Mars Orbiter Mission – A step in the right direction for India

mangalyaan

Mangalyaan in orbit (Artist’s Impression)

People often criticize scientific endeavors especially the ones pertaining to space travel as a waste of time and money. The Mars Orbiter Mission of India also known as Mangalyaan had its share of criticism throughout its development. In the midst of all this, the craft lifted off to space today, 5th November 2013 at 2:38 PM IST and was inserted into an orbit around the Earth with remarkable precision a few minutes later. This first step is a remarkable milestone in the history of Indian Space Program. Of course it is only the first of the three stages of the entire mission but it is something worth to be proud.

When the Indian Space Program was started in 1969, little did anyone know that India would become part of an emerging Asian Space Race. Our technologically superior neighbor has made excellent strides in the field of space travel. They had their first man and first woman in space using indigenous technology and now they are building their first space station. However, India’s achievements should not be seen in a lesser light because the focus of ISRO is more on unmanned missions. And having been able to start off successfully in a Mars mission is something that should invite our neighbor’s envy.

PSLV-C25 Rocket on the Launchpad

PSLV-C25 Rocket on the Launchpad

Mars has never been an easy target for space faring nations. The first ever mission to Mars was by the erstwhile Soviet Union as early as 10 October 1960. The heat of Cold War would have been probably the driving force to attempt a Mars mission just 3 years after Sputnik. The high failure rate see throughout the historic timeline of Mars exploration had made many a person including me quite apprehensive of the Mangalyaan mission. Even the recent failure of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 mission of Russia and China in 2011 made people raise their eyebrows when it was announced that India is eyeing the red planet. It is exhilarating to finally see the probe lift off the ground in the PSLV-C25 rocket. ISRO’s faith in PSLV has paid off once again and we are on our way to become the fourth nation to reach Mars if everything goes according to plan.

India is a country with great economic and cultural divide. It may be justified to ask whether the mission was worth the 4.5 billion rupees spent on it when other national priorities such as women’s education and healthcare in rural India could be easily met with the amount. After all it is just a satellite that will orbit around Mars and send back signals of what it studies. People can ask what difference is this mission going to make. It is a difficult question to answer and would require vast amount of research. However, one thing can be said about it. Comparing India’s Mars mission to that of United States or Russia may be utterly unfair in my opinion. United States and Soviet Union had too much funding during the cold war to perform mission after mission despite the number of failures they encountered. And still they can afford to send rovers and other advanced instruments to deep space and afford to fail in it. This is India’s first interplanetary mission and should be compared to Mariner – 9 of United States which was launched back in 1971. Mariner – 9 was an orbiter mission and that is exactly what Mangalyaan is all about and must be seen as such. It is true that USA and USSR were having landers and rovers back in the ’70s but that fact should not be used to demean India’s mission.

Mars Orbiter Trajectory

Mars Orbiter Trajectory

Mars Orbiter Mission of India is a step in the right direction. We may have poverty and prejudice within Indian society but one must see the bigger picture. As part of the human race, it is our duty to explore and colonize other planets. Saying that it will ensure the continuity of our species might be too much of a cliche but that is most certainly a part of interplanetary mission. Interplanetary missions in its true sense has not yet taken place since that would mean going to a distant planet and coming back. For that reason I am not very fond of the Mars One program that is currently seeking volunteers. A true interplanetary mission must ensure that participants are capable of going back and forth between the planets. Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama did not maroon themselves in the places they explored. They did go back to their homes to tell the stories about their journey. It is important thus for any manned or unmanned Mars mission to go there and return in order to be fully interplanetary. Anyway, I feel very proud of my country’s capability to perform a feat that many have failed in. Our two hostile neighbors in my opinion should learn from us instead of taunting us unnecessarily over petty border issues.

Uzbek Plov Recipe

Uzbek Plov or Pilaf or Osh

The Uzbek Plov also known as Pilaf or Osh is an exceptionally delicious style of biryani from Uzbekistan. Widely claimed to be Stalin’s favourite dish, this rice and mutton based recipe from Uzbekistan is easier to prepare compared to other conventional biryanis. It can be prepared as follows:

Materials Required

  • Lamb Meat cut in squares (preferably of a fat lamb) – 0.5 to 1 kg
  • 2 – 3 cup Basmati Rice (or Uzbek Rice)
  • 3 – 4 big carrots cut in very small pieces
  • 2 Onions cut in medium pieces
  • 5 Green chilly cut in small pices
  • Vegetable Oil
  • 4 – 5 garlic with skin
  • Salt – 2.5 teaspoon
  • Black Pepper powder – 1 teaspoon
  • Other spices if necessary (cinnamon, clove etc.) – 1 teaspoon
  • Coriander powder – 2 teaspoon
  • Coriander Leaves

Preparation:

Uzbek Plov or Pilaf or Osh

This dish is to be prepared in good flame in the beginning and hence the vessel you use must have a thick bottom. This ensures that the meat doesn’t get charred.

