India, Uranus and its rings

There are several Indian publications that claim that India discovered the rings of Uranus (Vigyan Prasar, the principal science populariser in India, the Vellore District website, the Indian National Science Academy in its publication and even the Wikipedia page on the Vainu Bappu Observatory). So, when you visit the page on Uranus on Wikipedia, you’re quite surprised to see the credit for the credit has been stolen by the Americans! Being a Wikipedian and from the spirit of reading the Sceptical Patriot, I began researching.

Rings of Uranus
Image: A 1998 false-colour near-infrared image of Uranus showing cloud bands, rings and moons obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope’s NICMOS Camera. Image credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope. Image Source

The year is 1977. Astronomers have predicted that a star was going to be occulted by Uranus. Basically, this meant that Uranus would pass in front of a star. The best visibility was to be had from South Asia, East Africa and parts of South East Asia. Two observatories from India participated in this observation, the Vainu Bappu Observatory at Kavallur and the Uttar Pradesh State Observatory at Nainital. Since the US did not get to be part of the action, NASA flew an airborne observatory called the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO). On it flew Eliot, Dunham and Mink who are today credited with the discovery of the rings of Uranus. Having read the above publications whilst growing up, I thought that Wikipedia was showing it’s Global North bias while claiming this fact.

I first went looking for the publication where the results from the observation of the Vainu Bappu Observatory would have been published. I came up with this piece published in the Bulletins of the Astronomical Society of India’s March 1977 edition by J C Bhattacharya and K Kuppuswamy. It claims of a discovery of a new satellite of Uranus.

The astronomers at Kavalur were out to observe the occultation was of the star called SAO 158687 by Uranus. Uranus was to pass in front of the star, as per predictions by astronomers. When astronomers watched the star they expected a dip in the brightness of the star as Uranus passed in front of it. They did observe this but in addition, they observed several other dips before the event. This dip was suspected to be caused by a satellite of Uranus. However, none of the known satellites of Uranus were in the position where the dip was observed. Thus, Bhattacharya and Kuppuswamy deduced that this was a new satellite of Uranus, which prompted the above publication in the Bulletins of March 1977.

About the same time as Kavalur was observing the occultation, an airborne telescope over the Indian Ocean was also observing the same phenomenon and saw similar dips in the brightness of the star before and after the event. It was Eliot who saw the symmetry of the dips before and after the event and concluded that what they had discovered were the rings of Uranus. He published this in a paper in Nature magazine in May 1977.

While both groups made the observations of the rings (among many others including the French, the English and the Chinese), it was the American group that made the correct deduction from the data, the fact that the dip in brightness of the star before the planet were caused by its rings.

I do not know where the attribution of the discovery in Indian publications came to India and why nobody has bothered fixing it even in the information age. Bhattacharya in a paper he wrote for the Bulletins in 1979 also gives credit to the American KAO team. It seems to follow the rule that a myth oft repeated becomes reality.

Review: ISRO Annual Report 2013-14

I saw the link to the 2013-14 Annual Report on the ISRO website thanks to the blinking “NEW” sign next to it. Usually, ISRO reports go over the top with missions that they tend to be working on and hoping to cover more ground than they realistically could. It usually had timelines that no one knew how they’d meet.

The 2013-14 Annual Report is different. It states the basic facts under each section and dwells very slightly on the future course of the missions under development. I am not really sure how I feel with this change especially since they did the unthinkable in putting together and launching the Mars Orbiter Mission in record time.

I have had things weighing on my mind this whole year. This meant that I have not been that on top of space developments as I have been in the past. The Report, put together as a sort of summary of what happened in the 2013-14 period that it covers, hence make lovely reading for me but really bland reading for people already in the loop. The Report is a long series of things which just goes like, “This happened, this happened, this happened, and you know what, this happened too!”

Without further ado, let’s go through this report now, shall we?

I like to begin with the Space Transportation Systems section and begin with the GSLV Mk-III project. This three stage vehicle is now prepping for a passive cryogenic stage flight carrying the Human Spaceflight Crew Module on top to test the design of the whole stack. ISRO has never done this before – flown a mission without a payload – since each launch cost so much. However, the string of failures that the GSLV Mk-I and Mk-II saw has slowed the approach they’re taking with the Mk-III or LVM3 as they refer to it internally and presentations they make. The passive cryogenic stage means that the cryogenic stage does not actually fire whilst the giant twin S-200 and the liquid L-110s will fire and take the vehicle up to a certain height and the engineers will get valuable data that can be used to improve the design and fix flaws in the aerodynamics. I really loved this picture of the CE-20 cryogenic engine that is at the heart of the third stage of the LVM3 in the Report undergoing a hot test.


