‘Real science’

From ‘The most influential climate science paper of all time’, The Conversation, October 8, 2021 (emphasis added):

Manabe, working with various colleagues, went on to write many more seminal climate modelling papers. He set the foundation for today’s global climate modelling efforts. The physics was beguilingly simple so his models could run on these early computers. Yet, by being simple, the results could be understood and tested. His application of these simple models to the pressing problems of today was insightful.

After graduating with a degree in physics over 30 years ago, I chose a career in atmospheric science over particle physics. I always worried about how my applied physics was viewed by mainstream physics colleagues. With a Nobel prize in physics under our discipline’s belt, it gives me and climate modelling colleagues the credibility and recognition we have yearned for: climate science is real science.

The author of the article is a Piers Forster, a professor of physical climate change at the University of Leeds. The part in bold is an unlikely comment from a ‘real scientist’, quite in the spirit of Elon Musk when the latter said in 2018 that nanotechnology is “bs”. But while it’s disappointing to read, considering how it equates scientific legitimacy with winning a Nobel Prize, it may be more useful to interpret the comment as a reflection of how science really works: not by the isolation of facts and discernment of principles alone but also through social acceptance and the (maximal) recognition of one’s peers.

Woolly mammoths and a quasi-techbro

A white old man in glasses looking at a bunch of flowers in his hand, while delivering a talk from a stage.

I wrote for The Wire Science about George Church’s idea to repopulate the Arctic tundra with woolly mammoths to, among other things, help maintain the permafrost. He isn’t the first person to think of this – that dubious distinction belongs to, and Church himself got it from, Sergey Zimov, whose ‘Pleistocene Park’ in northeast Russia already has the place and fencing required to implement the project.

But Church’s entry into the fray has rendered the idea sexier in three ways. First, Church is celebrated as one of the world’s ‘top’ experts on gene-editing, and brings with him the considerable, if also inconsiderate, validity of being a successful scientist. Second, the company that Church has created to bring woolly mammoths back, Colossal, recently received $15 million in funding, catapulting its mission to the headlines of most major tech news websites in the US. And third (and most interesting for me), Church is almost a techbro.

Now, it may not be fair for me to typecast Church the way it’s been easy to typecast all the other ‘entrepreneurs’ who took money from the late Jeffrey Epstein, ignored the way he treated women and even defended him in public until it was no longer profitable for them to do so. (Church himself only apologised for maintaining “contacts” with Epstein after shit began hitting the fan.) But there’s one more trait all these people share: to want to ‘fix’ the world with technology, often only because the technology exists, without thinking about consequences that transcend geographies. Bill Gates may be the perfect example, but Colossal’s website also says:

We have the DNA, the technology and the leading experts in the field. Next, we will have the Woolly Mammoth. Alive again.

Yet another potential point of similarity could be a latent obsession with a ‘fresh start’. Elon Musk is convinced he can find that on Mars. Peter Thiel called it “disruption” and batted for it with Donald Trump, to the extent of pitching climate-deniers as the head of the Environment Protection Agency and an anti-FDA provocateur as the next head of the FDA (the tell-all excerpt from The Contrarian on Bloomberg is a must-read). And the first sentence on the same Colossal page – which, by the way, is replete with masculine overtones if you know where and how to look – goes: “MAY PREHISTORY THUNDER FORWARD.”

Well, no.

Is ground-based astronomy a space activity?

An article published on the European Southern Observatory blog on September 10 describes an effort to protect the night sky – a crucial resource for astronomy – by recasting astronomy as the dominant form of human space exploration and thus attempting to have its activities ‘protected’ by the Outer Space Treaty (OST) and other similar international instruments. An important part of this view is ground-based telescopes, together with astronomy’s self-determined right of access to the night sky. If astronomy becomes a form of the peaceful use of outer space and secures some kind of right to a clear view of the night sky, where would that leave astronomy’s conquest, and colonisation, of the ground? (See discussions here and here.)

Astronomy is a space activity in my view, and I would say it’s currently the main way we get to explore space, because you can’t go and visit every single planet and every single minor body in the solar system: the main way that this is done is through astronomical telescopes.

Astronomy supports many critical functions of space activities, from tracking spacecraft to providing critical scientific observations to support space missions. And in terms of capacity building, with data archives, it is an important way for developing countries to experience space, often acting as a gateway to develop a national space capability.

… with the International Asteroid Warning Network, astronomers can warn us about one of the few natural disasters that we can actually do something about. For example, we are using ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile for 30 hours a semester to track threatening asteroids and refine their orbits.

Andrew Williams, ESO blog

The Outer Space Treaty is kind of a constitution for space activities. It provides the fundamental principles that are regulating the use and exploration of outer space. In particular, that everyone should be able to explore and investigate it, and that this should happen for the benefit and interest of all countries. And astronomy, even when ground-based, is fundamental for the exploration and use of outer space and enables other space activities, and so it should fall under its scope and be protected by its principles.