  • Wash the basmati rice and keep it soaked in lukewarm water before you start the preparation.
  • Pour the vegetable oil in the main vessel and wait until it gets heated.
  • Once the oil gets heated up, add the mutton pieces and fry them until they become light brown.
  • Add the onion, carrot and green chilly to this and mix them until the the onion turns golden brown.
  • Add salt, pepper powder and other spices that you have selected and continue to mix. You can reduce the flame at this stage.
  • Spread the mixture evenly. Filter out the water and add the rice to this mixture. Make sure that the rice completely covers the mutton, carrot and onion mixture. You should stop mixing at this stage.
  • Pour water to this without disturbing the rice distribution. The water should completely submerge the rice.
  • Once the water starts boiling, close the the lid. Reduce the flame further.
  • Wait for 10 minutes and check whether the water has been absorbed into the rice.
  • Place the garlic pieces on top of the rice.
  • If the rice hasn’t got cooked at this stage, create a small opening at the center of the mixture and add water there without disturbing the structure.
  • Close the lid and wait for another 10 minutes.
  • Repeat this process until the rice is cooked.
  • Turn off the flame and keep the vessel undisturbed for 30 minutes.

You can add coriander leaves after 30 minutes and mix the dish well. When adding water the second time, be sparing in the quantity used because you should not overcook the rice.

Uzbek Plov or Pilaf or OshYour Uzbek Plov is now ready. You can use Yougurt Kachumber as a side dish. What makes the taste so exquisite is the lamb fat. The mutton gets fried both in the vegetable oil and the fat that comes out of the meat. The first time I prepared this, it didn’t come right. So don’t be disheartened. Try again and you will be fine. The day I saw this recipe in the newspaper, things were a mess but I learned from my mistakes and so should you. This recipe has one extra ingredient, which is green chilly but trust me, it makes the dish amazing. Let me know your feedback!

2011 MD leaves warning to Earthlings

Image of 2011 MD Path
2011 MD Trajectory

The Asteroid 2011 MD, discovered on 22nd at the LINEAR near-Earth object survey in Socorro, New Mexico by the amateur Australian Astronomer, Peter Lake flew by the Earth on 27th at a close proximity of 7600 miles which is closer than most satellites. The approach did startle scientists but the prospect of the asteroid burning up in the atmosphere on entry was a relief.

The asteroid flew over the southern Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Antarctica, during its closest approach. Though a relief now, such rocks are expected to brush Earth every once in six years. As part of the program to identify potentially hazardous objects, scientists are tracking threats like these regularly.

In February, 2011 CQ1, detected just 14 hours before approach passed even closer with a proximity of 3,400 miles making it the closest known flyby asteroid till date. You can view the images of 2011 MD captured by astronomer Tom Glinos and Wireless Beehive website here and here.

2011 MD belongs to a class of asteroids known as Apollo Asteroids that are known to be “Earth Crossers“.  Their orbital semi-major axes are greater than that of the Earth (> 1 AU) and the perihelion distance (q) is less than 1.017 AU. Initially thought of as a space junk, the asteroid gave only a brief period of observability since it appeared close to the Sun during its nearest approach.

The bigger news is that a larger 400m asteroid named 2005 YU55, will make a close return on November 8. However, it is already being tracked by JPL’s NEO scientists in addition to over 75 rocks on the watch list that might make close approach to earth between now and mid-October. Asteroids like these remind us about our vulnerability to an impact and to prepare the technology to thwart such an incident if it happens.

When we played outside – A Retrospect!

Computers may eventually turn us into machines!

Computers may eventually turn us into machines!

A few days ago I had a conversation with my friend. Season 4 of The Big Bang Theory was out and we just finished watching Episode 4. We exchanged views about how the series had gone down in popularity recently because it seemed the public got a hang of what the characters could do and the jokes have become trite. He asked questions about my new company and its environment and I described it in detail.

Then all of a sudden I said, “I somehow feel that Internet is getting a boring place to be.” He just smiled. I continued, “I think we should go out and play than lock ourselves up in air-conditioned rooms with a machine in front of the eyes.” He smiled again.

