Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Lunar water; Who dunit ??

As the world awakes to one more paper appearing at GRL [12th March, 2019] on lunar water finding by a UV instrument (LAMP) on NASA's LRO today; my memories takes me back to 14th November, 2008. The LAMP team has announced that by carefully analyzing the data they could find water molecule moving around during the day time on the moon. That day, at  ISRO's Bylalu station, our senior most team member, Prof. R.Sridharan was literally jumping around as he noticed peak number-18 (water) in our just arrived mass spectra relayed by CHACE instrument, my baby, as it took a suicidal journey on the Moon Impact Probe of Chandrayaan-I.

Credit: ESA

If I can make the story very short... it goes as follows...
A billion hearts were beating to the success of Chandrayaan-I reaching moon on 8th November, 2008. Then came the 14th November episode of Moon Impact Probe (MIP) being separated from the mother space craft and had an impact on southern pole of the moon; covering around 2,800 km with a descend journey lasting around 22-minutes. The story of CHACE (CHandra's Altitudinal Composition Explorer), the ONLY science experiment on MIP; it is best narrated in my blog here. 

CHACE has been built to sample that tiniest of tiny particle densities around 10^3 and above in the lunar ambiance. However; as the humanity had learned its lessons when Bob Hodges and his team members had built their LACE mass spectrometers and left by Apollo team members on the moon; all of those instruments were getting saturated as the sun started rising on the lunar horizon; it was later learned that the poor dynamic range as the cause. Thanks to the present day technology; the CHACE could withstand 10-orders of dynamic range; while the older versions of mass spectrometers could at best 4-5 orders. It is for this reason that CHACE came out as a WINNER. But our joy was very short lived. As we sent our manuscript both to Science and later to Nature; none of the experts were ready to believe on what CHACE had relayed by giving its own life; they called it contamination.

CHACE, a quadrupole mass spectrometer, riding on the front end of Moon Impact Probe (MIP) was over sampling the lunar ambiance as the MIP gushing though the tenuous atmosphere at the speeds of around 1.5 km/s. No one would ever believe that CHACE was actually sampling the first time ever day time lunar ambiance. It was ridiculed as outgassing  by the spacecraft inner components. By the time we realized that the "ram correction" was needed for this over sampling (10^4 higher); the other payloads on Chandrayaan-I from NASA had got their instruments (MMM and min-SAR) geared to look for reflectance signatures of water and had their work published in the same journal Science in October, 2009.   It was the same Science journal which published MMM data withing 4-5 months of rejection of CHACE observations.

Finally after an agonizing wait of one year and 2-months our work was published in February 2010. I always carry (will..... till I breath my last) this guilt of missing the bus. Today, as I read the GRL paper; I like to draw attention of each and every soul who had ridiculed our work when we were trying to bring to their notice that....  YES.... INDEED THERE IS A WATER ON THE MOON....

Chronological developments on Lunar water
1. Chandrayaan-1 Lunar orbit injection....          8th Nov. 2008

2. Moon Impact Probe mission ...                        14th Nov. 2008
(Successful CHACE observations of H2O)

3. CHACE Manuscript to Science journal..         Dec. 2008

4. Meeting of Ch-1 scientist at ISRO-HQ....        Feb. 2009
(PIs of Indian/Foreign payloads including 
MMM, mini-SAR;
CHACE plot of lunar water shown to all)

5. MMM operational .......                                    Mar. 2009

6. MMM publication in Science .....                     Oct 2009

7. CHACE Publication .....                                   Feb. 2010

8. LAMP /LRO Publication ....                            Feb 2019

Thursday, October 13, 2016


The unrelenting European spirit of landing on Mars continues. Mars-3, the first earthling object from USSR, though, had landed on Mars in 1971; it's signals ceased within 14-seconds of soft landing. While USA is sitting pretty with nearly half a dozen rovers roaming Martian surface, the last probe from European Space Agency (ESA/UK), Beagle-2 (2003) while almost making it to the surface of Mars but failed to send the signals back home. It was only in 2015, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter finding it intact on the expected spot on Mars, indicating failure of solar panels to deploy. Here comes another daring attempt by ESA on soft landing Schiaparelli next week. The excitement is immense; a six minute long sequencing of commands have already been loaded into the mother craft (Trace Gas Orbiter, link) cum lander (Schiaparelli).