Giuliana Rotola, ESO blog

My discomfort with the idea, of preventing satellite megaconstellations from blocking the view of ground-based observatories by taking recourse to the value-based protections afforded to outer-space activities, stems a little from the OST’s passive nature, some from its historical roots and largely from the astronomy community’s focus here on the injustice being visited upon astronomy, by orbital activities, while it pays little attention to the injustice astronomy itself has visited, and visits, upon terrestrial activities.

First, some history:

Developments in the outer space arena post the erstwhile USSR launching the first manmade satellite Sputnik in space on 4 October 1957 have transformed the world significantly. In order to ensure the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was set up by the United Nations General Assembly in 1959. Subsequently, this committee led to the foundation of the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”. This treaty is commonly known as the Outer Space Treaty (OST). This treaty was opened for signatures on January 27, 1967 as a binding legal instrument.

Ajay Lele, 50 Years of the Outer Space Treaty

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (OST) designates space as the “province of all mankind” and states that the exploration of space and its use should be “for the benefit … of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development”. However, it doesn’t provide any authoritative mechanism to decide which activities are inconsistent with these principles and fails to address issues like the growing weaponization of space. While Article IV prohibits deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space and “establishment of military bases, installations, and fortifications”, the lack of description of what qualifies as a ‘weapon’ creates confusion regarding modern-day technologies such as lasers for communication, while interpreting “the testing of any type of weapons, and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies” to be “forbidden”.

Nitansha Bansal, ‘Why space governance now?’

Unless there are effective rules of the road governing outer space activities, sustainable use of space is in serious danger. Outer space activities today are governed by a few legal instruments including the foundational treaty mechanism, the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967. But this treaty and other associated agreements — such as the Registration Convention, the Liability Convention and the Rescue Agreement — were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s when the threats and challenges were significantly different. Many of these treaties suffer from loopholes and are interpreted in particular ways by one state or another to accommodate their narrow interests.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, ‘Rules-based order in outer space’

Second, the ESO’s idea to pitch astronomy as a peaceful activity through the narrow lens of the OST’s remit is unfair to its terrestrial impact. Here’s one analogy, as a gedankenexperiment: a rover that will explore a distant planetary body can be a peaceful use of outer space, but say it has been fit with a plutonium reactor for its power source and is being launched onboard a rocket that was not properly tested with the payload, and has a 50% risk of exploding en route to orbit and scattering radioactive material over occupied land. Would this mission still count as a peaceful use of outer space? It would, in a narrow, technical sense that overlooks the Earth-bound implications of the launch. Similarly, an astronomical observatory that deems itself to be using outer space in a peaceful manner – limited to the OST’s definition of ‘peaceful’ – may not actually be peaceful.

In fact, by not saying anything about it, the OST also tolerates the pollution of outer space – that is, ‘polluting’ outer space, by any definition, isn’t tantamount to a breach of peace under the OST, a fact that the treaty’s historical basis can account for. Even since the late 1960s, when the OST was opened for signatures, multiple probes and landers have crashed on the Moon, Venus and Mars; the Soviet-era Venera landers – or even just #4 to #16, which were launched after January 1967 – all melted on the Venusian surface. Russia has attempted to justify its ASAT tests under the OST. As one April 2020 analysis put it: “Article IV [of the OST] does not prohibit the stationing of conventional weapons – including conventional ASAT weapons – in space, nor does it explicitly prohibit the testing of weapons in Earth orbit. … There is nothing in the OST to prohibit ASAT weapon tests.”

This is to say that the OST is a security-oriented treaty concerned principally with nukes in orbit, and not even other weapons, as Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan has written. So bringing ground-based astronomy into the OST’s ambit will do just as much as the OST has done vis-à-vis ASAT weapons, orbital debris and plans for lunar occupation – i.e. nothing.

Second, I have little faith in two of the OST’s foundational principles and the aspiration to have ground-based astronomy inherit their merits. They are:

  1. “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;”
  2. “outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States; …”

I don’t know any country in which communities that have found themselves dispossessed of their access to natural resources by science projects haven’t already been disenfranchised in different ways by the state itself. So “the interests of all countries” and “the province of all mankind” are already exclusive and frequently antonymous. Put another way, requiring outer space to be the domain of all countries doesn’t in any way ensure it will also be the domain of all people, and therefore peaceful.

Second, as we’ve seen, the OST’s peaceful use of outer space is limited to the non-rivalrous use of space-based resources and to placing atomic weapons in orbit – and doesn’t extend to imposing limitations on the physical, ground-based consequences of building/operating observatories. However, while outer space may be immeasurably vast, the vantage points from which we can observe it (with ground-based observatories) are quite finite.

