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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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How telecom has become driver of economic change in India

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The country's hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front.
The country's hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front. Wikimedia Commons
  • India has done well to stay ahead of the curve in the technological revolution
  • The sectoral change in productivity has been the highest in the telecommunications sector since the reforms of 1991
  • India has managed to provide the cheapest telephony services around the world

For the most part of human history, the change was glacial in pace. It was quite safe to assume that the world at the time of your death would look pretty much similar to the one at the time of your birth. That is no longer the case, and the pace of change seems to be growing exponentially. Futurist Ray Kurzweil put it succinctly when he wrote in 2001: “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” Since the time of his writing, a lot has changed, especially with the advent of the internet.

India has done well to stay ahead of the curve in the technological revolution. The country’s hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front. In fact, according to Reserve Bank of India data, the sectoral change in productivity has been the highest in the telecommunications sector since the reforms of 1991, growing by over 10 percent. On the other hand, no other sector has had a productivity growth of above five percent during the same period. It is no wonder that it has also been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Indian economy, growing at over seven percent in the last decade itself.

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Such an unprecedented pace of growth has been brought about the precise levels of change that Kurzweil was so enthusiastic about. Today’s smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Meanwhile, India has managed to provide the cheapest telephony services around the world, which has hit rock bottom after the entry of Reliance Jio. This has ensured access to those even at the bottom of the pyramid.

A rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country.
A rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country. Wikimedia Commons

Even though consumers have come to be accustomed to fast-paced changes within the telecom sector, the entry of Jio altered the face of the industry like never before by changing the very basis of competition. Data became the focal point of competition for an industry that derived over 75 percent of its revenue from voice. It was quite obvious that there would be immediate economic effects due to it. Now that we’re nearing a year of Jio’s paid operations, during which time it has even become profitable, we saw it fit to quantify its socio-economic impact on the country. Three broad takeaways need to be highlighted.

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First, the most evident effect has been the rise in affordability of calling and data services. Voice services have become practically costless while data prices have dropped from an average of Rs 152 per GB to lower than Rs 10 per GB. Such a drastic reduction in data prices has not only brought the internet within the reach of a larger proportion of the Indian population but has also allowed newer segments of society to use and experience it for the first time. Since the monthly saving of an average internet user came out to be Rs 142 per month (taking a conservative estimate that the consumer is still using 1 GB of data each month) and there are about 350 million mobile internet users in the country (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India data), the yearly financial savings for the entire country comes out to be Rs 60,000 crore.

To put things in perspective, this amount is more than four times the entire GDP of Bhutan. Therefore, mere savings by the consumer on data has been at astonishing proportions.

Today's smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Wikimedia Commons
Today’s smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Wikimedia Commons

Now, this data has been used for services that have brought to life a thriving app economy within the country. So, the second level of impact has been in the redressal of a variety of consumer needs — ranging from education, health and entertainment to banking. For instance, students in remote areas can now access online courseware and small businesses can access newer markets. Information asymmetry has been considerably reduced.

Third, a rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country. These effects arise not merely from the creation of an internet economy, but also due to the synergy effects it generates. Information becomes more accessible and communication a lot easier. Businesses find it easier to operate and access consumers. Labour working in cities has to make less frequent trips home and becomes more productive as a result. Education and health services become available in inaccessible locations. Multiple avenues open up for knowledge and skill enhancement.

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An econometric analysis for the Indian economy showed that the 15 percent increase in internet penetration due to Jio and the spill-over effects it creates will raise the per capita levels of the country’s GDP by 5.85 percent, provided all else remains constant.

Thus, India’s telecom sector will continue to drive the economy forward, at least in the short run, and hopefully catapult India into 20,000 years of progress within this century, as Kurzweil postulated. The best approach for the state would be to ensure the environment of unfettered competition within the industry. Maybe other sectors of the economy ought to take a leaf out of the telecom growth story. The Indian banking sector comes to mind. However, that is a topic for another day. (IANS)

(Amit Kapoor is Chair, Institute for Competitiveness, India. He can be contacted at Amit. Kapoor@competitiveness.in and tweets @kautiliya. Chirag Yadav, a senior researcher at the institute, has contributed to the article.)