Pradeep's Space Newsletter #16
Chamoli Event, RTGs, Chandrayaan II failure, AgniKul's kerolox engine, spacecrafts at Mars and more...
The Chamoli Event
We saw horrifying images of destruction caused by the flooding in Chamoli district in Uttarakhand. Many people died and many are still missing. The Armed Forces are still leading rescue efforts in the area.
Initially, dam projects in the area for the disaster. It is believed to be a sensitive ecosystem. Blaming dams for the disaster did not make sense. It probably slowed the flood. The dams were swept away in the floods and lead to the death of many construction personnel there. The flood was only a symptom.
A glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) is when a lake formed by glacial ice breaks it’s boundaries and flows out. This flood is what we saw in videos shared of what the geologists and glaciologists were calling the Chamoli event.
Satellite imagery of the affected area was provided by Planet Labs. Dr. Dan Shugar used this satellite imagery to identify that a landslide pushed this glacier lake which caused the flood downstream. This tweet was retweeted by Raj Bhagat P.
This news came just before midnight India time. Petley’s tweet above is timestamped to 10:46 PM on February 7. The newspapers the next day carried reports of the GLOF and carried articles and opinion pieces, against infrastructure projects in the area.
The next day however had at least two conspiracy theories for what caused the GLOF. One involved the Chinese army triggering the event. Another, was that it could be caused because of a slow glacial melt because of the heat caused by a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) left by the CIA in the 1960s at Nandadevi, at the site of the occurrence.
I believe that timely sharing of satellite data by Planet Labs helped stop the spread of misinformation. The shared data was accessed by scientists from around the world who could then at least provide a primary cause for the event. An in depth scientific investigation could probably be carried out after rescue efforts.
The National Remote Sensing Center (NRSC), Hyderabad has been sharing satellite images of the event obtained from satellites from India and Europe under the International Charter on Disaster Management. You can see these images on the Disaster Support Management Portal of NRSC. However, the images are in PDF files. The website does say that the image are accessible on ISRO’s Bhuvan portal.
Gareeb Scientist uses both Google Earth and Bhuvan to visualize the area. The video was made before the landslide was identified as the cause for the event.
Sandhya Ramesh writing for ThePrint provided one of the first write ups on February 8 about the landslide being the cause of the Chamoli event. Links to many tweets and provides a nice explanation of the event.
Since those images are locked in PDFs, Times of India’s Chetan Kumar has been tweeting the photos on this Twitter thread.
That RTG on Nandadevi? There is a nice story around it of an India and US attempt to spy on China that led to the RTGs being left there. Shail Desai tells the fascinating story in this piece for the Mint in 2017.
Spies in the Snow, How CIA and the Indian Intelligence Lost a Nuclear Device in the Himalayas - Mohan Singh Kohli (who himself had a fascinating life)
Scott Rosenfelt, the producer mentioned in the above story, has produced films like Home Alone. He tweeted at me saying he still intends to make the movie:
Chandrayaan II Failure Analysis Committee report
The user’s initial effort to get the information from ISRO was refused on the ground of Section 8(1)(a) and Section 8(1)(g) of the RTI Act. He appealed the refusal with the first appellate authority which ordered ISRO to provide the list of members of the FAC and an image of the crash site. The image also seems to be off from the site where debris was located by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). There is reason to doubt that this is the actual image although it is difficult to ascertain given the resolution of the image.
The user intends to approach the Second appellate authority at the CIC to get a copy of the report.
In the aftermath of Chandrayaan II, ISRO had been very evasive in answering what happened to the Chandrayaan II lander. This is not usual for ISRO. It has been very forthcoming in assigning reasons for the failures of a mission in the past.
AgniKul Cosmos, an Indian space startup tested India’s first kerosene with liquid oxygen as the oxidiser (kerolox) engine.
If you like reading technical papers, r/ISRO has helpfully put together a list of papers submitted to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) 2021.
Space-themed podcast episode of the Postcards from Nowhere, mixing storytelling and science.
China’s Mars mission, Tianwen-1 successfully enters Mars orbit.
UAE’s Mars mission, Hope successfully enters Mars orbit.