Recently, researchers in China reported that they had found a suitable site from which to make astronomical observations, on the Tibetan Plateau; they wrote in their paper: “On Earth’s surface, there are only a handful of high-quality astronomical sites that meet the requirements for very large next-generation facilities.” So while the OST requires outer space to be “free for exploration and use by all states”, a radio telescope being installed at this place, say, will prevent another similar antenna, operated by any other actor, from accessing a point of interest in outer space with the same accuracy. This is a considerably simplified example, but I hope it illustrates the point that – to adapt a line from a Steven Erikson book – the world is vast yet observation sites are rare. (And let’s not pretend science is for everyone’s benefit.)

So if astronomy becomes an ‘outer space activity’ in the OST’s definition, the way it uses outer space won’t mean outer space will be equally free for exploration by all states, nor will the land from which it observes be equally available to all people. This conclusion also impinges on another of the OST’s principles – that “outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”.

When Elon Musk first publicly responded to the rising tide of complaints from astronomers that satellites of the SpaceX Starlink megaconstellation were getting in the way of astronomical observations, his then-trademark recklessness was on full, and frustrating, display: he said, among other things, that observatories will someday become space-based anyway. One reason Musk was wrong was, and is, that ground-based observatories are better by far than space-based ones at observing the universe in some wavelengths, especially radio. That’s because on ground, these observatories can be big and sophisticated for a much smaller price than if they had to be big and sophisticated in space.

However, the discussion around the ESO people’s idea to safeguard their claims to the night sky is currently framed as if to say “you’re not the only one using the skies” – but which often seems to assume “I’m the only one using the land”. I admit using the OST’s principles to oppose astronomy’s ground-based activities could be tenuous, but that the OST can help ground-based astronomy become a ‘peaceful use of outer space’ – within the domain of international-law and beyond – seems more in doubt.

Sci-fi past the science

There’s an interesting remark in the introductory portion of this article by Zeynep Tufekci (emphasis added):

At its best, though, science fiction is a brilliant vehicle for exploring not the far future or the scientifically implausible but the interactions among science, technology and society. The what-if scenarios it poses can allow us to understand our own societies better, and sometimes that’s best done by dispensing with scientific plausibility.

Given the context, such plausibility is likely predicated on the set of all pieces of knowledge minus the set of the unknown-unknown. This in turn indicates a significant divergence between scientific knowledge and knowledge of human society, philosophies and culture as we progress into the future, at least to the extent that there is a belief in the present that scientific knowledge already trails our knowledge of the sociological and political components required to build a more equitable society.

This is pithy and non-trivial at the same time: pithy because the statement reaffirms the truism that science in and of itself lacks the moral centrifuge to separate good from bad, and non-trivial because it refutes the technoptimism that guides Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, (the late) Paul Allen, etc.

If you superimposed this condition on sci-fi the genre, it becomes clear that Isaac Asimov’s and Arthur Clarke’s works – which the world’s tech billionaires claim to have been inspired by in their pursuit of interplanetary human spaceflight, as Tufekci writes – were less about strengthening the role of science and technology in our lives and more about rendering it transparent, so we can look past the gadgets and the gadgetry towards the social structures they’re embedded in.

In effect, Tufekci continues:

Science fiction is sometimes denigrated as escapist literature, but the best examples of it are exactly the opposite.

She argues in her short article, more of a long note, that this alternative reading of sci-fi and its purpose could encourage the billionaires to retool their ambitions and think about making life better on Earth. Food for thought, especially at the start of a new decade when there seems to be a blanket lien to hope – although I very much doubt the aspirations of Musk, Bezos and others were nurtured about such a simple fulcrum.

Starlink and astronomy

SpaceX’s Starlink constellation is currently a network of 120+ satellites and which, in the next decade, will expand to 10,000+ to provide low-cost internet from space around the world. Astronomers everywhere have been pissed off with these instruments because they physically interfere with observations of the night sky, especially those undertaken by survey telescopes with wide fields of view, and some of whose signals could interfere electromagnetically with radio-astronomy.

In his resourceful new book The Consequential Frontier (2019), on “challenging the privatisation of space”, Peter Ward quotes James Vedda, senior policy analyst for the Centre for Space Policy and Strategy at the Aerospace Corporation, on the expansion of the American railroad in the 19th century:

Everybody likes to point to the railroad and say that, ‘Oh, back in the nineteenth century, when all this was all being built up, it was all built by the private sector.’ Well, hold on a minute. They didn’t do it alone because they were given huge amounts of land to lay their tracks and to build their stations. And not just a little strip of land wide enough for the tracks, they were usually given up to a mile on either side. … I read one estimate that in the nineteenth-century development of the railroads, the railroad companies were given land grants that if you total them all up together were equivalent to the size of Texas. They sold off all that extra land [and] they found that they got to keep the money. Besides that, the US Geological Survey went out and did this surveying for them and gave them the results for free so that is a significant cost that they didn’t have.

