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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Chandrayaan 2 - Vikram lander ... and NDTV journalist Q to Scientist !!


In late 1970s and early 1980s, Doordarshan had only one channel, telecast was in black & white – Test Cricket would be covered with a single Camera – if Madanlal ran in towards us at Chepauk, next over Karsan Ghavri would run away from us ! ~ then there was the commentary – against New Zealand, Srinivasan Venkatraghavan rescued India with a half-century and went on his knees to hoist Peter Petherick for a six.  When he square cut the off spinner for a four – commentator would say, a very good shot.  Then .. what do you think of that Lala ? [Lala Amarnath or CD Gopinath or some other player with grand Cricket experience would sit as Expert commentator] who would revert – stating ‘that was a delicate square cut’ ?   ~ every one can follow the game, observe something, reel out statistics but those with ground experience could bring out the finer aspects !!

Around 1.52 am on September 7 when hundreds of scientists at the Indian Research Space Organisation (Isro) were glued to their monitor screens at Isro's control centre in Bengaluru,  respected PM of the Nation watching in person, millions of Indians were glued to their TV sets and mobile phones back home, India achieved two milestones and missed one by a whisker.  In focus was 'Mission Chandrayaan-2', India's ambitious attempt to reach Moon's south polar region, an area largely unexplored as most lunar probes have focused on Moon's equator and north pole. It was not just an attempt to merely reach Moon's south pole, Chandrayaan-2 was an attempt to soft-land a rover there, a feat achieved by only three countries -- the US, Russia and China.

On September 7, India reached the Moon for the second time. This was a record in sorts, given the handful countries who have done it before. What India also achieved that day was reaching the Moon's south polar region, again. (The first was in 2008 with the hard-landing of Chandrayaan-1.) India probably missed by a whisker was, not being able to soft-land a rover on the Moon. Vikram Lander (which was part of Chandrayaan-2) landed on Moon, but not in the manner Isro scientists had planned it to. Isro lost contact with Vikram in the penultimate moments when it was just 2.1 km above Moon's surface. What exactly happened next is not known.

After days of rampant speculation, India has confirmed that it’s Chandrayaan-2 orbiter has found the country’s Vikram lander on the Moon – and an attempt at communication is being made.  Doppler data appeared to suggest that the lander had free fallen to the surface under the Moon’s gravity, one-sixth that of Earth, making any hope at recovery unlikely.  Immediately thereafter, fake images of Chandrayaan-2’s Vikram Lander started circulating on social media after ISRO chief K Sivan said the space agency has located the lander on the lunar surface and is trying to establish contact.  Mr K Sivan  said the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter managed to click a “thermal” image of the lander. This led to several people sharing random space exploration images claiming them to be that of the Vikram Lander.

As every TV was showing the occasion live and as Indians watched in midnight with bated breathe, National Geographic took the cake with its brilliant data centeric factual coverage.  There was an expert - former NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger, who flew on the Russian space station Mir that operated in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001 for five months.  Born on January 16, 1955, and raised in East Detroit, Michigan, Linenger joined astronaut selection Group 14 at the Johnson Space Center in August 1992. He flew on STS-64 (in Sept 1994) aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Following his first mission, in January 1995, he began training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, in preparation for a long-duration stay aboard the Russian Space Station Mir.  During his stay aboard Space Station Mir, Linenger became the first American to conduct a spacewalk from a foreign space station and in a non-American made spacesuit. During the five-hour walk, he and his Russian colleague tested for the first time ever the newly designed Orlan-M Russian-built spacesuit, installed the Optical Properties Monitor (OPM) and Benton dosimeter on the outer surface of the station, and retrieved for analysis on Earth numerous externally mounted material-exposure panels.

The informative NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger remained unspeculative throughout.    “The Vikram descent was as planned, and normal performance was observed, up to an altitude of 2.1 kilometers,” said Kailasavadivoo Sivan, ISRO’s chairman, in a statement roughly half an hour after signal loss. “The data is being analyzed.”  There were no prying Qs and the astronaut remained cool and did not criticize the mission wee bit not offered any unscientific fancy explanation ~ class !  

 “India is proud of our scientists! They’ve given their best and have always made India proud,” Indian prime minister Narendra Modi said in a statement on Twitter after Sivan’s update. “These are moments to be courageous, and courageous we will be!” Like any voyage to a world beyond Earth, Vikram’s flight was a risky endeavor, requiring the lander to slow itself down to a near standstill, autonomously scan for surface obstacles, and then take steps to avoid them during touchdown. The majority of attempts to land robots on the moon have ended in failure, either during launch or on the way to the surface. In an interview before the attempt, Dana Hurley, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, expressed the nervousness that planetary scientists around the world feel with every spacecraft landing—because they know all too well what can go wrong.

If that was the reaction of Indian Prime Minister, Scientists and experts – there was this half-baked media.  During the media interaction after the mission had met with a glitch, an NDTV journalist was seen screaming at the ISRO scientist who was interacting with the media. Pallava Bagla, the NDTV journalist demanded that ISRO chief K Sivan be personally present for the media briefing. Not just this, he even went ahead to call the scientist a “junior scientist” in an effort to grandstand. He sought to ask why the Chief was not present and the media was handled by a Junior.  This expert journalist who understands everything (some commented in social media that he once asked how many astronauts are sent on board – in an unmanned mission !)

Twitter, FB & social media burst with condemnation of the behavior of Bagla.  After widespread condemnation for the NDTV journalist’s uncouth behaviour, Pallava Bagla took  to Twitter to apologise for his conduct to ISRO scientist.  Still, most people were not in the mood to accept his apology. The scientists were visibly distraught after Chandrayaan-2 met with a landing glitch and for a journalist to scream at the scientists because he wanted the ISRO chief to interact with the media was the epitome of arrogance and entitlement, something NDTV journalists are no aliens to. Perhaps what was worse was Bagla calling Mr D P Karnik a “junior scientist” as if the whims and fancies of NDTV journalists could only be catered to by the Chief himself.  Even Prannoy Roy agreed tweeting  -  It’s absolutely sick. Yes, Pallava made a mistake, a terrible rude mistake and NDTV has said so.  May be next time when ISRO or any other organization including NASA sends a rocket in space, this journalist can be on board to steer and navigate.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
10th Sept. 2019

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