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Op-eds Science

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.

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Science

‘World class’ optical telescope – India’s largest – to be activated near Nainital

Update: This article was written before the telescope was activated yesterday. Here’s the PIB announcement.

India’s largest ground-based optical telescope, in Devasthal in Uttarakhand, is set to be switched on on March 30 by the Prime Ministers of India and Belgium from Brussels, during Narendra Modi’s day-long visit to the country. The telescope is the product of an Indo-Belgian collaboration, assisted by the Russian Academy of Sciences, that was kicked off in 2007. It is going to be operated by the Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES), an autonomous research body under the Department of Science and Technology.

The instrument is part of a widening foray into observational research in astronomy that India has undertaken since the 1960s, and bolstered with the successful launch of its first multi-wavelength satellite (ASTROSAT) in September 2015. And apart from the merits it will accord Indian astronomy, the Devasthal optical telescope will also be Asia’s largest ground-based optical telescope, succeeding the Vainu Bappu Observatory in Kavalur, Tamil Nadu.

A scan of the sketch of the 3.6-m optical telescope. Credit: ARIES
A scan of the sketch of the 3.6-m optical telescope. Credit: ARIES

Its defining feature will be a 3.6-metre-wide primary mirror, which will collect light from its field of view and focus it onto a 0.9-m secondary mirror, which in turn will divert it into various detectors for analysis. This arrangement, called the Ritchey-Chrétien design, is also what ASTROSAT employs – but with a 30-cm-wide primary mirror. In fact, by contrast, the mirrors and six instruments of ASTROSAT all weigh 1,500 kg while the Devasthal telescope’s primary mirror alone weighs 4,000 kg.

A better comparison would be the Hubble space telescope. It manages to capture the stunning cosmic panoramas it does with a primary mirror that’s 2.4 m wide. However, Hubble’s clarity is much better because it is situated in space, where Earth’s atmosphere can’t interfere with what it sees.

Nonetheless, the Devasthal telescope is located in a relatively advantageous position for itself – atop a peak 2.5 km high, 50 km west of Nainital. A policy review published in June 2007 notes that the location was chosen following “extensive surveys in the central Himalayas” from 1980 to 2001. These surveys check for local temperature and humidity variations, the amount of atmospheric blurring and the availability of dark nights (meeting some rigorous conditions) for observations. As the author of the paper writes, “The site … has a unique advantage of the geographical location conducive for astronomical observations of those optical transient and variable sources which require 24 h continuous observations and can not be observed from [the] east, in Australia, or [the] west, in La Palma, due to day light.”

From this perch, the telescope will be able to log the physical and chemical properties of stars and star clusters; high-energy radiation emanating from sources like blackholes; and the formation and properties of exoplanets. The data will be analysed using three attendant detectors:

  • High-resolution Spectrograph, developed by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru
  • Near Infrared Imaging Camera, developed by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai
  • Low-resolution Spectroscopic Camera

“India has collaborated with a Belgian company called AMOS to produce this [telescope], which is the first of its kind in the whole of Asia,” said Vikas Swarup, spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, in a statement. AMOS, an acronym for Advanced Mechanical and Optical Systems, was contracted in 2007 to build and install the mirrors.

When Modi and Michel complete the so-called ‘technical activation’ to turn the Devasthal instrument on, it will join a cluster of scopes at the Indian astronomical research community’s disposal to continue surveying the skies. Some of these other scopes are the Giant Metre-wave Radio Telescope, Pune; Multi Application Solar Telescope, Udaipur; MACE gamma-ray telescope, Hanle; Indian Astronomical Observatory, Leh; Pachmarhi Array of Cherenkov Telescopes, Pachmarhi; and the Ooty Radio Telescope, Udhagamandalam.