Ward extends Vedda’s comments to the activities of SpaceX and Blue Origin, the private American space companies stewarded by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, respectively. We’re not in the golden age of private spaceflight thanks to private enterprise. Instead, just like the Information Age owes itself to defence contracts awarded to universities and research labs during World War II and the Cold War, private operators owe themselves to profitable public-private partnerships funded substantially by federal grants and subsidies in the 1980s and 1990s. It would be doubly useful to bear this in mind when thinking about Starlink as well.

When Musk was confronted a month or so ago with astronomers’ complaints, he replied (via Twitter) that astronomers will have to launch more space telescopes “anyway”. This is not true, but even if it were, it recalls the relationship between private and public enterprise from over a century ago. As the user @cynosurae pointed out on Twitter, space telescopes are expensive (relative to ground-based instruments with similar capabilities and specifications) and they can only be built with government support in terms of land, resources and funds. That is, the consequences of Musk’s ambition – economists call them negative externalities – vis-à-vis the astronomy community can only be offset by taxpayer money.

Many Twitter users have been urging Musk to placate Starlink’s detractors by launching a telescope for them but science isn’t profitable except in the long-term. More importantly, the world’s astronomers are not likely to persuade the American government (whose FAA issues payload licenses and FCC regulates spectrum use) to force SpaceX to work with them, such as through the International Astronomical Union, which has offered its assistance, and keep Starlink from disrupting studies of the night sky.

It’s pertinent to remind ourselves at this juncture that while the consequences for astronomy have awakened us to SpaceX’s transgression, the root cause is not the availability of the night sky for unimpeded astronomical observations. That’s only the symptom; the deeper malaise is unilateral action to impact a resource that belongs to everyone.

Musk or anyone else can’t deny that their private endeavours often incur, and impose, costs that the gloss of private enterprise tends to pass over.

It wouldn’t matter if SpaceX is taken to court for its rivalrous use of the commons. Without the FAA, FCC or any other, even an international, body regulating satellite launches, orbital placement, mission profile, spectrum use, mission lifetime and – now – appearance, orbital space is going to get really crowded really fast. According to one projection, “between 2019 and 2028, more than 8,500 satellites will be launched, half of which will be to support broadband constellations, for a total market value of $42 billion”. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket can already launch 60 Starlink satellites in one go; India and China have also developed new rockets to more affordably launch more small-sats more often.

A comparable regulatory leverage currently exists only with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which oversees spectrum use. It has awarded 1,800 orbital slots in the geosynchronous orbit to national telecom operators, such as FCC in the US and DoT in India. Regional operators register these slots and station telecommunication satellites there, each working with a predetermined set of frequencies.

Non-communication satellites as well as satellites in other orbits aren’t so formally organised. Satellite operators do work with the space and/or defence agencies of other countries to ensure their instruments don’t conflict with others in any way, in the interest of both self-preservation and debris mitigation. But beyond the ITU, no international body regulates satellite launches into any other orbits, and even the ITU doesn’t regulate any mission parameters beyond data transmission.

Starlink satellites will occupy the low-Earth (550 km and 1,150 km) and very-low-Earth orbits (340 km).

So an abundance of financial incentives, a dearth of policies and the complete absence of regulatory bodies allow private players a free run in space. Taking SpaceX to court at this juncture would miss the point (even if it were possible): the commons may have indirect financial value but their principal usefulness is centred on their community value, and which the US has undermined with its unilateral action. Musk has said his company will work with astronomers and observatories to minimise Starlink’s impact on their work but astronomers are understandably miffed that this offer wasn’t extended before launch and because absolute mitigation is highly unlikely with 12,000 (if not 42,000) satellites in orbit.

Taking a broader view, Starlink is currently the most visible constellation – literally and figuratively – but it’s not alone: space is only becoming more profitable, and other planned or functional constellations include Athena, Iridium and OneWeb. It would be in everyone’s best interests in this moment to get in front of this expansion and find a way to ensure all countries have equal access and opportunities to extract value from orbital space as well as equal stake in maintaining it as a shared resource.

In fact, like the debate between SpaceX and its supporters on the one hand and astronomers on the other has spotlighted what’s really at stake, it should also alert us that others should get to participate as well.

The bigger issue doesn’t concern astronomical observations – less interference with astronomical activity won’t make SpaceX’s actions less severe – nor low-cost internet (although one initial estimate suggests a neat $80, or Rs 5,750, per month) but of a distinctly American entity colonising a commons and preventing others from enjoying it. Governments – as in the institutions that make railroads, universities and subsidies possible – and not astronomers alone should decide, in consultation with their people as well as each other, what the next steps should be.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Wire on November 20, 2019.

