December 2014

ABBREVIATIONS
CARE: Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment.
DBTL: Direct Benefit Transfer of LPG (Scheme).
NITI:  National Institution for Transforming India.
PAHAL: Pratyaksh Hanstantrit Labh (Direct Benefit Transfer of LPG scheme).
PPI: Pre-paid Payment Instruments.

AWARDS
Bharat Ratna 2014
Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and freedom fighter-educationist Madan Mohan Malaviya  (posthumously), popularly known as ‘Mahamana’, have been conferred with India’s highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna.

Vajpayee is the first leader from the India’s political right to be conferred the honour.

An educationist and freedom fighter, Madan Mohan Malviya was the founder of the Banaras Hindu University and passed away in 1946. He had been a part of the Congress during the freedom struggle but later broke away and became one of the founders of the Hindu Mahasabha.

Recipients receive a certificate signed by the President and a peepal-leaf shaped medallion. The award does not include any monetary grant. Instituted on 2 January 1954, Bharat Ratna has been conferred on 43 individuals. Eleven recipients were awarded posthumously.

BOOKS
The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years
Autobiography of Mr Pranab Mukherjee, President of India, the book deals with several important things that defined India during 1969-80 – the consequences it had on our economy as more than 10 million refugees had to be taken care of by a government strapped of cash and foodgrains and the turmoil it caused in Bengal Congress politics, in the run-up to the war with Pakistan. The book also talks about Indira Gandhi’s turn from heroine of 1971 to villain of the Emergency in 1975, as also the incompetence of the Janata sarkar that took her place.

PERSONS
Malaviya, Pt Madan Mohan
Pt. Madan Mohan Malaviya, a distinguished educationist and founder of Banaras Hindu University, has been conferred the Bharat Ratna 2014 (posthumously).

Son of a kathavachak and a teacher, he was forced to leave teaching and embrace law when driven by poverty. He became a millionaire from his practice of law but gave it all up when he reached 50, to ‘serve’ his country. Although he was a Congressman, he embraced Hinduism and its propagation as an article of faith and co-founded the Hindu Mahasabha.

Malaviya’s mission was to set up a university for Indians, regardless of faith or caste, and the BHU was born from donations big and small.

During the freedom movement, he was a bridge between the Extremists and the moderates—as the followers of Gokhale and Tilak were respectively called. In 1930, when Mahatma Gandhi launched the Salt Satyagraha and the Civil Disobedience Movement, he participated in it and courted arrest.

He plunged into the political arena immediately after his inspiring speech at the second Congress session in Calcutta in 1886. He went on to serve Congress for almost 50 years. He served as Congress President for four times—in 1909 (Lahore), in 1918 (Delhi), in 1930 (Delhi) and in 1932 (Calcutta).

Vajpayee, Atal Behari
Former Prime Minister of India, he has been conferred the Bharat Ratna 2014.  Statesman, gracious, charming, witty, great repartee are the kind of adjectives that come to mind immediately while talking about him.

He is best known for the Pokhran blast that catapulted India to the nuclear-haves club, his peace efforts with Pakistan and his famous raj-dharam comment after the Gujarat riots. He is also termed as India’s most instinctive reformer.

A parliamentarian for over four decades, Vajpayee was elected to the Lok Sabha (the lower House of India’s Parliament) nine times, and twice to the Rajya Sabha (upper House). In 2009, he retired from active politics due to health concerns.

He was one amongst the founder members of erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which he had also headed. When Janata government collapsed, Vajpayee restarted the Jana Sangh as the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980.

PLACES
Lima
Capital of Peru, Lima hosted the 12-day UN Climate Summit from 1 December 2014. Officials from over 190 nations, including India, negotiated on a new ambitious and binding deal to cut global carbon emissions, in the last chance to reach on a historic deal to be signed in Paris in 2015.

Negotiations have been ongoing for 20 years, as the UN continues to bring its member countries together to help curb the damaging effects of coal burning and gasoline use, among other sources of pollution.

Countries put forward what they plan to contribute to the 2015 pact in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) by the first quarter of 2015.

The Lima conference also provided final clarity on what the INDCs need to contain, including for developing countries who are likely to have a range of options from, for example, sector-wide emission curbs to energy intensity goals.

RESEARCH
World’s fastest 2-D camera
Light is the fastest thing we’ve ever recorded in the universe, and catching its trajectory on film requires extraordinary high speeds. A new camera developed by researchers at the University of Washington may be just the thing to enable new discoveries about light. They’re claiming it’s the world’s fastest 2D receive-only camera, able to capture images at a rate of up to 100 billion frames per second, using a technique its creators call Compressed Ultrafast Photography.