The famous Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) dedicated his life studying planet Mars. From the ground telescopes (in Europe), he observed a network of linear structures; calling them "canali", in Italian, meaning channels; but it was mis-interpreted as "canals" in the English speaking world; leading to huge speculation of existence of life there. Thanks to the later observations (Italian scientist) and the spacecraft era; the pattern was ascribed to meagre optical illusions.

Here is a wonderful sequence of Schiaparelli touchdown, created by folks at Science alert:
The European Space Agency, ESA in their respect to this gentleman has named their lander,... Schiaparelli, which is due to land on Mars on 19th October, 2:48 pm GMT. If everything goes as planned, ESA will be the next entity after NASA to reach Martian surface (though the past attempts both by ESA and Russia/USSR have failed). The sequence of events are self explanatory on this ESA leaflet (a click on the image would enlarge it; come back to the post by LEFT arrow) ...
At an altitude of 121 km, the Schiaparelli will be separated from its mom TGO (Trace Gas Observatory) descending with an enormous speed of 21 000 km/hr. While the atmospheric drag (on Mars, it is almost 100 times less as compared to earth) would slow down its speed to around 1 700 km/hr at 11 km above the surface. The parachute will open up around this time slowing down to speed to 250 km/hr... still beating most of the cars on the earth's highways. At an altitude of 1 km, three set of thrusters would burn and control the descent speeds down to 4 km/hr and stop just around 2 meters above the ground. The Schiaparelli would briefly hover above the ground just before cutting off the thrusters. This hair rising sequence would take 6 minutes; and the scientists and engineers at ESA have to spend another agonizing 9-minutes for the UHF signals to travel to the Indian site (from Mars) called Giant Meter wave Radio Telescope, GMRT (vow... the signals are passing by my motherland), then to ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany.

Now, lets see what all is in store once Schiaparelli makes it to the spot on Mars called "Meridiani plane" where NASA's Opportunity rover had landed on January 24th, 2004.
Credit: Mars fossil
Schiaparelli, apart from breaking the jinx of landing, after reaching the surface, it is planned to work for 2-8 sols on Mars; this would translate into couple of earth weeks.

During Descent:
A separate instrumentation package, COMARS+ will monitor the pressure, surface temperature and heat flux on the back cover of Schiaparelli as it passes through the atmosphere.

In addition, the descent camera (DECA) on Schiaparelli will image the landing site as it approaches the surface, as well as providing a measure of the atmosphere’s transparency. DECA is the re-named flight spare of the visual monitoring camera which flew on Herschel.

A compact array of laser retroreflectors, known as INRRI, is attached to the zenith-facing surface of Schiaparelli. This can be used as a target for future Mars orbiters to laser-locate the module.

On the Martian surface:
The Schiaparelli surface payload, the DREAMS (Dust Characterisation, Risk Assessment, and Environment Analyser on the Martian Surface) package, consists of a suite of sensors to measure the wind speed and direction (MetWind), humidity (DREAMS-H), pressure (DREAMS-P), atmospheric temperature close to the surface (MarsTem), the transparency of the atmosphere (Solar Irradiance Sensor, SIS), and atmospheric electrification (Atmospheric Radiation and Electricity Sensor; MicroARES)
Artist impression of DREAMS, Credit: ESA
Lets hope for the smooth touch down of Schiaparelli ....
On my personal behalf... let the GMRT (in India) prove to be a good omen for ESA ... 

Inputs from ESA:link )

Postmortem: (25th Ocober, 2016)
The ESA team was shocked to learn that the signals from Schiaparelli stopped 1-minute before the expected landing. Then came a stunning reveleation fromNASA's Mars Reconnaincse Orbiter (a 12-year old veteran circling Mars) that it has indeed captured the grave of Schiaparelli exactly in the expected ellipse of size 100 km X 15 km.

Here is the proof of landing captured :

Credit: NASA; Picture showing "before" and after the crash of lander 
The ESA team came up with this explanation:
Though the first 4-minutes sail of Schiaparelli went as expected... that is.. both the parachute and heat shield deployed successfully in slowing down the free fall speed; however the slowing down thrusters seems to have shut down earlier than expected leading to the lander's free fall from 2-4 kms above the surface of Mars with a killing speeds of around 300-kms per hour. They also claimed that since the fuel tanks were not emptied, there could have been an explosion at the crash landing.