Playing the devil’s advocate on Starlink

After SpaceX began to launch its Starlink satellite constellation to facilitate global internet coverage, astronomers began complaining that the satellites are likely to interfere with stargazing schemes, especially those of large, sensitive telescopes. Spaceflight stakeholders also began to worry, especially after SpaceX’s announcement that the Starlink constellation is in fact the precursor to a mega-constellation of at least 12,000 satellites, that it could substantially increase space traffic and complicate satellite navigation.

Neither of these concerns is unfounded, primarily because neither SpaceX nor the branch of the American government responsible for regulating payloads – so by extension the American government itself – should get to decide how to use a resource that belongs to the whole world by itself, without proper multi-stakeholder consultation. With Starlink as its instrument, and assuming the continued absence of proper laws to control how mega-constellations are to be designed and operated, SpaceX will effectively colonise a big chunk of the orbital shells around Earth. The community of astronomers has been especially vocal and agitated over Starlink’s consequences for its work, and a part of it has directed its protests against what it sees as SpaceX’s misuse of space as a global commons, and as a body of shared cultural heritage.

The idea of space as a public commons is neither new nor unique but the ideal has seldom been met. The lopsided development of spaceflight programmes around the world, but particularly in China and the US, attests to this. In the absence of an international space governance policy that is both rigid enough to apply completely to specific situations and flexible enough to adapt to rapid advancements in private spaceflight, people and businesses around the world are at the mercy of countries that possess launch vehicles, the regulatory bodies that oversee their operations and the relationship between the two (or more) governments. So space is currently physically available and profitable only to a select group of countries.

The peaceful and equitable enjoyment of space, going by the definition that astronomers find profitable, is another matter. Both the act and outcomes of stargazing are great sources of wonder for many, if not all, people while space itself is not diminished in any way by astronomers’ activities. NASA’s ‘Astronomy Picture of the Day’ platform has featured hundreds of spectacular shots of distant cosmological features captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, and news of the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope is only met with awe and a nervous excitement over what new gems its hexagonal eyes will discover.

Astronomy often is and has been portrayed as an innocent and exploratory exercise that uncovers the universe’s natural riches, but closer to the ground, where the efforts of its practitioners are located, it is not so innocent. Indeed, it represents one of the major arms of modern Big Science, and one of Big Science’s principal demands is access to large plots of land, often characterised by its proponents as unused land or land deemed unprofitable for other purposes.

Consider Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano in Hawaii with a peak height of 4.2 km above sea level. Its top is encrusted with 13 telescopes, but where astronomers continued to see opportunity to build more (until the TMT became as controversial as it did), Native Hawaiians saw encroachment and destruction to an area they consider sacred. Closer home, one of the principle prongs of resistance to the India-based Neutrino Observatory, a large stationary detector that a national collaboration wants to install inside a small mountain, has been that its construction will damage the surrounding land – land that the collaboration perceives to be unused but which its opponents in Tamil Nadu (where the proposed construction site is located) see, given the singular political circumstances, as an increasingly precious and inviolable resource. This sentiment in turn draws on past and ongoing resistance to the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, the proposed ISRO launchpad at Kulasekarapattinam and the Sterlite copper-smelting plant in Tamil Nadu, and the Challakere ‘science city’ in Karnataka, all along the same lines.

Another way astronomy is problematic is in terms of its enterprise. That is, who operates the telescopes that will be most affected by the Starlink mega-constellation, and with whom do the resulting benefits accrue? Arguments of the ‘fix public transport first before improving spaceflight’ flavour are certainly baseless (for principles as well as practicalities detailed here) but it would be similarly faulty for a working definition of a global commons to originate from a community of astronomers located principally in the West, for whom clear skies are more profitable than access to low-cost internet.

More specifically, to quote Prakash Kashwan, a senior research fellow at the Earth System Governance Project:

The ‘good’ in public good refers to an ‘economic good’ or a thing – as in goods and services – that has two main characteristics: non-excludability and non-rivalry. Non-excludability refers to the fact that once a public good is provided, it is difficult to exclude individuals from enjoying its benefits even if they haven’t contributed to its provisioning. Non-rivalry refers to the fact that the consumption of a public good does not negatively impact other individuals’ ability to also benefit from a public good.

In this definition, astronomy (involving the use of ground-based telescopes) has often been exclusive, whether as a human industry in its need for land and designation of public goods as ‘useless’ or ‘unused’, or as a scientific endeavour, whereby its results accrue unevenly in society especially without public outreach, science communication, transparency, etc. Starlink, on the other hand, is obviously rivalrous.

There’s no question that by gunning for a mega-constellation of satellites enveloping Earth, Musk is being a bully (irrespective of his intentions) – but it’s also true that the prospect of low-cost internet promises to render space profitable to more people than is currently the case. So if arguments against his endeavour are directed along the trajectory that Starlink satellites damage, diminish access to and reduce the usefulness of some orbital regions around Earth, instead of against the US government’s unilateral decision to allow the satellites to be launched in the first place, it should be equally legitimate to claim that these satellites also enhance the same orbital regions by extracting more value from them.

