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Indian-origin space scientist says India needs to focus on meteor defense

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Bengaluru: An Indian-origin space scientist said that India needs to focus on reconnaissance infrastructure, putting in place a meteor defence and develop a national meteor disaster preparedness policy after the last week Tamil Nadu incident in which a man was killed inside college campus by meteorite strike.

“Catastrophies originating from outer space are no fiction,” Chaitanya Giri, who was earlier with Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany and is currently with the Earth Life Science Institute in Tokyo, told this correspondent in an email.

Such catastrophies “are potential and credible threats to our national interests,” he said.

Giri said the US, in 2005, mandated its NASA space agency to build infrastructure for surveillance of potentially hazardous asteroids and to divert those on a likely collision course with Earth. The European Union, Japan, and Russia followed suit and are continually tracking comets and asteroids while Canada has its own “near earth object surveillance satellite” to identify unwelcome visitors from space, he said.

“Space capable India has not joined this club,” Giri said.

In fact, the seven-foot wide satellite junk that fell off the southern coast of Sri Lanka on November 13, 2015, was identified by a US ground-based sky survey infrastructure while its fall trajectory was projected by the the European Sky network, Giri said.

“While these nations have built up the networks to ward of dangers from space, India is totally unprepared to counter the impact of destructive meter-scale meteorites and extinction-level kilometre-scale asteroids or comets,” he said.

Giri said India’s prehistory is dotted with meteors of different sizes such as Lonar in Maharashtra (two km wide) and Ramgarh in Rajasthan (four km wide), adding an 11-km-wide meteorite that hit Dhala in Madhya Pradesh “could have unleashed energy many times higher than the largest atomic detonation”.

While it is true such kilometres-wide meteorites fall once in several thousand years, smaller metre-scale meteorites fall frequently and unleash limited regional destruction, he said.

Giri pointed out that a 20-year (1994-2013) global map released by NASA in 2014 shows numerous metre-scale meteors exploding all over the Indian Ocean region and the Indian sub-continent with energy approximately equivalent to the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki in 1945. Also, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) in the past 15 years has reported numerous meteoritic falls mostly centimetre-scale chunks from all over India.

In February 2013, a meteor, 20 metres in diameter, exploded 30 km above the city of Chelyabinsk in Russia with an energy approximately 25 times more powerful than the Nagasaki bomb, causing thousands of human injuries and damage worth billions of dollars. Bangkok experienced meteorite falls twice in September 2015. Nearer home, on February 27, 2015, a meteor exploded over Kozhikode, Malappuram, Palakkad and Thrissur in Kerala to finally impact at several locations in Ernakulam district. All these events demonstrate that the threat from meteors is real, Giri said.

With its massive geographical land mass and vast exclusive economic zone, India has all the legitimate reasons to develop a planetary defence programme of its own and create an operational national preparedness policy for various meteor disaster scenarios, he said.

“To this effect, New Delhi should exploit ISRO’s capabilities for constructing an indigenous ground- and space-based reconnaissance network that would track potentially hazardous objects as small as one metre,” he said. Had such a system been in place, there would have been no room for controversy over the cause of explosion heard in Vellore last week.

“The verdict whether it was due to meteorite or not should be supported by peer-reviewed evidence,” Giri said, dismissing news reports quoting scientists of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIAP) in Bengaluru that the sample it examined did not look like meteorite.

“The Geological Survey of India is the authority on meteorite curation and not IIAP whose faculty are mainly astronomers,” Giri said. Further, the IIAP scientists did not collect the samples themselves but tested the sample given by the police “which is not the most appropriate thing to do,” he said.

“I also do not know if they looked for the presence of iridium, an element that you do not get on Earth and is predominantly extra-terrestrial in origin. Hence I do not consider IIAP’s sampling and verdict at face value.”

