Monday, October 14, 2013

Wanderlust: Crawling on hands & knees

The European Space Agency writes to say
The applicant must have the normal range of motion and functionality in all joints.

Historically, IMHO, astronauts came from a flight/test-pilot background. Physical fitness may have been mandatory for orbital flight, and for the lunar programme. It may even be necessary for any missions that involve actually landing on a body exhibiting significant gravitational attraction. It might _not_ be necessary, say, for a mission to Phobos.

I'm sure NASA and other Space Agencies have similar physical mobility requirements for their astronauts.

In this context, Wikipedia writes to say
What began as the selection of military fighter and test pilots in the 1960s, with a considerable focus on physical capability, has evolved into a selection that now selects for aptitude in engineering, sciences, life sciences, and mathematics

Say instead the astronaut is headed to the ISS where she/he is expected to be in free-fall most of the time. A person with a reduced range of motion (I'm specifically of the mind of restricted movement of the lower-limb) might actually be better suited for free-fall - as long as other physical, social, mental health parameters are met. About the only time I imagine full-range of motion in the lower-limb/s might be necessary would be at launch/landing.

I've never been an astronaut, or even close to medicine let alone space-medicine so I may be wrong. Feel free to poke me in the rib if my premise is flawed!

Is the physical fitness requirement that an astronaut prove full-range of mobility in all limbs relevant to astronauts headed to the ISS, or low-gravity bodies such as an asteroid?


Saturday, October 05, 2013

Wanderlust: A doe-eyed toddler

There's a lot of hullaballoo about the sky falling on our heads.
It all started when someone in the Space Program read an Asterix comic ... no, it didn't really. But there is some truth to the sky falling on our heads; except that it is about orbital debris.

According to wikipedia -
Currently, about 19,000 pieces of debris larger than 5 cm (2.0 in) are tracked, with another 300,000 pieces smaller than 1 cm below 2000 km altitude.

Now 5cm, and 1cm seem to be laughably small - and they would be laughably small under normal circumstances. In orbit though, there is no such thing as laughably small. What makes orbital debris dangerous is that an object in orbit travels at extremely high velocity! What's your first guess? 100km/h? 200km/h? 1000km/h? Objects in orbit travel at a velocity of over 25000 km/h!

For instance, the heaviest artifact in orbit at present is the International Space Station. This has a mass of 450,000 KG ... and an average velocity of 7.66km/s OR approximately 27576km/h!

For the sake of comparison, the fastest bullet (well, it can be called a bullet!) fired by a tank gun is around 1.7km/s.

In case you think this 7.66km/s is fast, let me point out to you Voyager 1 (now out of the Solar System) is toddling along at over 17km/s . Given the immensity of interstellar space and huge distances between objects in space, even this 17km/s is slow! Remember that Voyager 1 was launched over 36 years ago - about the time I was born. So in my lifetime, Voyager 1 has only gone out of the Solar System! It will take 40000 (yes, Forty thousand) years to even get close to another star!

The good thing about orbital debris being small is that if it encounters Earth Atmosphere, it will burn away as a meteor! Besides, space is so immense an object may spend an infinity in orbit without anything eventful happening.

But these artifacts are scattered beginning from around 200km above Earth to 36000km above Earth. The renewed interest in space exploration promises to increase the population of objects orbiting Earth. As an example, Kicksat is a program to launch miniature personal satellites!

But what can be done about this situation? Why not turn the debris into an advantage? Easier said than done, I know ... and I'm no space scientist so my take could be wrong.

Having made that qualification, I shall now proceed to put my foot in it -

The ISS is up there anyway ... can all this debris be collected to construct a small module - assembled in orbit? The ISS uses fuel to balance it's orbit anyway; we may perhaps even haul fuel, and cannibalize an engine from the ISS instrumentation to send the module elsewhere out of Earth orbit! This could also be an experiment for the Pir module due to be undocked in 2014

Friday, September 20, 2013

One for all ...

Looking for a courier service I found myself scratching my head going through the "About Us" page on the web-site. The line seemed so familiar - it invoked a sense of deja-vu.

A quick google search for the line
" would like to associate ourselves as providing services in all areas related to logistics." 
brought several pages of results. One such page of matching results is embedded here as an image.