Ultimately, the ‘problem’ is also at risk of being ‘resolved’ because Musk and astronomers have shaken hands on it. The issue isn’t whether astronomers should be disprivileged to help non-astronomers or vice versa, but to consider if astronomers’ comments on the virtues of astronomy gloss over their actions on the ground and – more broadly – to remember the cons of prioritising the character of space as a source of scientific knowledge over other, more germane opportunities, and to remind everyone that the proper course of action would be to do what neither Musk and the American government nor the astronomers have done at the moment. That is, undertake public consultation, such as with stakeholders in all countries party to the Outer Space Treaty, instead of assuming that de-orbiting or anything else for that matter is automatically the most favourable course of action.

Solutions looking for problems

There’s been a glut of ‘science projects’ that seem to be divorced from their non-technical aspects even when the latter are equally, if not more, important – or maybe it is just a case of these problems always having been around but this author not being able to unsee it these days.

An example that readily springs to mind is the Bharati intermediary script, developed by a team at IIT Madras to ease digitisation of Indian language texts. There is just one problem: why invent a whole new script when Latin already exists and is widely understood, by humans as well as machines? Perhaps the team would have been spared its efforts if it had consulted with an anthropologist.

Another example, also from IIT Madras: it just issued a press release announcing that a team from the institute that is the sole Asian finalist in a competition to build a ‘pod’ for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop transportation concept has unveiled its design. On the flip side, Hyperloop is a high-tech, high-cost solution to a problem that trains and buses were designed to address decades ago, and they remain more efficient and more feasible. Elon Musk has admitted he conceived Hyperloop because he doesn’t like mass transit; perhaps more reliably, his simultaneous bashing of high-speed rail hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Here is a third example, this one worth many crores: the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) wants to build a space station and staff it with its astronauts. The problem is nobody is sure what the need is, maybe not even ISRO, although it has been characteristically tight-lipped. There certainly doesn’t seem to be a rationale beyond “we want to see if we can do it”. If indeed Indian scientists want to conduct microgravity experiments of their own, like what are being undertaken on the International Space Station (ISS) today and will be on the Chinese Space Station (CSS) in the near future, that is okay. But where are the details and where is the justification for not simply investing in the ISS or the CSS?

It is very difficult to negotiate a fog without feeling like something is wrong. We built and launched AstroSat because Indian astronomers needed a space telescope they could access for their studies. We will be launching Aditya in 2020 because Indian astrophysicists have questions about the Sun they would like answered. But even then, let us remember that a (relatively) small space telescope is too lightweight an exercise compared to a full-fledged space station that could cost ISRO more money than it is currently allocated every year.

Sivan’s announcements are also of a piece with those of his predecessors. In fact, the organisation as such has announced many science missions without finalising the instruments they are going to carry. In early 2017, it publicised an ‘announcement of opportunity’ for a mission to Venus next decade and invited scientists to submit pitches for instruments – instead of doing it the other way around. While this is entirely understandable with a space programme that is limited in its choice of launchers, this pattern has also prompted doubts that ISRO is simply inventing reasons to fly certain missions.

Additionally, since Sivan has pitched the Indian Space Station as an “extension” of ISRO’s human spaceflight programme, we must not forget that the human spaceflight programme itself lacks vision. As Arup Dasgupta, former dy. director of the ISRO Space Applications Centre, wrote for The Wire in March this year:

… while ISRO has been making and flying science satellites, … our excursions to the Moon, then Mars and now Gaganyaan appear to break from ISRO’s 1969 vision. This is certainly not a problem because, in the last half century, there have been significant advances in space applications for development, and ISRO needs new goals. However, these goals have to be unique and should put ISRO in a lead position – the way its use of space applications for development did. Given the frugal approach that ISRO follows, Chandrayaan I and the Mars Orbiter Mission did put ISRO ahead of its peers on the technology front, but what of their contribution to science? Most space scientists are cagey, and go off the record, when asked about what we learnt that we can now share with others and claim pride of place in planetary exploration.

So is ISRO fond of these ideas only because it seems to want to show the world that it can, without any thought for what the country can accrue beyond the awe of others? And when populism rules the parliamentary roost – whether under the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Indian National Congress – ISRO isn’t likely to face pushback from the government either.

Ultimately, when you spend something like Rs 10,000-20,000 crore over two decades to make something happen, it is going to be very easy to feel like something was achieved at the end of that time, if only because it is psychologically painful to have to admit that we could get such a big punt wrong. In effect, preparing for ex post facto rationalisation before the fact itself should ring alarm bells.

Supporters of the idea will tell you today that it will help industry grow, that it will expose Indian students to grand technologies, that it will employ many thousands of people. They will need to be reminded that while these are the responsibilities of a national government, they are not why the space programme exists. And that even if the space programme provided all these opportunities, it will have failed without justifying why doing all this required going to space.

