Deal with Poverty or Go to Mars?

by Anupum Pant

Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its Mars orbiter, Mangalyan (Translation: Mars Craft) on November 5th 2013 with a hope to become the 4th such organization in the world, to step into Mars exploration. I must say, it is quite a fete for a developing country which has to deal with a myriad of other socio-economic menaces. Besides that, this mission also placed India above every other Mars mission ever, in terms of the total cost involved. Frugal engineering, has helped ISRO to go to Mars with low costs – with a mere $73 Million dollar budget, MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) has become the cheapest mission ever to Mars. [silly comparisions to put this into perspective]

Side note: India’s other pioneering low cost endeavors – World’s cheapest car; World’s cheapest tablet and cheapest house.

But, this successful launch came with a throng of detractors, ridiculing India for not using these $73 Million to deal with poverty (or “clean feces off its roads”). Clearly, they did not think it through before making such comments.

  1. A nation’s economy is a huge and complex thing. Things aren’t as simple as, stop space exploration funds and divert them to tackle poverty. A number of things run in parallel. Also, every nation has its own set of problems and they don’t stop spending billions of dollars for technological advancement to focus only on social or economic issues. And, I’m sure that the government India is also taking enough steps to tackle its national issues with a firm footing on advancement of technological avenues like space exploration.
  2. The main part of this article: In contrary to what is popularly believed, money spent on space exploration does not nebulously float out of earth (on the other hand, distributing this money among the poor would breed complacency among them and cause the money to literally float out). It plays a major role in creating new technologies, products, jobs and businesses. Let us take the example of NASA here:
    Space exploration has led to development of many things that you use daily. There wouldn’t have been any computers, wrist watches, Velcro, cell phones, GPS navigators etc, if funds were never allocated to the “wasteful” space research.  Without this, there is a chance that you wouldn’t have heard of solar energy, cryogenics or even robotics. Also, several improvements in health care, energy and the environment are a result of research done for space exploration. [10 NASA inventions you use everyday].
    When you think of all this, $73 Million seems like an extremely small number. Remember, that this is also helping other businesses (vendors etc) flourish, which in turn are creating jobs for the poor and spurring innovation.
  3. Thirdly, The Indian Space Research Organization is a unique organization which has managed to stay the world’s most profitable space organization and has sustained on a minuscule budget of about $1 Billion. It relies on the Indian low-cost mantra to develop innovative technologies. As a result, this intelligent government venture has helped to create a profitable environment for space research. Hence, it isn’t a “wasteful” allocation of funds. Additionally, with its engineers living off a small salary ($20,000) as compared to American engineers ($100,000), we can definitely place our trust on an organization like ISRO – Like previous missions, they’ll make much more than $23 Million from this mission too. In other words, they’ll bring money in, not let it float out (better option for dealing with poverty, than just distributing it among the poor).

That said, 21 out of 51 missions to Mars have failed and it means that there is still a long way for this absurdly low-cost Indian mission [also a risky one] to be a completely successful one. So far, it is doing pretty good. We can only wait and see, what the end will be like.

The Sun’s Unusual Behavior – Seen from Mercury

by Anupum Pant

The sun – as seen from Earth

For most of us living on Earth (closer to the equator), the sun has followed a simple path throughout the years. It rises, goes up at noon and then sets for rest of the day. It is a simple straight line for the complete year.
For people living a little away from the equator, things get a bit interesting. There, the summer sun at noon is overhead, but the winter sun is low at noon, not overhead. It isn’t very easy for a person living near the equator to grasp this phenomenon well. You’ll have to go there and see for yourself. Or simply, the simulator at the end of this paragraph will help you understand it better.
At poles, the sun almost moves horizontally for many days. It keeps on making a horizontal circle around you. There, it is day for 6 months and night for the next 6 months. [Here is a sun path simulator for Earth]

However, nowhere on earth, things get as interesting as they get in the skies of Mercury.

The sun – as seen from Mercury

On Mercury, the sun appears to briefly reverse its usual east to west motion once every Mercurian year. The effect is visible from any place on Mercury, but there are certain places on its surface, where an observer would be able to see the Sun rise about halfway, reverse and set, and then rise again, all within the same day. It is indeed an unusual performance which isn’t easy for us Earthlings to digest. [See animation in the next paragraph]

Why does it happen?

Let us consider a simpler analogy – some planets (like Mars), as seen from earth, take a similar path. [see the animation for Mars’s path as seen from earth]

The planets, including Earth, all travel around the Sun in a continuous orbit. We can see them make their way across the sky in a straight line usually. However, every now and then a planet appears to turn around. After turning around, it appears to move back the way it came. This is called a retrograde orbit and is caused due to the difference in speeds at which the planets circle the Sun.

So, as we see Mars do a reverse from earth, a similar motion of sun is observed from the surface of Mercury.

[Apparent Retrograde Motion – Wikipedia]