I'm no statistician -
What are the odds of so many different companies constructing a page with so many sentences verbatim?

Friday, September 06, 2013

Is Terraformation a pipe-dream?

With all the hullaballoo going in with the Space Program lately, the subject of terraformation in the context of Mars could not fail to crop up. There is a general misconception about the term itself - Terraforming is not about making the target body identical to Earth. 'Terraforming' refers to the sustainable transformation of a place into one suitable for habitation by Earthlings.

Typically mentioned candidates are Mars, Venus, and Europa. Albeit perhaps some asteroids may be legitimate candidates too.

Earth's ecosystem is fragile.

Organic & inorganic participants - flora, fauna, physics, chemistry, biology, time; All contribute.

It is difficult to imagine an isolated part, or parts - bacteria/animals/plants/chemicals maintaining a balance without being complemented by the rest of that environment. If complemented adequately (we may be talking biochemistry here) the systems may conceivably take off on unexpected scale in an unexpected direction. Perhaps one way to control terraformation from going badly wrong is to keep the program uniform, and in strict check.

Should terra-formation be common to all targets?

Is it possible to define something like a process/framework like -
1. Determine composition of atmosphere, and soil (leave in-depth exploration the colonials)
2. Thoroughly map the surface contours
3. Determine the critical path for terra-formation E.g.
    - Change atmospheric pressure (increase/decrease surface temperatures) if required
    - Determine the existence of indigenous macro organisms, and value thereof
    - Introduce/Induce the water cycle
    - Transplant workers (robots, bacteria, viruses) to get to work at the microscopic level

Every planet, to our present knowledge, is unique. Given that so simple a macro as the water-cycle is barely in control here on terra-firma; Is terra-formation, at our present levels of technology a pipe-dream?
If not, what would make a suitable test-bed for theory before attempting to put it to practice millions of miles away?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Shadow Boxing: The right to life ...

The action of killing oneself intentionally: "he committed suicide at the age of forty".

Nothing new, I'm sure. Almost every day the newspaper reports one self-discorporation, or the other. In fact, according to the internet nearly ten thousand indians attempt suicide annually. Nearly 300 per day, and the majority are in the prime of life - around 40 years old! Fortunately there is a strong deterrent against suicide in the form of Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. This section enforces Article 21 of the Indian Constitution - "Protection of Life and personal liberty".

Historically suicide was deemed a crime in many cultures, and nations. The logic being that killing oneself was contrary to the laws established by God & Nature; some more references are available at

To paraphrase John Donne, "No man is an island" - which may be interpreted to mean that an individual is a part of the society that forms the civilisation of the period in which he lives. Suicide, when successful, leaves a society with a gap which may be difficult to fill; particularly when the individual happened to possess specialised knowledge. Understandably therefore, suicide, was deemed a crime against society & civilisation by the individual - and therefore punishable as such.Yet the sceptical mind wonders about the rationale historically put forth to justify opposition to this step.

Society is in a state of continuous flux. Towns and cities were few and far between perhaps until the industrial revolution. Prior to the industrial revolution most communities were relatively small, clustered in the vicinity of and administered by a liege lord.It is difficult to imagine a despotical medieval warlord being concerned about the welfare of the community around him to the extent of a fiat to deter suicide. In an agrarian society one could easily miss a peasant ; a feudal mindset would simply write-off the peasant. The same despotic feudal mindset would, perhaps, find it a little more difficult to write-off losses in the form of material assistance given to, and taxes owed by the same peasant. He would be in a sorry state if the entire community were to decide to discopororate! Hence the despot would probably also attempt to recoup losses caused by suicide through higher taxes and levy on the living. As a corollary the decree that made suicide illegal would punish even more clearly the individual who failed the attempt. To the simple souls that formed the majority of the rural community yet another obstacle to the so-called easy way out would be any edict that touted suicide as an irredeemable crime against God.

It is easy to imagine the law being applied in the Colonies ; after all the peasants in the colonies were in the worst state. The executive told them what to sow, the law told them what taxes were owed, and the law also held out varying degrees of punishment if the peasant were to be lax in his farming, or payment of his dues, as also in attempting to take the easy way out!