SpaceX rocket blows up but let’s remember that #SpaceIsHard

The Wire
June 30, 2015

“… it’s not all or nothing. We must get to orbit eventually, and we will. It might take us one, two or three more tries, but we will. We will make it work.” Elon Musk said this in a now-famous interview to Wired in 2008 when questioned about what the future of private spaceflight looked like after SpaceX had failed three times in a row trying to launch its Falcon 1 rocket. At the close, Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, asserted, “As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”

Fast forward to June 28, 2015, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, 1950 IST. There’s a nebulaic cloud of white-grey smoke hanging in the sky, the signature of a Falcon 9 rocket that disintegrated minutes after takeoff. @SpaceX’s Twitter feed is MIA while other handles are bustling with activity. News trickles in that an “overpressurization” event occurred in the rocket’s second stage, a liquid-oxygen fueled motor. A tang of resolve hangs in conversations about the mishap – a steely reminder that #SpaceIsHard.

In October 2014, an Antares rocket exploded moments after lifting off, crashing down to leave the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, unusable for months. In April 2015, a Progress 59 cargo module launched by the Russian space agency’s Soyuz 2-1A rocket spun wildly out of control and fell back toward Earth – rather was incinerated in the atmosphere.

All three missions – Orbital’s, Roscosmos’s and SpaceX’s – were resupply missions to the International Space Station. All three missions together destroyed food and clothing for the ISS crew, propellants, 30 small satellites, spare parts for maintenance and repairs, a water filtration system and a docking port – at least. The result is that NASA’s six-month buffer of surplus resources on the ISS has now been cut back to four. The next resupply mission is Roscosmos’s next after its April accident, on July 3, followed by a Japanese mission in August.

But nobody is going to blame any of these agencies overmuch – rather, they shouldn’t. Although hundreds of rockets are successfully launched every year, what’s invisible on TV is the miracle of millions of engineering-hours and tens of thousands of components coming together in each seamless launch. And like Musk said back in 2008, it’s not all-or-nothing each time people try to launch a rocket. Accidents will happen because of the tremendous complexity.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch was the third attempt in six months to reuse the rocket’s first-stage. It’s an ingenious idea: to have the first-stage robotically manoeuvre itself onto a barge, floated off Wallops Island, after performing its duties. Had the attempt succeeded, SpaceX would’ve created history. Being able to reuse such an important part of the rocket reduces launch costs – possible by a factor of hundred, Musk has claimed.

Broad outlay of how SpaceX's attempt to recover Falcon's first-stage will work. Credit: SpaceX
Broad outlay of how SpaceX’s attempt to recover Falcon’s first-stage will work. Credit: SpaceX

In September 2013, the first stage changed direction, reentered Earth’s atmosphere and made a controlled descent – but landed too hard in the water. A second attempt in April 2014 played out a similar narrative, with the stage getting broken up in hard seas. Then, in January 2015, an attempt to land the stage on the barge – called the autonomous spaceport drone ship – was partially successful. The stage guided itself toward the barge in an upright position but eventually came down too hard. Finally, on June 28, a yet-unknown glitch blew up the whole rocket 2.5 minutes after launch.

The Falcon 9’s ultimate goal is to ferry astronauts into space. After retiring its Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA had no vehicles to send American astronauts into space from American soil, and currently coughs up $70 million to Roscosmos for each seat. As remedy, it awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to build human-rated rockets fulfilling the associated and stringent criteria in September 2014. The vehicles have until 2017 to be ready. So in a way, it’s good that these accidents are happening now while the missions are uncrewed (and the ISS is under no real threat of running out of supplies).

June 28 was also Musk’s 44th birthday. On behalf of humankind, and in thanks to his ambitions and perseverance, someone buy the man a drink.

Desperate Toyota does a Tesla

Let go to take control.

That’s what Elon Musk did with the patents on his Tesla brand of electric cars. That’s what Toyota has done now with its patents on fuel-cells, releasing 5,680 licenses for royalty-free use at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday. It said in a statement, “Toyota aims to go one step further as it aims to promote the widespread use of [fuel cell vehicles] and actively contribute to the realization of hydrogen-based society”, whose initial market introduction period it expects will last until 2020.

The release comes at the start of a year when the carmaker’s Mirai sedan is set to hit American and European markets. Mirai is Toyota’s first mass-market FCV. Fuel-cells power electric motors in cars by drawing on the energy released during a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, whose only other by-product is harmless steam. The Mirai can travel 650 km without refueling. Despite the glaring environmental benefits of using such a device, the FCV economy’s biggest stumbling block is the safe transportation of hydrogen from production units to supply stations. The gas has very low density, which means sufficient quantities can be stored only in pressurized containers, and reacts explosively with air.