In fact, over the last few years, the Indian research community has positioned itself as an active player in international Big Astronomy. In 2009, it pitched to host a third advanced gravitational-waves observatory, following the installation of two in the US, and received governmental approval for it in February 2016. Second: in December 2014, India decided to become a full partner with the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) collaboration, a bid to construct an optical telescope with a primary mirror 30 metres wide. After facing resistance from the people living around the venerated mountain Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, atop which it was set to be built, there are talks of setting it up in Hanle. Third: in January 2015, the central government gave the go-ahead to build a neutrino observatory (INO) in Theni, Tamil Nadu. This project has since stalled for want of various state-level environmental clearances.

All three projects are at the cutting edge of modern astronomy, incorporating techniques that have originated in this decade, techniques that take a marked break from the conventions in use since the days of Galileo. That Modi has okayed the gravitational waves observatory is worth celebrating – but the choices various officials will make concerning the INO and the TMT are still far from clear.

The Wire
March 30, 2016

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Science

Ways of seeing

A lot of the physics of 2015 was about how the ways in which we study the natural world had been improved or were improving.

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Science

Curious Bends – WhatsApp doc, nuclear nonsense, AIDS in Mizoram and more

1. As they amass a bigger nuclear arsenal, both India and Pakistan also attend a non-proliferation conference every year

“While most of the momentum behind the humanitarian initiative comes from non-nuclear weapons states, its success ultimately depends on how it influences states with nuclear weapons. Because India and Pakistan are the only two such states that have consistently attended the conferences, it’s important to assess their respective incentives for participation.” (5 min read, thebulleting.org)

2. An AIDS epidemic in Mizoram is about to start

“This infrastructure worked well until a year ago. Till 2010, said an official in the state AIDS control society, the number of new HIV cases was rising every month in the state. And then, in 2010-’11, it slowed to about 100-150 new cases a month. Even this slower rate has meant that from 4,000 cases across the state in 2010, Mizoram now has double the number of cases – according to the official, about 9,000-10,000 cases. With this funding delay, this number of new cases might rise faster once more.” (12 min read, scroll.in)

3. Scientists need a ritual to reflect on all the evils that have enabled our world

“If it was we who discovered the expansion of the universe through the redshifts of galaxies, then it was we who stole Ahnighoto. If it was we who understood the nature of the atom, then it was we who bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If it was we who cured smallpox, then it was we who ran the experiment at Tuskegee. We can’t choose our heritage, but we can choose how we live with it. In that respect, I think that we cannot in good faith take pride in the light if we do not also take responsibility for the dark.” (10 min read, slate.com)

+ The author of this piece, Ben Lillie, is a scientist-turned-writer.

4. Bill Gates: you can help the world save 34 million lives

“If we can prevent 10 million tuberculosis deaths, 21 million deaths from AIDS, and 3.3 million maternal fatalities, that comes to 34.3 million lives saved–a number roughly equivalent to the entire population of Canada.” This can be achieved mainly by doing things we already know how to do. (3 min read, qz.com)

5. WhatsApp doctors! You are here!

“When she joined NH four months ago, Bhende was only doing e-consults as part of the hospital’s experiments with digital OPDs. “We started with a variety of social media platforms, like Skype, Whatsapp, emails, SMS, but over time we have realised that Whatsapp works best,” says Bhende, who specialises in gestational diabetes and does consultations with over 350 patients on the app.” (3 min read, timesofindia.com)

Chart of the Week

“On April 25, Nepal was hit with the biggest earthquake in 80 years—but just how big was it? Amidst the destruction, there was a spat on the issue between the US and China. The US Geological Survey (USGS), which monitors earthquakes worldwide, reported that the Nepal earthquake measured at a magnitude of 7.8. However, the China Earthquakes Network Center (CENC), which hopes to provide a similar service, measured the same earthquake at a magnitude of 8.1. A difference of 0.3 in the magnitude of the seismic activity may not seem like much, but the apparently small differences in magnitudes of earthquakes reported by different agencies around the world are, in real-life, huge. Because if we are to believe the Chinese data, the Nepal earthquake may have been 2.8 times bigger than if we believe the US data.” (2 min read, qz.com)

How earthquakes are measured. Credit: qz.com
How earthquakes are measured. Credit: qz.com