Image: The CE-20 cryogenic engine undergoing a hot test. Image Credit: ISRO. Image Source

Next, again in the Space Transportation Systems section is an eerie sounding title called “Pre-project Activities of the Human Spaceflight Programme”. The ISRO asked the Government for some money to put together the systems that would enable a human spaceflight programme. This section basically details on what happened under that head. The most interesting aspect for me in this are the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) and information related to tests for the Crew Escape Systems. CARE is expected to be on top of the LVM3 experimental flight I talked about above. This is an important test because it gives us crucial indications as to what the Crew Module can handle during an atmospheric re-entry or to put it bluntly, if humans inside it can survive an atmospheric re-entry. I am not really in favour of mingling this along with LVM3-X and think ISRO is trying to do too many things at once.

5HSP-CMImage: The Crew Module undergoing a test. Image Credit: ISRO. Image Source

ISRO loves indecipherable précis. Pray, expand on this? “Functioning of newly developed Head-end Mounted Safe Arm (HMSA) for solid motors in Crew Escape System was successfully demonstrated.” The work with parachutes with tests conducted in Chandigarh and Agra is interesting and I wish ISRO shares more of these on its Facebook and Twitter sites. With pictures, please!

I really need to read up on this LVM3-X flight. I think I’ve not really understood it well. Under the GSLV Mk-III section, it does not make mention of the Crew Module flight during the LVM3-X flight whereas the section above does. Hmm!

If you wander to the Space Sciences and Planetary Research section, the section on the Mars Orbiter Mission piqued my interest but ended in disappointment. The section is a nice synopsis of what’s happened so far. No looking at the future. No mention of a future/planned Mars mission. The mission does deserve kudos for its achievement thus far and I think the section does not do it any justice. The section on Chandrayaan-II is more interesting. This is the section in which the marked toning down of ISRO’s Reports becomes most glaringly visible. Earlier reports were talking of Chandrayaan III or even IV by 2015. This Report only marks the parting of ways with Roscosmos and the tough job of developing a lunar lander that lies ahead of ISRO. It does not even offer a guess at the possible launch time-frame, though news reports have been pushing it further and further into the future. Pendulum swings! They’ve now got their launch vehicle – the GSLV Mk-II. They’re working on the orbiter and rover since they were working with Russia. The parting of ways on the project means that they had to rework the project with an Indian lander.

Chandrayaan 2 rover mobility test
Image: Chandrayaan-II Rover undergoing mobility test under reduced gravity conditions. Image Credit: ISRO. Image Source

The Audit Observation section also has an important paragraph on Edusat, India’s effort at tele-education. Whilst ISRO has been at pains to make this into a success, the CAG seems to report that the planning was bad and basically all the ground infrastructural network did not come up as expected. As the network developed, the satellite idled with no useful function. By the time the network on ground developed, the satellite seems to have given up waiting. I also think that similar criticism can be levelled at ISRO for its planetary projects to Mars and the Moon. Chandrayaan-II seems to be coming almost a decade after it’s predecessor launched and there is no mention of the next Mars mission at all.

Annual Reports usually make drab reading except for people who follow intently. Earlier, ISRO has gone overboard with planning and now seems to be extra shy thanks to all that it wasn’t able to achieve as promised. I think the Report needs to strike a healthy balance of information on the projects undertaken in the year and a glance at what’s coming in the future, especially if it is exciting.

Rosetta reaches the Comet 67P

Today, at around 3 PM, I got news of Rosetta’s rendezvous with the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko via Twitter. This is the first spacecraft that has rendezvoused with a comet with the specific intention of orbiting, studying and landing on it. I only re-tweeted a few tweets as I was at work.

Rosetta spacecraft

Image: Rosetta spacecraft in its stowed configuration as it prepares for liftoff on board the Ariane-V. Image Credit: ESA/Arianespace. Original Image

I first heard of Rosetta way back in 2004, when it lifted-off. I was then in college hanging around for my turn at a computer at a cybercafé waiting to access the Internet to learn the latest updates when I read about the mission. I thought of it, then, as a wild goose chase and dismissed it. I then caught up with news on the spacecraft on the ESA website and on Twitter later in 2011. I have been excited at the steady and slow progress it made as it gained on the comet since then and have especially been following their updates on their blog as well as following them on Twitter.

There is a lot of good coverage in the blogsphere about today’s event which explains things a lot better than I ever will be able to, in my opinion. You should start with the ESA blog that covers the event itself as well as what they expect to do next (some science and find a place to land that lander, Philae). Emily Lakdawalla has a load of pictures from the comet. You can also go to Spaceflight Now’s Mission Update Centre that offers nice summary updates (for the time hungry) with links to detailed stories (for the information hungry). I’ll add more good blog posts about the Rosetta mission here as I find them.