These thoughts came to mind after I watched 'Guzaarish' earlier this month; the topic is owed deeper thought than perhaps it gets.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The world seems to be going crazy about Mars. If one is to believe news reports now India too has joined the bandwagon! Since the 1960s there have been over 30 missions focussed on Mars. Admittedly this span of 50 years has seen technology change, and therefore improved our knowledge as also perhaps our path-finding skills.

The question is this - Do we, as nations, duplicate, ... and duplicate redundantly, each other's efforts by building independently?

Apart from incomplete understanding, and one-upmanship between space agencies - what stands in the way of an international consortium to chalk out, develop, and execute missions to bodies in the solar system?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Doomsday: A Phoenix

Continuing from my last blog on the subject of using DNA as a repository I find my thoughts venturing into the realm of hard extrapolation. This post therefore qualifies as pure synapse action.
Chromosome pairs in the DNA are closely bound to hormone action. Keep this point in mind, and move onward. Although theology is not really my forte I would venture to state that almost all belief/support systems tell the individual something along the lines of "Believe in yourself", or "The Kingdom of God resides within you", or even succinctly "Man, know thyself". Such statements are also echoed in the age old "Mens sana in corpore sano".

Hindu mythology is replete with examples of ordinary men acquiring and applying abilities far beyond that of their fellows. How did they do so? Myth & Legend tell us such achievement had one fundamental requirement - call upon a member of the hindu pantheon until she/he would open the gateway to desired knowledge. For such meditation a necessary precondition was knowledge of Yoga as it would provide the necessary control of one's physiology - to the extent of being in meditation for years on end!

Even today an accomplished Yoga instructor may tell his disciples that the secret to Yoga is that the individual develops the ability to use/control muscles that would otherwise atrophy unnoticed in 'modern' life. Such fine musclular action could serve to trigger some glands or suppress others such that specific hormones may appear in the bloodstream. Hormones that may serve as the 'unlock code' for specific base pairs.

Could our ancestors/predecessors have left us a message that will only be available when we pursue a certain life-style/dharma/karma? That is to say such knowledge will not be available until we are ready for it ... which serves to paraphrase yet another idiom "... in the fullness of time"

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Doomsday: Through the valley of the shadow

So all the brouhaha about the 'doomsday' recorded in the Mayan Calendar for the month of December 2012 got me thinking.

To the best of our knowledge we do not go back much more than a few millenia - not even a score of them. The thinking goes that if there had been an older civilization there would be signs of it - as there is proof of the ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, Mesopotamian, and Eblan civilizations. Ergo, we are the first modern scientifically advanced civilization since Homo Sapiens evolved 4.5 million years ago or so.

Assume now our civilization were to be utterly destroyed - with a few thousands of survivors out of the present population of more than 6 billion. In the absence of the ability to communicate, these survivors might (within a few generations) return to living off the land. In a pinch, even the many libraries may not survive the new savage.

The knowledge of several millenia of nearly uninterrupted progress might be lost!!

One solution would be to store this knowledge - perhaps the equivalent of the Encylopedia Brittanica in a 'stasis'. This stasis field would preserve until such time as the survivors would again acquire the minimum scientific knowledge to reach into the stasis field. But what kind of stasis field could possibly maintain power for an unforeseeable duration? Sooner or later even a plutonium power-supply would wind down.

The question had me flummoxed until it occurred to me that there is atleast one means to make knowledge available to future generations after maintaining it in stasis for an indefinite period.

Although organic we are creatures of electricity. Our nervous system, our bodies are susceptible to electricity & magnetism - which makes it possible to perform EKG, EEG, etc. From the amoeba up this applies to other animals too. Of course, our bodies use electricity in the microvolt range -
perhaps even a lower order of magnitude. But a human body wouldn't last even if provided with nutrition. Yet there are additional paths on this track of thought. So - why not store the information in such a manner that it would last as long as life itself did? This way, whatever the life-form, any information would be stored and maintained as long as the life-form continued to exist.

Use the genome of several species to record data and act as your repository. Choose lower animals rather than higher for they are more likely to survive - the trade-off being that they may have a shorter life-span, and faster mutation rate.

Now as long as the species ; your repository, survives - your data may be retrieved; subject to the ability of that later new civilization to follow your train of thought.