So, my heart goes out for this daring attempt by ESA... I can only say:   RIP .. Schiaparelli

Thursday, March 31, 2016

EXOMARS, Trace Gas Orbiter & Schiaparelli

The objectives of ExoMars mission is to look for life beyond earth (exo-biology) and it is performed by sending an orbiter (Trace Gas Orbiter, TGO) and Lander (Schiaparelli) which is already on its way to the Red planet and preparing for a rover in the next available celestial window in 2018. It is a joint venture between ESA and Russian space agency Roscosmos. Instead of giving a routine information on this mission, I try to bring out the niche technologies utilized by the participating European countries in TGO, which are at the forefront of Planetary Exploration. Special emphasis is made to bring out those attractive aspects of the "suite of instruments" which are employed to hunt down the elusive secrets (methane) on Mars.

Courtesy: ESA 

Trace Gas Orbiter, as the name suggests is geared to look for trace gases, these are defined as the species which fall in "less than 1% composition" of a planet. Since the signature of life could be buried with methane, a trace gas, concentrations occurring at parts per billion (10-9) by volume; TGO carries a suite of instruments to monitor this gas primarily and many other trace gases which have been contemplated but never have been recorded at all. There is also an un-resolved issue of how the Martian atmosphere is lost; this could be accomplished by measuring ratios of isotopic species of various gaseous compounds with respect to the normal; example: HDO/H2O. By comparing the ratios with the one appearing earth; one can estimate the loss of lighter species as compared to heavy. In summary, the task of TGO is 1. to look for methane at ppb concentration levels (huge demand on sensitivity of the instruments) and 2. measure the ratios of isotopologus species (very high spectral resolution required) and 3. technology demonstration for landing in a thin Martian atmosphere (Schiaparelli).

A brief introduction on composition of Martian atmosphere:
Major gases [Martian atmospheric pressure ~ 10 torr (Earth's: 760 torr)]
CO2:  95%  (0.95)
N2 : 2.7%  (0.027)
Ar : 1.6% (0.016)

Trace gases
O2:  0.13% or 1.3X10-2
H2O:  2.0X10-4
CH4:  ~ 1.0X10-8 or parts per billion (10-9), (ppb)

For a composition analysing scientist measuring methane at a ppb level concentration is a million dollar ??? (or higher) question. This is where the Trace Gas Orbiter, TGO's journey to the red planet is holding huge expectations from the planetary scientists across the globe (which includes me).

There are 4-gem of instruments gear to break the technology barriers primarily geared in nailing down the elusive gas - Methane.
1. NOMAD (Nadir and Occultation for MArs Discovery)
2. ACS ( Atmospheric Chemistry Suite)
3.CaSSIS (Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System)
4. FREND – Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector.

Each instrument's configuration and their scientific goals are nicely outlined here:

Courtesy, J.L. Vago, ESA
Both ACS and NOMAD are a set of spectrometers designed to measure a huge range of gaseous species (including isotopolagous), while CaSSIS is a color camera employed in imaging, FREND searches for H-atoms down to 1-meter looking for traces of buried water.

I spent 2-days in reading the "suite of instruments" NOMAD (Nadir and Occultation for MArs Discovery) carries and almost went MAD in appreciating the abundance amount of technological prowess this suite possesses. After debating on what proportion of "technical-popular" combination; I chose to take a middle path and try to keep the information flow in perspective so that both the casual and serious reader will be interested in reading beyond this paragraph.

Courtesy : ESA
(NOMAD instrument: 1. SO, 2. LNO, 3. UVIS, 4. Electronics)
NOMAD basically covers 0.2 – 4.3µ  spectral region with a set of 3-instruments operating in 3-different modes: 
1. SO: 2.3-4.3µ (Solar Occultation)
2. LNO : in 2.3-3.8µ (Limb, Nadir and Occultation) 
3. UV-VIS channel : 200-650 nm 

The SO mode is to look at the Sun during sunrise and sunset, while Nadir is looking straight down at the planet, LNO is a combination of limb scan /nadir view/Solar occultation. The table below is taken from a very recent publication of Robert et al appearing in Planetary and Space Sciences, outlining the greater details of what all NOMAD can deliver in different modes of observations.

Robert et al., Planet.Sp.Sc., 2016
Another notable point is the ability of NOMAD in detecting methane signal is given in the above said reference. Interestingly the NOMAD in LNO mode is capable of detecting methane even at 0.018 ppb (18 ppt) concentrations; which carries much superior sensitivity than the present day instruments both on Martian surface (CURIOSITY) and in the orbit (MOM: MSM, MENCA).