Current receive-only cameras image at a speed of around 10 million frames per second, limited by on-chip storage and electronic readout speed.

The technology consists of an array of devices, such as microscopes and telescopes paired with lenses to capture events. The whole thing is centred on an existing piece of technology, called a “streak camera”, an ultrafast device that measures the intensity variation of a pulse of light over time. Streak cameras, however, only record in one dimension; the algorithms and components added by Wang and his team expanded this into two dimensions.

The lens captures the photons, sending them through a long tube to a digital micro-mirror device the size of a small coin, with around a million micro-mirrors on board, each about seven microns squared. These encode the image, and then reflect the beams to a beam splitter; this, in turn, shoots the photons into the streak camera’s slit. This converts the photons to electrons, which are then sheared with electrodes in order to convert time into space—2D. The voltage of the electrodes increases, so that the electrons arrive at different times land in different positions.

This raw data is then stored in a charge-coupled device, to be sent to a computer, where it is processed into an image using computational imaging.

The application of this camera includes bio-medicine, where it can be used to image fluorescent proteins. Combining the technology with the Hubble Telescope will give both the sharpest spatial resolution of the Hubble and the highest temporal solution. That combination is bound to discover new science.

First high-resolution 3-D Human Genome Map
Researchers, including one of Indian origin (Suhas Rao, a researcher at Baylor’s Centre for Genome Architecture), have assembled the first high-resolution, 3-D maps of entire folded genomes, showing how a ‘genomic origami’ or folding allows the same genes to produce different cells.

The five-year project to identify the loops in the human genome was collaboration between researchers at Harvard University, Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.

Loops form when two bits of DNA that are far apart in the genome sequence end up in close contact in the folded version of the genome in a cell’s nucleus. Researchers used a technology called “in situ Hi-C” to collect billions of snippets of DNA that were later analysed for signs of loops. The team found that loops and other genome folding patterns are an essential part of genetic regulation.

The research has revealed thousands of hidden switches that scientists didn’t know about before. In the case of genes that can cause cancer or other diseases, knowing where these switches are is vital.

The research appears in the journal Cell.

Digital scan of tongue to diagnose illness
Indian researchers have developed a new diagnostic system that can identify illnesses from digitized image of the patient’s tongue. The system is of particular use for people residing in remote areas as they do not have ready access to physicians.

The tool involves soft inputs such as standard questions about symptoms of the disease and a digitized image of the patient’s tongue. The approach basically includes a combination of soft and hard inputs. The analysis of these inputs is fed to a neural network or computational model, which is trained with four different algorithms and the image is analysed.

The digitized image of the patient’s tongue could reveal discolouration, engorgement, texture and other factors that might be linked to illness.

Smoothness and “beefiness” might reveal vitamin B-12, iron, or folate deficiency, and lead to anaemia.

Black discolouration could be indicative of fungal overgrowth in HIV patients or prolonged antibiotic use.

Longitudinal furrows on the tongue are associated with syphilis.

Ulcers may indicate the presence of Crohn’s disease or colitis and various other conditions.

The current system allows diagnosis of 14 distinct conditions but the team hopes to extend its functions significantly.

SPACE RESEARCH
Orion: NASA’s new spaceship tested successfully
Orion, a US spaceship designed to one day fly astronauts to Mars made a near-bulls-eye splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on 5 December 2014, wrapping up a flawless, unmanned debut test flight around Earth.

The Orion capsule was blasted off aboard a Delta 4 Heavy rocket, the biggest in the US fleet, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Three hours later, it reached peak altitude of 5,800 km above the planet, a prelude to the most challenging part of the flight, a 32,000 km/h dive back into the atmosphere.

Orion survived a searing, plunge through the atmosphere, heating up to 2,200 degree Celsius—twice as hot as molten lava—and experiencing gravitational forces eight times stronger than Earth’s.

Over the next few minutes, a total of 11 parachutes deployed to slow Orion’s descent, including three gigantic main chutes that guided the spaceship to a 32 km/h splashdown.

The point of the test flight, which cost NASA about $375 million, was to verify that Orion’s 5-meter diameter heat shield, parachutes, avionics and other equipment would work as designed prior to astronauts flying aboard.

NASA has been developing Orion, along with a new heavy-lift rocket, for more than eight years. The design of the rocket has changed, and Orion survived the cancellation of a lunar exploration program called Constellation to become the centerpiece of a new human space initiative intended to one day fly astronauts to Mars.