The Psychic Vortex

A Scene from the TBBT Episode – The Psychic Vortex

There was something that prompted me to say this. In TBBT, there is an episode called “The Psychic Vortex.” In that Koothrapalli tries to persuade Sheldon by saying, “Come on, Sheldon. I want to go outside, let’s go outside. Outside is good.” to which Sheldon responds, “If outside is so good, why has man spent thousands of years perfecting inside?

Despite the humorous intend of this dialog, there is a deeper meaning in it. I felt like we are losing out on a physical part of ourselves and I wanted to discuss it.

I started first by describing my school days which I miss so much. Many of my current friends think that I hate sports. But I was not always like that. Long back, during school, I used to play football, cricket, kabbadi, volleyball, kho-kho etc. Also I was involved in all sorts of mischiefs that children commit when they are young and hyperactive like fighting, running, jumping, falling etc. We played Kallanum Policum for almost 8 years continuously. My friend agreed that those days are something he too missed because he used to play them as well.

There are a lot of incidents of my school days that I would like to share and I will be posting about all of them subsequently.

School Days

A reminder of the good old days…

When we compare our school days with our present life, most of the time the weltschmerz sets in. It is true that we can’t have that life again. But there are certain parts of it that can still be part of our present life. It is just that we don’t bother to include them. It is one of those that I wanted to discuss with him. The physical aspect.

I started my description of school days with some weird games that we used to play which he was not aware of.

The first game I explained was called “Dhaaba Dhoobi.”  It was introduced by the North Indians in our class. The game starts by creating a ball using paper, plastic and rubber band. It is smaller than a cricket ball. Then we team up. And we will throw this ball at the ass of any of the guys in the other team. And then they will try to throw back. It pains nicely when it hits hard and people run around to avoid being hit. We played this game from about 4th to 8th standard. Four years of exhilarating experience playing the great Dhaaba Dhoobi!

My friend commented that this game was gay. I just laughed because there were more at my disposal awaiting description.

Keeping what he commented in mind, I started with the next game which we called “Ba Ba Ba.” Actually the term originated from my brother and I used it to name this game. It was a fighting game of the wrestling genre. The winner wins by making the loser’s ass touch the ground. So everybody tries to force his opponent to sit on the ground. Initially it was hand on the ground but the rule was later changed and hand was replaced by ass. This was played for about a year or two between 5th and 7th standards.

Wrestling

This is how we used to win in Ba Ba Ba!

Again my friend asked whether I was gay and I told him that we didn’t know that such a thing called gay existed back then.

Anyway, I started with the third game . It was more intricate than the previous ones and only existed for about a year during the 6th standard. It was named again by the North Indians as “Ghoda Gaadi”. As the name suggests, there was a horse involved. But not a real horse. A guy will assume the role of a horse and another guy will assume the role of the soldier who sits on the horseback. Teams are divided and the horse-soldier pair of one team has to fight with the horse-soldier pair of the opposite team.

An example of the Human Horse

The Ghoda Gaadi looks similar to this

Winning or losing was depended upon whether the pair fell down or whether the soldier climbed down his horse before the fight ended. I learned about the power of momentum long before it was taught from this game though I didn’t know that it was called momentum. This game belonged to the hand fighting genre because the legs were held by the horse to prevent the soldier from falling.

My horse was Naveen and I named him Chetak after I got “inspired” by a Vinod Khanna movie. We had comparable sizes but he was stronger than me. We were a very famous pair because we used to win most of the time despite our small size compared to our competitors. The mystery was in the physics involved which we subconsciously exploited. This was particularly true when we fought against Sandeep-Shyamlal pair(yeah, there was another Sandeep). This Sandeep was strong and stout but Shyamlal was thin. Both were taller than me. Sandeep was Shyamlal’s horse.

Initially we used to lose the fights until I found a way around. What I did was, I will grab Shyamlal when he approaches and ask Naveen to rotate. Once we reach a sufficient speed and I start feeling the centripetal force, I simply let Shyamlal go and the pair will move under their own momentum to their inevitable fall.

This game was fun but often ended up being a real fight if the losers don’t admit defeat. I had tried biting my opponents a couple of times but then when the opponents too started doing it, I stopped.

Sandeep said that it was a very weird game. I told him that out of the three, I liked “Ba Ba Ba” and “Ghoda Gaadi”.  He commented again saying that I liked the gay ones because they were all about ass. Anyway I didn’t care what he said because those games were the best we ever played in school.