 Atmospheric Chemistry Suite is a kind of complementary, IR spectrometer again with a suite of 3- built-in instruments,covering a huge spectral region of 2.3 - 17µ  i.e. 1. NIR, 2. MIR and 3. TIRVIM.

Korablev, J.App. Remote Sensing, 2014

Just like NOMAD, ACS too has SO, Nadir and LNO observation modes explained in the above table.

The science goals of various sub-sytems are:

NIR instrument:
a. Monitoring and profiling of trace components, CO, H2O, O2
b. Vertical profiles of atmospheric density
c.  Sensitive search for new OH, O2 and NO night glow

MIR instrument:
a. Vertical profiles of СО2 (atmospheric density and temp.) ; minor species like CH4 , H2O, СО
b. Profiling of isotopic ratios HDO/H2O, 13CO2/CO2, CO18O/CO2

TIRVIM instrument:
a. Search/monitoring of minor constituents
b. Monitoring of atmospheric dust, and condensation clouds
c. Monitoring of the thermal state from the surface.

Most striking aspect of ACS is a huge spectral resolution (resolving power~ 50,000) it offers in the MIR region of 2.3-4.3µ. This would help in detecting the trace gas species first time ever: CH4, C2H2, H2S, HCl.  The TIRVIM region is helpful in:a. detecting trace gases, b. measurement of thermal profiles, c. aerosol properties and d. trace species: NO, N2O measurements.

The color camera's spatial coverage (swath) and resolution details are outlined here:

Courtesy: J.L. Vago, ESA

Artist's concept of the instreumnt and similar kind of observation made are given here:

Courtesy: J.L. Vago, ESA
TGO has added huge expectations among the Planetary scientists who are looking forward to fix the jigsaw puzzle on life beyond earth and in particular signatures of life on our next neighbour.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

India need Nano satellites; Future of Space Sciences

Sputnik 1 was the first human endeavour to leave mother earth (October, 1957) to be able to wander into Space. Though it was a small satellite ( ~ 83 kg), the later attempts by humans to explore space (Low Earth Orbit, LEO) were becoming increasingly bulky. The exploitation of geo-synchronous orbit (36,000 km) for beaming telecommunication and other signals could only add more burden on building huge work horses (Envisat ~ 8,000 kg). The present discussion is limited to Nano-Satellites, which fall in the 1-10 kg weight category; while Micro- satellites are in 100-10 kg and Pico satellites under 1-kg.

As the miniaturisation in electronic components (MEMS) started, so was the aerospace industry turning to COTS (Commercial, Off-the-Shelf) based small satellites. The idea was to try out newer technology riding on tiny satellites (Micro / Nano) even if the sub-components are not of very expensive MIL (military) grade, meaning radiation hardened class.  In came a "golden standard" called Cubesat, by a group of scientists lead by Bob Twiggs (Stanford Univ) and Jordi Puig-Suary (Calpoly University, California) in the year 1999. They called 1U (1-unit) which would measure 10 X 10 X 10 cm and weigh less than 1.33 kg. Same group also came up with a great idea of developing a P-POD (Poly-Pico satellite Orbiter Deployer) satellite dispenser. Their idea is to impart training for the undergrad students in the space technologies at affordable budget.

Credit : Skybox Imaging

The first Cubesat shot into space in 2003.. oh boy!! ... it transformed the land scape of how one reaches space.  The years 2014, 15 saw nearly 100-Cubesats launches each across the globe. In USA (and Europe) NASA, US-Air force ventured into Micro-satellite developmental programs. NASA's AMES centre had well laid program on Space biology, Lunar Sciences and Inter-planetary missions.  Similarly, JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) too has a vibrant Cubesat program to monitor the earth and also a curious MARCO (Mars Cube One). MARCO's are two data relaying Cubesats which will be part of NASA's  next journey to Mars. They call it a "Technology Demonstration".

Observations made by Michael Swatwout at Saint Louis University, highlights the point (shown below) that the task of Nano satellites has tilted towards Technology demonstration as compared to Educational purposes. A country like India can afford to skip the FIRST step and take advantage of easily availabile components to be able to develop newer technologies.