Accordingly, of the 5,680 licenses released, 1,970 have to do with fuel-cell stacks, 3,350, with fuel-cell ‘system control technology’, 290 with high-pressure hydrogen tanks and 70 with hydrogen production and supply.

While electric vehicles like those manufactured by Musk’s Tesla Motors have already hit the road in many countries with reliable infrastructural support, FCVs are far behind. To date, the only other commercial FCV (apart from the Mirai) is Hyundai’s Tuscon/ix35, while Honda, Audi, Mercedes and Nissan have piloted concept vehicles. The biggest deterrent to wider uptake has been the cost: $700-1,100/kW in October 2014, second only to photovoltaics and wind turbines. A US National Renewable Energy Laboratory report in 2007 discussed why it was high:

the infrastructure needed to enable the widespread use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel is not available, resources are located outside demand areas, and the methods of producing hydrogen from renewable resources face many technical and economic hurdles. All these barriers must be overcome if hydrogen is to fuel a sustainable transportation economy.

On the bright side, the cost in 2002 was $5,500/kW. Moreover, Europe – one of the two big markets for FCVs – has decided to spend $1.58 billion (current prices) under its Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking program in the period 2014-2024.

As a result, Toyota’s decision is different from Tesla’s in terms of what it hopes to achieve: Tesla wanted its competition to organize itself so Tesla could challenge them on familiar terms. Toyota wants its competition to realize itself and so help spur the hydrogen economy – a far more ambitious goal. If not, market introduction of FCVs will extend way beyond 2020, when the royalty-free-use licenses expire.

Elon Musk’s altruism powertrain is just good business

In 1907, the Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla sold all his patents to Westinghouse, Inc., for a heavily discounted $216,000, including one for alternating current. In 1943, he died penniless. In 2014, another Tesla has given away its patents but signs are that this one will be way more successful. Through a blog post on June 12, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, announced that his company would be releasing all the patents it held on the brand of successful electric vehicles (EVs) it manufactures. A line in the post indicates he wants to avoid future patent-infringement lawsuits, but this belies what Musk is set to reap from this ‘altruistic’ gesture.

Patents cut both ways. They safeguard information and prevent others from utilising it without paying its originators a license fee. On the other hand, patents also explicitly earmark some information as being useful and worth safeguarding over the rest. Even after open-sourcing patents on the Tesla EVs, Musk is still the proprietor of a lot of technical and managerial information – “the rest” – that his competitors are not going to master easily. By releasing his patents, Musk is not levelling the playing field as much as he’s releasing knowledge he thinks is crucial to develop zero-emission vehicles.

Shared knowledge

In fact, the battery-swapping station he showcased in 2013 was an idea borrowed from the Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi, who was Musk’s biggest competitor until his EVs company went bankrupt in 2012. Agassi had conceived battery-swapping a decade earlier to resolve the issue of range anxiety: the apprehension that gripped EV-drivers about how long the batteries in their cars were going to last. Unfortunately, the Israeli flunked while executing his plans. Musk not only installed the stations but also integrated it into his network of 480-volt Superchargers, of which he now has 90 in the USA, 16 in Europe and three in China.

Nevertheless, after Agassi’s departure, Tesla was king in a kingdom of frozen lakes. As Musk wrote in his post: “electric car programs (or programs for any vehicle that doesn’t burn hydrocarbons) at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent, constituting an average of far less than 1% of their total vehicle sales.” Without competition, Tesla both controls a market as well as leaves no room for errors for itself and witnesses no competing innovation to help support growing opportunities. While the charge capacity and efficiency of present lithium-ion batteries are nowhere close to being as high as the industry requires them to be, the Superchargers and the Panasonic cylindrical battery cells whose use Tesla pioneered are still unique and desirable. Now, Big Cars like GM and Ford could leverage the patents to crawl into the EVs market – and hopefully keep it from imploding.

Setting standards

Another way for Tesla to reap benefits from Big Cars is to latently guide them to model their products around the mould Musk has perfected in the last seven years. By releasing his patents, Musk has pushed a nascent industry toward one of its understated inflection points: standardization. Hardware standardization modularizes architecture, jumpstarts innovation, sets a benchmark for consumer expectations, and makes for easier adaptation of new technologies. For example, the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research was established by the US government in 2013 with one goal to compile an ‘electrolyte genome’, a database of electrolytes aimed at EV manufacturers. Minimally changing hardware specifications makes JCESR’s work easier.

After all, the Tesla Model S costs $70,000-$80,000, and the Tesla Roadster, $110,000. As much as they have sold in the thousands, the only way they can sell in the millions is if they are as accessible as fossil-fuel-powered cars. Musk may be leading the way but he’s reliant on costly subsidies on battery packs, refuelling and maintenance. If he has to keep them up, he has to make the business of batteries and refuelling profitable. While his decision to release Tesla’s patents could help keep the EVs industry alive, its existence feeds his supercharger network and batteries’ use.