Then there were general fights in the class, in the ground, in the bus stops and practically anywhere we found “fightable”. There were two main teams in our class. The Hindi Team and Malayalee Team. And the Malayalee team had two factions viz Rijith Team and Binil Team. From 5th Standard Harilal took over Binil Team. All these teams fight for every other reason they have. There were occasional jumps that people did from one team to another following a dispute. Often these kind of disputes were settled in “the ancient way”. A one-on-one fighting tournament takes place with the team members standing around encouraging the fight.

An example of a School Fight

An example of a School Fight

There was a competence to fight and win when we were in teams. We used to send spies in order to find out the strategy of the other team before the PT period so that we can have an edge over them in football or cricket.

Football disputes were sometimes settled by the cane of Paulose sir if it reached him. Since cricket was played after the school timings, disputes were settled by ourselves.

The reason I wanted to talk about all this violence is because there is something we lack now a days. The fighting spirit. We lock ourselves in air-conditioned rooms in front of computers trying to make a living. It is not that we shouldn’t do that. But we hardly go outside and play. We don’t engage ourselves in combat. The reason I took over martial arts training at 16 was because I wanted to get that fighting spirit back. I still go to my instructor’s place and get some practice whenever I have time.

The fighting spirit is something we need to have throughout our lives. It is a fundamental nature of us. In the olden days people got involved in physical activities throughout their lives. But now it is different and it is that aspect that one should nurture. We need to regain that spirit which has been lost in the ravages of time!

The Vivekananda Decomposition – A New Type of Destructive distillation!

Destructive Distillation
Destructive Distillation of Coal

We learned about charcoal and coke during 8th grade but we didn’t learn how they are produced until 10th grade  when  our beloved Prema madam taught us the process of destructive distillation. I kind of liked the idea since the process reminded us of another experiment I conducted with my brother at home. Most ordinary light bulbs have a component inside that  resembles a miniature test tube which we have used to conduct experiments on projectile motion.

Filament
Inside of a light bulb

We found at an early age that the inflammable material at the tip of a match stick can be utilized to launch projectiles. My brother and I were introduced to the test tube like thing by our neighbors. We put the inflammable stuff inside it thing and compressed it from outside. When we applied heat at the open end of the tube, it shot forward like a bullet.

I thought that this tube could also be used for destructive distillation. Science freaks like my friend Shyamlal and I used to sit  in the class and mock spiritual concepts. In Hindi we were taught many lessons depicting stories of Buddha and Vivekananda. This is about an incident centered around a biographical lesson on Vivekananda and his contributions in our 10th grade Hindi text book.

Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda

The lesson was nice and at the end of it , there was a couple of paragraphs about his death. It was written that his body which was made of panch bhoot or five elements (earth, ether, fire, water and air) finally got separated from its soul and disintegrated into the earth. I was puzzled and asked Shyamlal who sat next to me “What does that even mean?”. He joked saying, “May be we can do a destructive distillation of his body to find out whether he is composed of panch bhoot!”. I stared at him for a while thinking about what to say.

It was a funny incident but it raised some fundamental questions in our minds. For instance, “Why do we still believe in pseudoscience even though we know that real science says something else?” “Why is it that yoga instructors and Ayurveda practitioners still preach about the vata, pitta and kabha doshas when the actual explanation of the symptoms in the body is different?”

My friend’s joke didn’t decompose Vivekananda. It instead decomposed our views on pseudo-scientific notions about the world around us! And now I like Vivekananda who caused this initiation.

Life giving formula!

Electroplating in Copper Sulphate Solution

Yeah I know. You must be thinking I am crazy! But read on and you will find out what I mean. It is funny that I don’t exactly remember in which standard this story took place. It is probably 9th or 10th. I went to my friend Shyamlal’s house with my brother to work on our electroplating project. (There are actually multiple stories centered  electroplating which I plan to include in a different post.)

Molecular Structure of Sulfuric Acid

After working on the plating stuff for a while, we got bored and wanted to try something different. We took a wide plastic lid of a jar and added copper sulfate solution to it. I don’t remember what the second ingredient was. It was something of green color. To this green solution, we added a little sulfuric acid. Since we didn’t have a stirrer, we used a paint brush to stir the solution. This caused some of the bristles to come out of the brush and fall into the solution.

Brush Bristles – Ours were thinner than this though

We kept the solution for sometime and went to the terrace to play. Later on we came back inside and looked closely at the solution. To our horror, we found that the bristles were moving very slowly even though the solution was static. The motion was random, something that resembled the motion of a worm. We thought, “Oh my, this formula gave life to bristles.

We stirred the solution again and let it settle down to see whether this conclusion was true and it was. Once settled, the bristles started moving like worms again.

Brownian Motion – A visualization

I wrote down the formula and took it home. For many days I was thinking what the hell happened to the bristles that resulted in this random motion that created the illusion of life.