Credit: Michael Swatwout, SLU

Nano-Satellites: Easy to make
It is not the big players for whom the tiny cubes were like TOYS, even for a lazy engineering graduate there are almost a dozen shops opened up in USA, where a stroke of key board and a credit card can bring him "Power board to Communication board even a Cubesat camera. Here are a few to quote as examples:

Credit: Cubesatkit



INDIA and Nano-Satellites
India has started venturing into space from the SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle, 1979) Program. The first flight under the leadership of very well known face from India Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was a failure; within a year the next flight roared into the skies of Sriharikota in southern India; that was lesson#1 in the history of ISRO; they never seem to look back in repeating failures. The PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) too had to face the setback in its first flight but never ever looked back till date... the present SUCCESSFUL FLIGHT number is 31 and is still counting.

As dictated by the priorities, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been having a very active, bright, successful program which has catapulted the country's name among the league of biggest players in world. ISRO has been successful in low earth orbit programs (IRS satellites), geo-synchronous orbit program and a very successful Lunar (Chandrayaan-I) and Martian (MOM) missions. Capturing the tag of FIRST nation to do so in its very FIRST attempt.


However, the neglected aspect of Small Satellite activity can be gauged by noting that India could launch a meagre number of FIVE in the entire history. Among these, there are just 3-of them which are 10-kg or less. Notable is JUGNU, a 3-kg satellite, developed by Indian premier education center: Indian Institute of Kanpur (IITK). The real hero in my view is STUDSAT which was developed by a group of engineering colleges from the cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad. The reason for STUDSAT to stand out is: due to their limited resources and also a mammoth task of co-ordination among the youth... Hats - off guys...

So... as my title says.... Today, India is a vibrant country with huge potential of growing in cutting edge technologies. Nano Satellites will offer a first hand training to the youth of our nation; also as it has been noticed worldwide that these tiny toys can serve as work horses for testing the new technologies in space, before venturing with millions of investments. With ISRO as the back bone, we can do a lot better than what we have been on the Nano Satellite front..... Let's kick start this activity.... which would bolster the Make in India program as envisaged by the central government.

Friday, December 18, 2015

ASTROSAT vs The Giant Hubble

A TV program on the legendary Hubble Space Telescope, HST (Hubble's Cosmic Journey, National Geographic), prompted me to write this piece on the recently launched Indian space telescope called ASTROSAT.  The purpose of Hubble Space Telescope is to break the barrier of 1-arc second seeing limit (full moon is about 1,800 arc-seconds across) from the ground which arises due to the atmospheric disturbances. NASA had achieved this by a mammoth effort of grinding a 2.4-meter glass to the curvature accuracy of 1/800,000 th of an inch and placing the school bus size object weighing 11,110-kg in 550-km orbit. ASTROSAT is India's  multi-wavelength telescope geared to look at the stellar objects primarily in UV, X-ray regions of the EM spectrum. In that TV program, the sweet voice of John Grunsfeld conveying his strong bond he had created in repairing the Hubble more than one time. Hubble is the most sophisticated optical experiment of humans in the space which has been working for 25-years and is going great guns.

In the back drop of this legacy; enters here,  the young-aspiring Indian beauty, ASTROSAT. In a typical Indian style of small-simple but effective, this telescope carries the same heritage as that of the Indian Chandrayaan-I (moon  mission) and MOM (Mars mission).  The idea of Indian scientists is to perform front line research from the existing experience in the country (X-ray astronomy); and hence majority of the hardware which went into is in the X-ray regime of EM spectrum. Considered to be a small size (in comparison to others) space telescope, it weighs 1513-kg at the time of lift off; it is basically a multi-wavelength telescope in a near equator orbit of around 650-kms radius.

Apart from performing the deep field survey of the Universe in the UV region; ASTROSAT's wish list covers a wide range of phenomenon which are taking place in the universe:
a. studying the high energy processes of binary star system (neutron star-black hole),
b. estimation of magnetic field of neutron stars,
c. look for star birth region beyond our galaxy,
d. detecting the new briefly appearing bright x-ray sources in the sky.

If I could drift a bit beyond the popular level flow of this presentation; here is the list of payloads, the instruments which are very well thought over and put together by the host of Indian research institutes: TIFR, IIA, IUCAA, PRL and RRI.

Credit: ISRO
The details given above emphasises that the Optical and UV region is covered by a single detector; great efforts have been put to cover a very wide range of X-ray based 4-instruments.

As they say, the proof of the pudding is in eating.... the ASTROSAT has come out with a flying colours as soon as its eyes were made to open.