GSAT-16 launched
India’s communication satellite GSAT-16 was successfully launched on 7 December 2014, by the Ariane-5 launch vehicle VA221 of Arianespace from Kourou, French Guiana.

GSAT-16 is an advanced communication satellite weighing 3181.6 kg at lift-off and has been inducted into the INSAT/GSAT system. It is configured to carry a total of 48 communication transponders, the largest number of transponders carried by a communication satellite developed by ISRO so far, in normal C band, upper extended C band, and Ku band.

The designed on-orbit operational life of GSAT-16 is 12 years. The communication transponders on board GSAT-16 will ensure continuity of various services provided by INSAT/GSAT system and serve as on-orbit spares to meet the contingency requirements or for the augmentation of such services.

GSLV-Mk III successfully launched by ISRO
On 18 December 2014, ISRO successfully launched its heaviest rocket GSLV Mk III, which is conceived and designed to make India fully self reliant in launching heavier communication satellites of INSAT-4 class, which weigh 4500 to 5000 kg. It would also enhance the capability of the country to be a competitive player in the multi-million dollar commercial launch market.

The 42.4 m tall three stage vehicle (active S200 and L110 propulsion stages and a passive C25 stage with dummy engine), having a lift off weight of 630 tonnes,  carried CARE (Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment) as its payload—a dummy crew module which went up to a height of 120 km and then descended. The idea was to test whether its heat shield can survive very high temperatures during its re-entry into the atmosphere, as also also test the recovery of a dummy crew module from sea.

The module separated from the rocket at an altitude of 126 km and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere (about 80 km from sea level). It descended in a ballistic mode and splashed down into the Bay of Bengal, some 180 km from Indira Point, the southern tip of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The experiment also witnessed the largest parachute in action ever made in the country. The main parachute, which helped the crew module touch the waters at around 7 metre/second speed, was 31 metres in diameter.

The crew module, which can carry up to two to three astronauts, withstood a heat of around 1,600 degree Celsius, while it travelled towards the surface of the Earth. The module was tracked by Indian Coast Guard ships and then taken to Kamarajar Port in Ennore near Chennai, from where it was shifted to Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala for further study.

This experimental mission has helped ISRO with two primary lessons — to study the flight validation of the complex atmospheric flight regime of LVM3 vehicle and study the re-entry characteristics of CARE crew module.

Once ISRO masters its GSLV Mk III, the country can save a massive amount of the foreign exchange it presently is spending to send its heavy communication satellites through other space agencies aboard. The heavy launch vehicle would also help India earn considerable foreign exchange by sending heavy satellites for other countries, in addition to the revenue PSLV rockets are already securing for ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix Corporation Limited.

This CARE module is expected to enhance ISRO’s understanding on re-entry and parachute phases of crew module. The success of the module was the core for a future Human Space Project.

The total budget of the experimental mission was Rs 155 crore, including the crew module, which cost Rs 15 crore.

Curiosity detects organic matter on surface of Mars
NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has made the first definitive detection of organic molecules, the building blocks of all known forms of terrestrial life, on the surface of the Red Planet. The team responsible for the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite on Curiosity found the organic molecules in a drilled sample of the Sheepbed mudstone in Gale crater, the landing site for the Curiosity rover.

Organic molecules consist of a wide variety of molecules made primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. However, organic molecules can also be made by chemical reactions that don’t involve life, and there is not enough evidence to tell if the matter found by the team came from ancient Martian life or from a non-biological process.

Examples of non-biological sources include chemical reactions in water at ancient Martian hot springs or delivery of organic material to Mars by interplanetary dust or comets.

Curiosity’s earlier analysis had showed that the environment offered water and chemical elements essential for life and a different chemical energy source.

The organic molecules discovered also have chlorine atoms, and include chlorobenzene and several dichloroalkanes, such as dichloroethane, dichloropropane and dichlorobutane.

Chlorobenzene is the most abundant with concentrations between 150 and 300 parts-per-billion. Chlorobenzene is not a naturally occurring compound on Earth and is used in the manufacturing process for pesticides, adhesives, paints etc.

Dichloropropane is used as an industrial solvent to make paint strippers, varnishes and furniture finish removers.

Perchlorates (a chlorine atom bound to four oxygen atoms) are abundant on the surface of Mars. It’s possible that as the sample was heated, chlorine from perchlorate combined with fragments from precursor organic molecules in the mudstone to produce the chlorinated organic molecules detected by SAM.

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