After a while it clicked: “Brownian Motion!” It was the same stuff that led Einstein in 1905 into thinking that Boltzmann’s conclusions on atoms were in fact true. What he observed was the movement of pollen grains in water. We observed the same effect with brush bristles in a denser solution.

The puzzle was finally solved. Even though we didn’t invent a formula that gives life, it was enough to cause me headache for many days trying to figure out the meaning of that experiment!

Calorific Value!

Working of Rocket Engine using Liquid Propellants – Courtesy NASA

My 8th and 9th standard science texts were replete with concepts like calorific value, ideal fuel, molarity etc etc. Fortunately I was one of the few who could understand those conundrums. I was thinking about rocket propellants in those days. I knew that it burned rapidly and completely without leaving residue and that it generated huge volume of gases that drove the rockets forward based on Newton’s 3rd law.

A typical Home Laboratory

In 1998, we moved from our house at Pottakuzhy, were I setup my first actual lab to a house at P.S Road in Azad Road. I was wondering where I could set up my new lab. At Pottakuzhy, the windowpane had some designs made of metallic wires which enabled me to build a platform using the cardboard plate that the bakers kept beneath my birthday cake.

In this new house, I was disappointed because the windowpane didn’t have wired designs. They were just trite metal bars laid horizontally across the window. Anyway, I was able to get a hold of the small table that was previously used to keep the idols of Gods since we moved our Gods to the top of our bookshelf next to our television. By then I had collected so many things that it almost filled my table.

Monomethylhydrazine

Let me get on with the actual incident now. I wanted to develop a propellant that worked like an ideal fuel with great calorific value and all the other attributes I mentioned above. I didn’t have liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen, methyl hydrazine, dinitrogen tetroxide or neoprene solution. But I didn’t really mind all that because I was confident about my capabilities and the chemicals I already had.

Brandy

So there I went with the quest for the ideal fuel. I took the experiment to my study table adjoining the lab table since there was no space on it and mom had hung some clothes on a rope above that. I took my usual vessel(brandy bottle cap) and added a little brandy to it. I had actually created a handle using thick copper and aluminum wires so that I could hold the vessel in my hand.

Step #1: I lighted the candle. I added a piece of solid NaOH into the brandy in the vessel. I held it to the candle flame. Nothing happened!

Step #2: I added a little candle wax and heated again. Nothing!

A Kerosene Stove – I extracted the Kerosene out of this

I was thinking why nothing was happening. May be another ingredient was missing. I thought about the other possible chemicals that I could add. Copper sulfate was a good choice but thinking about the chemical equations, I didn’t think it was a good idea since I thought it wouldn’t bring forth any favorable outcome. Sodium bicarbonate? Well, I already had Sodium hydroxide which didn’t do anything so far. Then I knew what I could add. I went to the kitchen and brought some kerosene and added a little into the solution.

Step #3: I started heating the new solution on the candle flame. Just 30 seconds and BANG!!! The whole damn thing burned up. The fire in fact spread outside and the whole vessel burned. I got scared and dropped it and extinguished it!

Candle Wax

I was exhilarated. This was really cool. When I checked the vessel, I found that except for the little candle wax I added in Step #2, the whole thing had burned. I thought that probably NaOH catalyzed the mixture of ethyl alcohol and kerosene giving rise to this spectacular combustion!

But was this really a propellant? Did it pass the tests required for it to be called a propellant? The young mind in me was disappointed because a part of me said that I had successfully completed stage one of my quest and that I need to move on to the next stage. But another part of me told that this is just a stupid experiment I did using the stuff in my house and that it is of no use and even if I wanted to pursue this experiment, I needed advanced equipment which I couldn’t afford.

Geotechnical Engineering

Anyway, I wrote down the results in a collection of papers which I maintained in my lab(a lot of which I lost in the ravages of time.) Years passed and I was in my 12th standard. One day at my native, I met my cousin who was then doing his masters in Geo-technical engineering. He asked me which field I wanted to take up after 12th. I told him that I needed to contribute to the field of aerospace science and technology. He was impressed and asked me to pursue it. We then discussed about the various aspects of the field.

The International Space Station – A masterpiece of Aerospace Engineering

During the discussion, the concept of ideal fuel came in. I told him about my experiments to find the ideal fuel. He smiled and told that this is not the right time to speak about ideal fuel. He asked me to do at least a doctorate in aerospace sciences before I even speak about this to anyone. I was partly discouraged but a lot motivated because I knew that someone did know that I had stuff in  me and was ready to guide me in the right direction!

The experiments continued…..