the science team connected with JWST has not played a significant role in certain important matters. ``In the numerous presentations and discussions, the science team was not identified as either a contributor to, or initiator of any recommendations. This apparent lack of input suggests that the project science team has adopted a ``hands off'' approach that is unfortunate in a project of this magnitude and imprtance,'' the report states.

    The report has recommended that the independent voice of the science team should be strengthened.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

T-25 and counting--Nehru Science Centre

        T-25 and counting. All systems are `go.' In a short while from now the 25th anniv celebrations of the prestigious Nehru Science Centre will be launched. Located in the heart of Mumbai in Worli, it is a lovely sprawling place which attracts throusands of visitors daily, especially students.

       While ``Beyond Moon and Mars'' (BMM)  enjoys visiting the centre, one area which interests him most is the vast aerospace hall. Those who have never had the opportunity of visiting Sriharikota, India's main spaceport, be sure you have one in the centre of Mumbai!

       For space addicts like BMM the first things which catches one's attention are the huge rocket models, from the earliest sounding rockets to the three stage Geo Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). One can also see the work horse of Isro, the four-stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). They are huge and almost makes you  feel that you are standing next to the real launch vehicle on the launch pad at Sriharikota.

      That is not all. You can also see models of different satellites like for example the Insat communication satellites to the remote sensing satellites. In case you have the time and you would like to know more about them, just press a button and you will hear a brief commentary.

      Walk a little ahead and what do you see? A replica of the mission control room at Sriharikota. The computers provide data about the movement and position of satellites. And there is a section where one can know details about what is a satellite operating in the polar sun synchronous orbit and the one in the geo synchronous orbit which is at an altitude of 36,000 kms above the equator. BMM would love to spend hours in the space section of the aerospace hall.

        BMM has one suggestion. With the success of the Indian moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, the centre should now expand the small section where it provides information about the mission and give more details about the Indian lunar project. It can give data through posters about the discovery of water, carbon diaxide and so on. Perhaps, a continuos video about about Chandrayaan-1 can also be considered.. And something about Chandrayaan-2 too,  now that this mission is steadily on its way to the launch pad from the labs and workshops--the launch is slated for 2013.

        Also, the centre can also think of selling space souvenirs like Indian rocket and satellite models and T-shirts with the logo of Indian space missions in its shop. For my birthday, thanks to my daughter,Rimanika, I got a T-shirt designed with the image of Chandrayaan's Moon Impact Probe. I wore it on my birthday and I plan to wear it again on November 14, 2010, which marks the second anniv of India landing on the moon. It was this probe--a brain child of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam--which crash landed on the south pole region of the moon on the night of November 14,2008 with the Indian tri colour.

        Here is another suggestion. Why not a big model of the Chandrayaan spacecraft in the middle of the aerospace hall?

        T-25 minutes and counting. Have a lovely and successful flight into the next few years, Nehru Science Centre..
        All the very best.

Dr Radhakrishnan are you listening--ISS?

       On September 27 2010 at the International Astronautical Congress in Prague, chairman of Isro, K.Radhakrishnan, said ``as of now there is no programme to get into the ISS (International Space Station).'' What he meant was that India has no immediate plans of partnering with the 17-member space station.

       But what happened 45-days later? The joint statement issued by PM Manmohan Singh and President Obama on Monday declared that India and the US will ``seek ways to colloborate in future lunar missions, international space station and human space flight...''

       While the Isro chief said that India has no immediate plans to join the ISS, Singh and Barack Obama are saying just the opposite, suggesting that perhaps there could be a communication gap between Isro and other bureacrats who have played a role in drafting the joint statement. This has raised an important question. Was the Isro chairman or any of the top space agency officials kept in the loop while the statement was being prepared?

       Pradeep Mohandas, secy of India chapter of the Moon Society, recalls that even in the case of the lunar rover which will fly on the Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon in 2013 a similar thing happened. Isro was planning to send its own rover to the moon. But during a visit of Singh to Moscow in November 2007 it was decided that there will instead be a Russian rover and lander. The decision to have a Russian rover disappointed many Isro scientists It was subsequently decided to have small Indian rover too along with the Indian rover. But, in May 2010, Russia decided to withdraw from the rover deal because of what it calls ``tight schedule,'' and as things stand only an Indian rover will fly to the moon on a Russian lander.

       The joint Indo-Us statement which refers to ISS needs to be viewed in the context of foreign space agencies like for example the European Space Agency saying that India and China should partner with the ISS because of their status as major space powers. This view was shared more recently by space attache at the French embassy in Washington Emmanuel de Lipkowski.

       There are of course two views about India being a part of the ISS. Those in favour point out that by teaming up with the ISS India will have a manned presence in space along with nations like the US, Russia and Japan. They say that apart from providing a boost to India's space programme, the colloboration will have geo political significance too, Also, if India is exploring the possibility of a future manned mission to the moon or Mars, the space station will be an excellent training ground. India has not had a manned presence in space since Rakesh Sharma flew to the Russian-built Salyut-7 space station in April 1984.

       Space expert Taylor Dinerman writing in the ``The Space Review'' on November 17, 2008, says: ``India has not only proved itself with Chandrayaan-1, it has also made a critically important step towards a truly civil space programme by setting up a military space command. This separation puts India well within international norms and indicates that the government in New Delhi wants to make it fairly easy for Isro to join international space projects such as the ISS.''