On 17th November, when the Swift observatory of NASA made its 1000th observation of Gamma Ray Burst (GRB), the ASTROSAT's CTZI indeed picked the same object and hence the sweet news of success to the eagerly waiting Indian scientists. The observations are reported here .


Comparing Hubble Telescope with the ASTROSAT would be like comparing the legend Carl Lewis to that of a young athlete or in Indian terms, comparing Sachin Tendulkar to a Ranji trophy player. Without offending anyone, I must also add that both of these sport legends have indeed followed the same nascent stages. Hubble is a huge optical telescope to peek deep into the dark patches as seen from the ground telescopes. This was possible due to the avoidance of atmospheric disturbances. Where as, ASTROSAT is a multi-wavelength observing telescope; may not be huge in size but carries a state-of-the art X-ray detectors and a combined UV-Visible detector in aiming the similar deepest in-accessible "dark regions". With the success of operation of most of the detectors, it is only the time which is going to unravel the worthiness of all the hard work of Indian scientists. Best of luck INIDA..... 

Hubble Space Telescope

As has been referred here, Hubble is a legend in opening the eyes of humanity into the darkest regions of skies. Hubble basically is an optical observatory with an viewing ability of better than 0.1-arc second, having the 3-different types of sensors: i. Camera, ii. Spectrograph and iii. Photometer. A daring 5-space walks had fixed the flaw in achieving the intended goals of Hubble imagery; a total of 4-repairing attempts have kept the instrument in its best abilities.

Here is the summary of few greatest achievements of Hubble:
  • Identification of dark matter which is otherwise invisible and comprises around 23% of the entire universe could be modelled into 3-D from the observations of Hubble
  • Hubble discovered 2-new moons of Pluto : Nix, Hydra
  • Identification of star forming regions, e.g. Orion nebula
  • Picking up gamma ray bursts (GRB) and resolving the mystery around them
  • Capturing the famous collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy with planet Jupiter
  • Helped to identify the dark energy which is responsible for expansion of universe
  • Super massive black holes may be lurking in many galaxies that have bulge of stars at the centre
  • Observing the atmosphere of exo-planet (in Visible)
The list goes on.... and is still counting.....

The humble : ASTROSAT

The unique capabilities of ASTROSAT lies in its multi-wavelength capabilities of observing stellar objects.
  • The Large Area X-Ray Proportional Counter (LAXPC) stands out among all the available space telescopes (RXTE, HEXTE, SAX); by offering almost 3-times larger area at 40-keV energy x-rays.
  • The LAXPC will also offer best timing studies; helping the observers to study the strong gravity regions around neutron stars and stellar mass black holes
  • LAXPC will also serve  as a complimentary instrument for the present/upcoming spectroscopic observations (Chandra, XMM-Newton, NuSTAR, ASTRO-H)
  • Sensitive hard X-ray spectroscopy
  • Wide spectral coverage : UV, 0.3-150 keV

RXTE : The Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer
HEXTE : High Energy Timing Experiment
SAX: Beppo SAX, Italian Dutch Satellite for X-ray astronomy
MOM: Mars Orbiter Mission

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Water on Mars

After the discovery of bone dry moon to be holding traces of water molecules... Water on Mars means a lot to the human race. It is not a meagre scientific result where a 9-year old space craft revolving around Mars and 4-years old results have shown liquid water to be flowing during the summer on Mars; rather, these results have re-kindled new hopes of finding life on Mars, as per Michael Meyer, NASA's Mars Exploration Program. Of course, the intelligent, eager and inquisitive human's quest of leaving earth has found astronomical levels of adrenaline pumping into their blood streams.

This is the picture released by NASA which speaks tonnes of words on how the newly appearing streaks, called the recurring slope lineae (RSL)... held the secrets under their belly for so long that it took a smart under graduate student, Lujendra Ojha from Georgia Tech to figure out that these are actually hydrated salts which appear only when the ambiance reaches -23 C and above. In a way, the salts are helping the ice (water) to melt at much much lower temperatures; just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly.

Credit : NASA
SECRETS unravelled..

The dark streaks seem to be appearing in the summer and would again vanish as the temperature dips. It is only due to the long lasting mission Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and the versatile instruments it is carrying; that the keen observations of this undergrad student along with his team members that they found a way to unravel the secret beneath these streaks.

Ojha and his team first created a 3-D model (digital terrain map) utilizing the stereo information from  High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) camera of MRO. The image is draped with the spectral information from Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer (CRISM) of MRO. The spectrometer component of the overlaid image shows information about the hydrated salts at the multiple RSLs.

