The pitfalls of Somanath calling Aditya L1 a “protector”

In a WhatsApp group of which I’m a part, there’s a heated discussion going on around an article published by NDTV on June 10, entitled ‘Sun’s Fury May Fry Satellites, But India Has A Watchful Space Protector’. The article was published after the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) published images of the Sun the Aditya L1 spacecraft (including its coronagraph) captured during the May solar storm. The article also features quotes by ISRO chairman S. Somanath — and some of them in particular prompted the discussion. For example, he says:

“Aditya L1 captured when the Sun got angry this May. If it gets furious in the near future, as scientists suggest, India’s 24x7X365 days’ eye on the Sun is going to provide a forewarning. After all, we have to protect the 50-plus Indian satellites in space that have cost the country an estimated more than ₹ 50,000 crore. Aditya L1 is a celestial protector for our space assets.”

A space scientist on the group pointed out that any solar event that could fry satellites in Earth orbit would also fry Aditya L1, which is stationed at the first Earth-Sun Lagrange point (1.5 million km from Earth in the direction of the Sun), so it doesn’t make sense to describe this spacecraft as a “protector” of India’s “space assets”. Instead, the scientist said, we’re better off describing Aditya L1 as a science mission, which is what it’d been billed as.

Another space scientist in the same group contended that the coronagraph onboard Aditya L1, plus its other instruments, still give the spacecraft a not insignificant early-warning ability, using which ISRO could consider protective measures. He also said not all solar storms are likely to fry all satellites around Earth, only the very powerful ones; likewise, not all satellites around Earth are equally engineered to withstand solar radiation that is more intense than usual, to varying extents. With these variables in mind, he added, Aditya L1 — which is protected to a greater degree — could give ISRO folks enough head start to manoeuvre ‘weaker’ satellites out of harm’s way or prevent catastrophic failures. By virtue of being ISRO’s eyes on the Sun, then, he suggested Aditya L1 was a scientific mission that could also perform some, but not all, of the functions expected of a full-blown early warning system.

(For such a system vis-a-vis solar weather, he said the fourth or the fifth Earth-Sun Lagrange points would have been better stations.)

I’m putting this down here as a public service message. Characterising a scientific mission — which is driven by scientists’ questions, rather than ISRO’s perception of threats or as part of any overarching strategy of the Indian government — as something else is not harmless because it downplays the fact that we have open questions and that we need to spend time and money answering them. It also creates a false narrative about the mission’s purpose that the people who have spent years designing and building the instruments onboard Aditya L1 don’t deserve, and a false impression of how much room the Indian space programme currently has to launch and operate spacecraft that are dedicated to providing early warnings of bad solar weather.

To be fair, the NDTV article says in a few places that Aditya L1 is a scientific mission, as does astrophysicist Somak Raychaudhury in the last paragraph. It’s just not clear why Somanath characterised it as a “protector” and as a “space-based insurance policy”. NDTV also erred by putting “protector” in the headline (based on my experiences at The Wire and The Hindu, most readers of online articles read and share nothing more than the headline). That it was the ISRO chairman who said these things is more harmful: as the person heading India’s nodal space research body, he has a protagonist’s role in making room in the public imagination for the importance and wonders of scientific missions.