       ``One obstacle to India joining the ISS is lack of money.This is what killed Brazil's membership and preliminary talks with India should be careful to insure that Isro's commitment are compatible with India's overall budgetary policy. India has the right to be considered a full fledged space faring nation,'' he said.

       But, the other side of the argument is that it is unclear that over the years what have been the actual scientific gains of the ISS. So by sending Indian vyomanauts, how will India really benefit?  Some years ago when there were indications that India was exploring the possibility of joining the ISS, Isro informally said that scientists were asked to think about experiments. But for various reasons the project fizzled out.

       ``Beyond Moon and Mars,'' learnt on Tuesday that a senior Isro official while interacting with school kids in Bangalore 10 days ago, he said that India has been invited to partner with the ISS. Is it an informal or a formal invitation. Or he just referring to the statements made by space agency chiefs at the International Astronautical Congress who said India must become a part of the space station.

       Another thing--since India's possible partnership with the ISS has been mentioned in the joint Indo-US statement, India by no means should come under American control if it finally agrees to colloborate with the space station. It should not happen that eventually India has joined the ISS for the benefit of the US, as it has happened in the nuclear sector. India's space sector should maintain its independance.

      The days ahead are interesting and Dr Radhakrishnan should atleast now come out in the open as to where India really stands atleast with regards to the ISS.

      The statement also talks about Indo-US partnership in future lunar missions and human space flight programmes. Isro officials were in the dark about future lunar missions since Chandrayaan-3 does not exist, atleast for the moment. Also as things stand they have ruled out any possibility of Nasa payloads flying on Chandrayaan-2. It is possible that there could be an Indian payload on one of the future unmanned Nasa missions to the moon. This of course is just a guess.

       Again with regards to the human space flight programme, Isro officials wonder what this colloboration with the US could be since India's programme has yet to receive the official `go' from the government. Again in the US, with just three space shuttle flights left--Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis---it is unlikely that any of them will accommodate an Indian at the last moment--what with all the training which is needed.

      Some years ago there was talk of the US taking an Indian vyomanaut on one of the space shuttle missions. But, former Nasa adminstrator, Michael Griffin, told the media in Bangalore when he came to sign an agreement relating to Chandrayaan-1 that the plan cannot be adhered to since there was no room available on the space shuttles. This was a reply to a question asked by BMM.

      So what is this agreement?  Will it go beyond the paper? That is the question.



Sunday, November 7, 2010

Rockets---not on the launch pad, but in a room!

         Something different. Of course it is about rockets and satellites. But, for a change not on the launch pad, but in our own room. Either on tables or inside a huge glass case as it in our room at Breach Candy in Mumbai.

         Being a space addict my hobby is to collect rocket and satellite models which is extremely difficult in India. Over the years, with some difficulty I have collected models of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geo Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). I hope I get more such models! Honestly, I am not too happy with my tiny model of the Chandrayaan-1.

        Some years ago my wife Usha and daughter, Rimanika and I, visited the St Mary Magadelene's Church, in Thumba near Thiruvanathanapuram where the Indian space programme began in the 60s. Visiting the museum was a fantastic and educative experience which inspired Rimu to put her forehead on the table used by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam as a sign of reverance. When we came out of this lovely museum I thought there will be a shop selling models. But, there was none.

        Talking about models, I recall while returning to Chennai after a covering a PSLV launch at Sriharikota by train from Sullerpetta--the nearest town to the great spaceport--a man boarded our compartment carrying brass models of the PSLV having a red digital clock. I inquired about the price and guess what it was? A mere Rs 60. I felt very excited and immediately said I would like to buy two of them. But,what was his answer?  He said no because he wanted the permission of his boss before he could sell them!  I still do not know why he mentioned the price if he had no intention of selling them!

        I asked him where his boss was, he said Chennai. I said I will accompany him to his boss once we disembark at Chennai. He evaded the issue, but gave me his card. He was based in Sullerpetta. I decided I will try and contact him when I next go to Sullerpetta. The chance came in March 2001, when I was assigned to cover the first launch of GSLV (it did not lift off.) Since I had to spend a week in Chennai, I went one day to Sullerpetta, a few days before the launch in search of the rocket model maker and try my luck with the brass model of the PSLV. I made inquiries with the locals and managed to locate his house. It was locked! Luck ran out again!

        In the summer of 1995, my wife Usha and I spent two months criss crossing the US. At a shop next to the Statute of Liberty in New York I brought a model of Saturn V--the rocket which took the first man to the moon. While boarding the flight for Mumbai at JFK International Airport in New York, the Air India security did not allow me to carry the box with pieces of the model as a hand baggage as they felt it constituted a security threat! I was shocked!  His refusal triggered a heated argument between me and the security guy. I explained to him that it was ironical that very rocket which brought honour to the US was being viewed as a security threat.

       The Air-India security official consulted his colleagues and finally he relented though reluctantly and perhaps a bit suspiciously too!

       In Mumbai, guess who assembled the rocket patiently?  Not me. Usha. She studied the literature,.and carefully got the pieces together and the rocket began taking shape. In a week it became a full rocket with the launch escape tower. It is a great and awesome model enclosed in a large glass case along with other models and dominates our room.

       Close your eyes and open it and look at the black and white model and you will be instantly transported for a second to launch pad 39A at Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre.where the real 363 feet Saturn V stood in July 1969 before embarking on its lunar mission.

       What is my wish? The Air India security guy at JFK, who viewed it as security threat in June 1995 when we taking the flight to Mumbai, who perhaps might have since retired, should one day come and see the model in our room!