Ojha and his co-authors interpret the spectral signatures as caused by hydrated minerals called perchlorates. The hydrated salts most consistent with the chemical signatures are likely a mixture of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate. This study of RSL detected perchlorates, now in hydrated form. This also is the first time perchlorates have been identified from orbit.

Another example of Dark Streaks on Garni crater..

Credit: NASA

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Breakthrough Listen - Search for Aliens

"Is there an intelligent life beyond Earth? " this question has been bothering the human race as far as 19th century. The Serbian-American Scientist Nikola Tesla proposed to send signals to Martians (1890); he claimed to have received unusual signals, calling them to be from "another world". The project, Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, SETI, 1960 by Frank Drake, USA was to look for radio signals sent out by intelligent life in the universe.

The declaration of 100-million dollars fund by the Russian investor Yuri Milner with a surprise addition of Stephen Hawking in his team, the project "Breakthrough Initiatives" would certainly change the fate of SETI search. Milner, a physics graduate turned investor is known for turning coal into gold, with his investments bringing a new tide into the businesses (e.g. facebook, twitter, alibaba, xiomi, flipkart....); lets hope the same for SETI.

Credit: www.effmeride.it 
How is it done??
First strategy: Search for the radio signals in the nearby 100 million stars hoping that civilization living in their planetary system may be intelligent enough to have a radio active utility in their routine works, e.g. air traffic control or any other communications.

Since the past studies of SETI have strongly suggested that the radio signals from extra-terrestrial signals could come only from the far away sources and they could be extremely strong, an alternative hunt would also be planned.

Second strategy: Here the entire plane of milky-way galaxy (where we live) and the central zone will be studied in detail to cover more than 100-billion stars in the shallow region (meaning far away). Apart from this, the survey would also stare at 100-galaxies  comprising of 10s of trillions (1000-billion or million-million) of stars, each star having its own planetary system.

To accomplish the above said goals; the plan is to spend one-third of the funding in buying 20% of the 100-meter diameter Green Bank radio telescope at West Virginia and a substantial amount of time on Parkes 64-meter telescope in Australia for 10-years.

100-meter Green Bank radio telescope
Another one-third amount of funds are planned to develop very high sensitive receivers to listen to billions of narrow frequency channels in 1-10 GHz, a  region which covers best of the radio signal regimes which passes through the earth's atmosphere and also clean from the cosmic background . 

Breakthrough Listen will also be taking up observations in visible light region on the 2.4-meter Lick observatory's  planetary finder telescope. This would serve as an additional tool to support and confirm the region from where one hopes to pick POSITIVE signs of civilization.

Example: As per a rough estimate, the present studies (at Green Park) can pick up signals: "If an alien civilization living on a planet orbiting around any of the 1000 stars closest to us from a common air traffic kind of communication signals". 2. The optical signals monitored at Licks observatory would be able to pick 100-watts of light from the planets of stars which are within 4-light years away from ours.

Prominent SETI attempts:
A British radio astronomer, Antony Hewish and his post doc Jocelyn Bell studying the inter planetary scintillations of compact radio sources came across a set of radio sources displaying very regular and fast packet of signals. Unable to identify the source they went on to name them "little green men". Later the team went on to discover a new set sources called Pulsars; Anotny Hewish getting a noble prize (1974) for this discovery.

The famous ISRO-Balloon experiment, where the Indian scientists lead by Dr. Jayant Narlikar have successfully found bacteria in the stratosphere of earth, at an altitude of 20-40 kms. The three group of bacteria to be identified after the gene sequencing technique have been found for the first time (Reference). Though the Indian experiment may not fall under the LISTEN category, it does stand out as an outstanding effort of humans to reach out extra terrestrial life. India can certainly play a big role in this project; Milner goes on record to say that the idea of pumping this money is to instigate young minds towards science... is any body listening????

Bottom line!!
Though the present initiative may increase the SETI search by 100-times in the form of more sensitive tools (a rough estimate); it may take even generations to get to listen to the super civilization living away from our world. But surely enough... Milner has certainly initiated a giant step towards SETI...

Like to give credit to few press reports appearing in the internet after the declaration of Breakthrough Initiatives project on 20th July at the Royal Society, London, particularly to a good piece of article appearing in the Sky and Telescope by Alan MacRobert.

Lunar water; Who dunit ??