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NASA’s soil mission will rejuvenate tea industry

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New Delhi: The internationally known Assam tea has got a savior from space — NASA’s soil mission that will rejuvenate the tea industry that is currently facing many hurdles including climate change. Plucking_tea_in_a_tea_garden_of_Assam

NASA launched in January this year the “Soil Moisture Active Passive” (SMAP) mission that has already started beaming key science to map global soil moisture and detect whether soils are frozen or thawed.

NASA’s soil moisture data will be of much help in planning field operations including irrigation, said R.M. Bhagat, chief scientist who is leading the climate research at the 104-year-old Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TRI) in Assam’s Jorhat district, nearly 300 km from Guwahati.

“Tea gardens suffer intermittent drought-like situations. The scope of this data will expand eventually and will be of much help to farmers and planters in crop planning,” Bhagat said.

“With the help of SMAP, soil moisture in the top five-cm of soil on the Earth’s surface will be measured from an orbiting observatory (or space vehicle) daily at around 10-km area resolution,” Bhagat said.

NASA has initially included 50 institutions worldwide to get this data and TRA is one of them, he added.

Tea production in Assam is currently facing many challenges including climate change, less labor availability plus increase in wages, and less availability of chemicals to control pests due to implementation of the “plant protection code”.

“Due to climate extremes — too much or too less rainfall — tea is becoming more vulnerable to pest attacks. Conditions are becoming more conducive for the growth and proliferation of certain pests,” Bhagat said.

The plant protection code was implemented this year to regulate chemicals in tea cultivation and to make tea a safe and healthy drink.

“The scope of the SMAP data will expand eventually and will be of much help to farmers and planters in crop planning,” Bhagat stressed.

Assam annually produces over 600 million kg of tea in an area of over 300,000 hectares. This is part of the over 1,100 million kg of tea produced in India, of which over 200 million kg is exported, according to official data.

The first tea plantations in Assam were started by the East India Company in the 1830s. Assam tea – scientific name Camellia sinensis assamica — produces rich, deep-amber liquor with a brisk, strong, distinctive malty taste.

Soiled moisture indirectly affects people’s lives as the topsoil is the one where food is grown. In the course of its observations, the SMAP will also determine if the ground is frozen or thawed in colder areas of the world.

According to Bhagat, the TRI has also tied up with other global organizations to improve the quality of Assam tea.

“We have tied up with Cranfield University of Britain to work on Soil Carbon stocks and climate resilience. Depleting soil carbon in soil, results in deteriorating soil health. Thus, increasing soil carbon helps in nutrient build-up, good soil health and retention of both water and nutrients,” he explained.

“This project will bring together researchers from Cranfield and Tocklai TRI to work jointly on this project for sustaining tea production in the face of climate change via studying Soil Carbon and ways and means to build this important component of soil,” Bhagat said.

TRI is also collaborating with London-based Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), which will use its experiences in Kenya’s tea plantations in formulating strategies in Assam, with more emphasis on small tea growers.

Research on all aspects of tea cultivation and processing is carried out at Tocklai, the oldest and largest research station of its kind in the world, whose advisory network covers 1,076 tea estates.

The new era of tea research in India began with the establishment of the Scientific Department of Indian Tea Association (ITA) in 1900.

Research was boosted with the creation of the Tocklai Experimental Station in 1911. The Tocklai Experimental Station is now known as the Tocklai Tea Research Institute.

The TRI is also working on other methods to increase tea production.

“Studies are under way to use charged manure/compost with high nutrients, bio-fertilizers integrated with chemical fertilizers to decrease the use of chemicals and maintain soil health, yet sustain and increase production,” the scientist said.

(IANS)

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NASA’s plan on getting Martian samples to Earth

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NASA brings Martian samples to Earth from Mars.
NASA brings Martian samples to Earth from Mars. IANS
  • NASA plans on getting Martian samples to Earth from Mars
  • To know if life existed anywhere other than on Earth

Washington, Dec 11: (IANS) NASA has revealed how it plans to bring back Martian samples to Earth for the first time with the help of its next rover mission to the Red Planet, Mars 2020.

After landing on Mars, a drill will capture rock cores, while a caching system with a miniature robotic arm will seal up these samples. Then, they will be deposited on the Martian surface for possible pickup by a future mission, NASA said.

“Whether life ever existed beyond Earth is one of the grand questions humans seek to answer,” said Ken Farley of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“What we learn from the samples collected during this mission has the potential to address whether we’re alone in the universe,” Farley said.

Mars 2020 relies heavily on the system designs and spare hardware previously created for Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012.

Despite its similarities to Mars Science Laboratory, the new mission has very different goals – it will seek signs of ancient life by studying the terrain that is now inhospitable, but once held flowing rivers and lakes, more than 3.5 billion years ago.

To achieve these new goals, the rover has a suite of cutting-edge science instruments.

It will seek out biosignatures on a microbial scale.

An X-ray spectrometer will target spots as small as a grain of table salt, while an ultraviolet laser will detect the “glow” from excited rings of carbon atoms.

A ground-penetrating radar will look under the surface of Mars, mapping layers of rock, water and ice up to 10 metres deep, depending on the material.

The rover is getting some upgraded Curiosity hardware, including colour cameras, a zoom lens and a laser that can vaporise rocks and soil to analyse their chemistry, NASA said.

The mission will also undertake a marathon sample hunt.

The rover team will try to drill at least 20 rock cores, and possibly as many as 30 or 40, for possible future return to Earth, NASA said.

Site selection has been another milestone for the mission. In February, the science community narrowed the list of potential landing sites from eight to three.