Giri said a video uploaded on the internet shows the trail of a meteor over Chennai with its trajectory towards the West (the direction to Vellore). If this video is true, the Vellore event is most likely due to meteorite, he said. (IANS)(image: mashable.com)

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Sambhar Lake Becomes Death Bed for Large Number of Birds

The excessive salt in the water led to the poisoning, causing hypernectremia, which is water deprivation due to sodium intoxication

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Sambhar Lake
After witnessing drought for many years, this year the Sambhar Lake, however, brimmed with water due to heavy rains. The inflow made the water toxic due to the change in its alkalinity. Pixabay

A deadly game of survival is on in the Sambhar lake of Rajasthan for decades — salt versus birds. The result came a few days back: thousands of birds were seen floating dead in the lake and their carcasses scattered on the edge of the 12 km catchment area.

The dead birds seen floating in this largest inland salt lake in the country, include plovers, common coot, black winged stilt, northern shovelers, ruddy shelduck, and pied avocet among many other migratory birds.

Harsh Vardhan, a renowned environmentalist, told IANS that no forest department official has ever been appointed to look after the lake. The lake comes under the Hindustan Salt Limited, a public limited enterprise formed in the post independence era to manufacture salt. Its job is to manufacture salt. So who should look after the lake; this has never been decided, he said.

The lake has not been handed to the forest department, and the area, where birds come, is no one’s land. Sambhar lake may be a part of the Hindustan Salt Ltd, but the company has nothing to do with the birds, he says.

The chief wildlife warden Arindam Tomar has maintained silence over the issue.

Even, Principal secretary, forest and environment Shreya Guha has washed her hands off the issue. All that she did was to a give statement that the Jaipur and Nagaur District Collectors have been asked to remove the bodies. She added that 4,800 birds have been dead till date, which is disputed by experts like Harsh Vardhan, who say that counting is not easy in the vast area.

Chief minister Ashok Gehlot on Thursday held a meeting on the issue.

Sambhar Lake
A deadly game of survival is on in the Sambhar Lake of Rajasthan for decades — salt versus birds. Pixabay

Meanwhile, Harsh Vardhan questioned the presence of several private salt miners and entrepreneurs, who have set shops in and around the lake. “They dig tube wells which suck water from the land making it parched. The remaining water gets evaporated leaving crystal of salts which are packed and sold in gunny bags,” he said.

Lack of water and drought has haunted Sambhar lake for years. State government has been spending huge money to woo tourists through activities like mobiking, balloning, race, Bollywood shoots, etc. A resort on the rim of the lake showcases salt manufacturing for the tourists. Crores of Rupees have been spent on the upkeep of the narrow gauge train and watch stations, but birds and conversation issues were always overlooked.

As Sambhar lake went dry, concentration of salt deposits came up within it. The water from surrounding rivers, meant to flow into the lake, was diverted by the miners.

After witnessing drought for many years, this year the lake, however, brimmed with water due to heavy rains. The inflow made the water toxic due to the change in its alkalinity.

The excessive salt in the water led to the poisoning, causing hypernectremia, which is water deprivation due to sodium intoxication, Vardhan said.

It seems birds which came in high numbers due to high water quantity this season died due to hypernectermia after consuming their feed which is the planktons, the microrganisms found in water.

Sambhar Lake
The dead birds seen floating in this largest inland salt lake i.e Sambhar Lake in the country, include plovers, common coot, black winged stilt, northern shovelers, ruddy shelduck, and pied avocet among many other migratory birds. Wikimedia Commons

The only step that has ever been taken by any government in the state was in 1981 when it was decided to designate the site as wetland and was renamed as the Ramsar site.

According to an estimate, around 60,000 birds visited the lake in a year which has come down to less than 20,000.

Vardhan says that if the lake remains with the Hindustan Salt Limited, which has been a loss making unit since years or if it is handed over to the private operators, who do excessive mining of water, then the lake and the birds are sure to die.

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Experts like him want the lake to be handed over to the forest department which can develop it as a wetland. (IANS)