Battling with Fear ….

Imagine sitting strapped in a cabin which can barely fit three people. A huge pile of solid rocket fuel containers are below you. Basically you are sitting on the top of a bomb which can blow you to pieces due to just a tiny malfunction. Even if you do launch off safely, your life is at the mercy of a machine. Terrified?

This is the reality of an astronaut every time a spaceship is about to lift off. The whole idea of spaceflight seems inherently so risky. A small spark, a tiny rip in a wire could turn a journey of a lifetime into a nightmare. The images of the smoky flumes of the Challenger shuttle and the visions of the startling, fiery bursts of light of the disintegrating Colombia are still fresh in people’s minds. How do astronauts deal with this kind of fear?

It turns out that the ways astronauts use to deal with fear holds very important lessons for how we can counter fear and insecurity in our daily lives. Nobody describes this better than Chris Hadfield, a senior Canadian astronaut, in his book “An astronaut’s guide to life on earth”. Hadfield, a former commander of the International Space station, says the way to combat this is to embrace the power of negative thinking. Seems strange? Read on..

All that can go bad, will go bad

This is the theme of how astronauts are trained. Each and every part of the proposed space flight is analyzed for things that could go awry. State-of-the-art simulators are built and the astronauts are trained in them until all the operations become second nature to them. An astronaut is not just someone who undergoes a driving test and is a given the license to fly.

Getting the privilege to go into space requires many years of dedication towards learning every possible thing about spaceflights. For an astronaut, skipping a chapter doesn’t mean just a loss of few marks in a test. That chapter might prove to be the difference between life and death in a bad situation in space.

“People tend to think astronauts have the courage of a hero- or maybe the emotional range of a robot.” says Hadfield, “But in order to stay calm in a high stress, high stakes situation, all you need is knowledge. Sure, you might feel a little nervous or stressed out. But what you won’t feel is terrified.”

Simulating Death

This is one of the stranger components of astronaut training. ‘Death Sims’ is what they call it. Before every human spaceflight, NASA performs some incredibly accurate drills for the possible death of an astronaut. The sim might start with a simple scenario – “ Chris is fatally injured in orbit’. On this the whole of the NASA disaster team revs into action – the ground crew, the medical staff, the program administrators… even the media relations people. Every step from how to inform the family, how to arrange for the safe return of the astronaut to Earth and also how to handle the PR situation that is bound to arise.

What do they gain by this ? Well, strange as it may seem, this drill actually gives reassurance to astronauts that things will be managed just fine in case of their deaths. Everyone always has this thing at the back of their minds. What will happen to my family in case I die ? This death sim gives them that extra boost of confidence when they finally step into the rocket ; a moment which might be the last time they see their families.

Power of negative thinking

“You have to walk around perpetually braced for disaster; convinced that the sky is about to fall” says Hadfield. If he walks into a crowded elevator, he will think about what can be done if the elevator gets stuck. When he puts on the seat belt of a plane, he will wonder what to do in case of a crisis.  

This is not being pessimistic. Rather by anticipating all possible obstacles,we can be more upbeat to face anything which life throws at us. We know what we have to do if things go wrong.  That’s the power of negative thinking.

 

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Chile – Where the stars shine the brightest !

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The majestic band of the Milky Way as seen from Chile’s Atacama !

“Towards Atacama, near the deserted coast, you see a land without men, where there is not a bird, not a beast, nor a tree, nor any vegetation.”
La Araucana by Alonso de Ercilla, 1569

Those words by 16th century Spanish conquerors summed up the stark impression left on their minds by Chile’s most famous landmark – the great Atacama Desert.

Searching for some warm moist air ? Then Atacama is definitely not the place for you to visit. The 1000 kilometre long land, lying to the west of the Andes mountains, is the driest hot desert in the world. In an average year, much of this desert gets less than 1 millimeter (0.04 inch) of rain ! That makes it 50 times drier than Death Valley in California.

Very few life forms can survive in such harsh conditions. But the very attributes that make Atacama inhospitable to life also make it ideal for the oldest of all sciences – Astronomy.

Astronomy is an observational science. Our theories will only be as good as the accuracy of our observations and equipments. Ask an astronomer to describe the perfect place to put a telescope, and here’s what he’ll tell you: Make it cold, make it dark, make it dry, and make it remote. In short, the exact description of the Atacama. Atacama’s exceptionally clear skies and dry air are ideal conditions for getting perhaps the best night sky views we can from this planet.

Being in South America, Chile also holds another ace in the pack considering that Astronomers can observe a different part of the sky than all the northern hemisphere observatories notably in Europe and North America.

The astronomy capital of the world

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Artist’s impression of the upcoming ALMA radio observatory

If asked about where the best telescopes in the world are, then one would probably hazard a guess at North America or Europe. But its Chile that rules the roost.