All three sites have rich geology and may potentially harbour signs of past microbial life. But a final landing site decision is still more than a year away.

“In the coming years, the 2020 science team will be weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each of these sites,” Farley said.

“It is by far the most important decision we have ahead of us,” Farley said.

The mission is set to launch in July/August 2020. (IANS)

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NASA’s human ‘computer’ is still working at age 80

Sue Finely calculated rocket trajectories by hand

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Sue Finley still works at NASA
Sue Finley, 80, is still working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. She started there in 1958 as a human "computer," calculating trajectories for rockets. VOA

Sue Finley, now 80 years old and NASA’s longest-serving female employee, recalls her early days with the space agency when she worked as a human “computer,” calculating rocket trajectories by hand at a time when computers were huge and expensive to operate.

Finley arrived at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, in January 1958, one week before the U.S. Army launched Explorer 1, America’s first earth satellite.

“It was a very big deal,” she recalls of the launch, a response to the launches a few months earlier of the first satellites, Sputnik 1 and 2, from the former Soviet Union.

She was at JPL for Pioneer 1, the first satellite sent aloft by the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in late 1958, which marked the beginning of the international space race.

Unmanned space probes

Since then, Finley has had a role in nearly every U.S. unmanned space probe, and some missions of other nations.

There were failures to overcome and spectacular successes, but always new goals as scientists expanded our knowledge of the earth and solar system.

“We were certainly proud,” she says of NASA accomplishments, “but you just go to the next thing.”

Finley has been through several career changes with the space agency, one of the most important when NASA phased out human computers, moving, initially, to simple electronic versions.

“We got little tiny computers,” she recalls. “One I had 16 wires, jumper cables to code with. One had 10 pegboards that you programmed with.”

As modern computers took over navigational tasks, Finley developed and tested software as a subsystem engineer.

Among her career highlights: the Vega mission, a Soviet-French collaboration with Venus, and Halley’s Comet, which received navigational help from NASA and dropped balloons into the atmosphere of Venus.

She had to change the software for the antenna that tracked the mission, “and it worked,” Finley recalls. “Everything worked. That’s what was so exciting!”

Finley has worked since 1980 on NASA’s Deep Space Network, which coordinates satellite facilities in California, Spain and Australia that allow communication with space probes.

Highlights of NASA career

Career highlights include developing software that generates audio tones sent back from spacecraft, informing engineers on the ground what is happening in space. It was first developed for the Mars missions.

Each tone has a meaning that communicates data, noted one of Finley’s colleagues, Stephen Lichten.

“If a parachute opened, it would send a tone,” Lichten, manager for special projects for the Deep Space Network, said.

“The spacecraft lets go of its heat shield, and it would send a different tone, and so engineers like Sue were here listening for those special frequencies which told them the spacecraft was telling them what it has just done,” he said.

He notes that Finley also helped develop communication arrays that combine multiple antennas to act in unison and other advances that now crucial to space missions.

Lichten once shared an office with Finley and says she inspired her younger colleagues.

“There was a parade of people coming in constantly, to ask her advice, to ask her questions,” he recalls. “This was during the Venus balloon mission days and I realized that Sue was regarded as sort of a guru at JPL.”

Finley has been involved with nearly every advance in space communications in recent decades, and she continues her work today, Lichten said.

There are many more women at NASA today than there were when she started, and Finley said she tells young women to be inquisitive.

“I tell them to never be afraid to ask questions, never be afraid to say you don’t know,” she said.

After nearly six decades at the space agency, a mother of two grown sons and a mentor to her colleagues, Finley has no plans of retiring.

“There’s nothing else I want to do,” she said. “And so far, they need me.”

As they have since the earliest days of the space agency. (VOA)

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20 Years of Changing Seasons on Earth Captured into 2½ Minutes by NASA

NASA captured 20 years of changing seasons in a striking new global map of the home planet that shows Earth's fluctuations as seen from space

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The Changing seasons of the Earth
The Changing seasons of the Earth has been captured by NASA. Wikimedia.

NASA captured 20 years of changing seasons on Earth in a striking new global map of the home planet.

The data visualization, released this week, shows Earth’s fluctuations as seen from space.

The polar ice caps and snow cover are shown ebbing and flowing with the seasons. The varying ocean shades of blue, green, red and purple depict the abundance — or lack — of undersea life.

“It’s like watching the Earth breathe. It’s really remarkable,” said NASA oceanographer Jeremy Werdell, who took part in the project.

Two decades — from September 1997 to this past September — are crunched into 2½ minutes of viewing.

Werdell finds the imagery mesmerizing. “It’s like all of my senses are being transported into space, and then you can compress time and rewind it, and just continually watch this kind of visualization,” he said Friday.

Werdell said the visualization shows spring coming earlier and autumn lasting longer in the Northern Hemisphere. Also noticeable to him is the receding of the Arctic ice caps over time — and, though less obvious, the Antarctic, too.

On the sea side, Werdell was struck by “this hugely productive bloom of biology” that exploded in the Pacific along the equator from 1997 to 1998 — when a water-warming El Nino merged into cooling La Nina. This algae bloom is evident by a line of bright green.

In considerably smaller Lake Erie, more and more contaminating algae blooms are apparent — appearing red and yellow.

All this data can provide resources for policymakers as well as commercial fishermen and many others, according to Werdell.

Programmer Alex Kekesi of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland said it took three months to complete the visualization, using satellite imagery.

Just like our Earth, the visualization will continually change, officials said, as computer systems improve, new remote-sensing satellites are launched and more observations are made. (VOA)