Chile currently supports 42% of world’s telescope infrastructure and is expected to rise to 70% of the world’s telescope by 2018 . Soon enough, Atacama will be the site of the largest international astronomical project in the world – the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) which is a 10 mile diameter giant Radio telescope made up of several smaller telescopes. This amazing telescope could get images of quality 5 times finer than even the Hubble Space Telescope.

To promote future growth, Chilean Universities are offering research based graduate and post-graduate courses in astronomy to attract the top astronomy talent from around the world .

Chile has surplus of telescope time and is looking for talented astronomers to conduct their research thereby benefiting both the country and the astronomer. These astronomers face less competition for telescope time in Chile than in their home countries.This is one of the biggest reasons Chile is and will continue to be the Astronomy capital of the world.

Atacama – the great gift of nature

The Atacama’s geography makes it a place unlike any other on our planet. This vast expanse of barren land has given us the key to unlock the secrets of the universe. We go back as a culture to the study of objects in heaven, like our constellation seeking ancestors did.

What drives us on this journey? Nothing but the feeling of enthusiasm and curiosity that all humans crave for! Lets cherish this beautiful gift that nature has given us in Chile.

Twinkle twinkle little star – How I wonder what you are !

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Astronomy – a simple science?

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci.

Astronomy may not sound like a very simple science. But in reality, many things in astronomy require only basic fundamentals that we all learn in high school. The sky is a natural laboratory for astronomers and fundamentals of physics are used to study the properties of objects in space. To give a demonstration of this, we will take a look at how simple it is to get a rough estimate of the properties of a star which is probably billions of light years away from us.

How do we know about the stars

Even an astronomer having access to state-of-the art technology can obtain values of only two variables – apparent brightness of the star and it’s distance from us.

Apparent brightness and spectrum[1] can be measured and recorded by a variety of light sensitive devices. The distance can be obtained from simple methods like parallax. To demonstrate parallax, hold your index finger at eye level. Shut your left eyelid first (right eyelid open) and look at your finger, then shut your right eyelid and look at the finger. Your finger will appear to move against the backdrop of a more distant object such as the wall of your study room. This apparent motion is called parallax. Astronomers use a similar technique to find distance to the star. Astronomers make one observation each two times a year, when the Earth is on the opposite sides of the sun.

Now let’s go from what we can measure to what we can infer and calculate. We will have a look at how a star’s three most important properties – Luminosity, Surface temperature and the radius – are calculated. Brightness, spectra and distance can be used to obtain these properties.

Let’s first learn a little bit about these quantities and why we are interested in them. Luminosity is an important measure of brightness, which is the power of a star — the amount of energy (light) that a star emits from its surface. It is usually measured in terms of how much more/less bright a star is as compared to the sun. Surface temperature of a star is used for classifying the star into different types. The radius of a star is very important from the point of view of assessing the star’s evolutionary phases[2]. The equations for these quantities are what we learnt in high school or early college years. Let’s get a recap of those:

Equation for Luminosity:
L= 4πD2b
L= Luminosity of the Star
D = Distance of the star from Earth
b = Apparent Brightness
Equation for Surface temperature:
T =  0.0029  ⁄ λmax   
T = Surface Temperature
λmax = Maximum wavelength from spectra
Equation for Radius of Star:
L = σT44πR2
R= Radius of the Star

We already have the values of the inputs (D, b, λmax ). So calculating the outputs (L, T, R) is an easy task.

Astronomers: We work hard too!

Well, now you might say if stellar astronomy is just about three simple equations, then why are astronomers spending hours on research and taking thousands of measurements using precious telescope time? Well, it turns out that getting the initial measurements is not so simple.

When we look at the sky, the stars appear like they are distributed on a huge 2D black canvas. But in reality, there is space between us and the stars. Therefore it’s not uncommon that our view of the stars may be obstructed by some interstellar gas or dust cloud. When starlight passes through this interstellar cloud before reaching earth its spectra will get distorted. Now it’s a challenge to separate which part of the spectrum comes from the stars and which one from the interstellar cloud. This is a real problem and requires several observations. There are various techniques that astronomers use to separate the two. But all of them rely upon using what we know about the stars to infer which parts of spectrum belong to the interstellar cloud. After that astronomers can subtract that part of the spectrum to give them the spectrum of the stars. Once astronomers have learnt about the interstellar spectrum they can use this to correct spectra of other stars in that direction.

Overall, we can see that although the fundamentals are simple to grasp, the practical challenges in astronomy are immense and require a lot of ingenuity and also dedication to the goal of advancing our knowledge about the universe. And in our opinion, that’s what makes it so challenging.


Footnotes:
[1] When astronomers split the light beam coming from a star using a spectrograph (prism like device), the resulting collection of wavelengths of light is called a spectrum.
[2] A star goes through various evolutionary phases starting from a big gas cloud to a huge supernova explosion.  Right now, our Sun is in a phase called the ‘Main Sequence’ which is roughly in the middle of the two aforementioned limits.