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Alien lands, right here on Earth

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Today, space engineer Siddharth Pandey will talk about NASA’s expedition to Ladakh, its first research trip in India

American novelist Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, later adapted into the eponymous film, explored the possibilities of survival on another planet. As scientific exploration continues, studies on the effect of zero gravity on the human body and survival in extreme environments are becoming areas of focus for geeks worldwide.

On Saturday, the Nehru Planetarium is organising a talk with space engineer Siddharth Pandey about NASA’s first India-based research trip to Ladakh in August 2016. The Spaceward Bound Program, an educational programme developed at the NASA Ames Research Centre, California, has been carrying out field expeditions in extreme environments on Earth to study the effect on life on another planet.

Pandey, who is also the program coordinator, says, “The geology and landscape of Ladakh is ideal to carry out scientific experiments. The terrain has evolved naturally without any human intervention and also resembles the environment on Mars. Hence, it is the choice for this year’s expedition.”

Since 2006, similar projects have been undertaken in Mojave in California, Atacama in Chile, Arkaroola in Australia, and parts of New Zealand. Apart from NASA’s Spaceward Bound team, scientists from the Australian Mars Society and the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, Lucknow, will take part in the trip. Pandey says, “We usually have an open application process through which astrobiologists and students can participate in our projects. However, since it’s our first mission in Ladakh, we’re keeping the team inclusive to set up the base for future missions.”

The team plans to test a space exploration vehicle in Ladakh’s alkaline lakes, high passes, glaciers, hot springs, shallow and palaeo lakes, and permafrost regions, where microbial survival is minimal. Samples will be collected for astrogeological and biological experiments, and to study theories about Earth’s origin and document the sustenance and adaptation of living organisms within such biospheres.

In the recent past, numerous missions have been launched with the aim of exploring life on Earth-like planets such as Mars and Venus. The latest Mars One mission garnered significant interest from laymen who signed up for the one-way trip to the red planet.

Pandey says, “What’s good about the mission is that it brought talk within society about the possibilities of such projects. But a one-way mission is not one that rhymes well with any space agencies, or myself for that matter.” He believes cost-cutting is not a legitimate reason for a one-way mission, as the main aim of such a project is human safety. The Spaceward Bound Program’s aim is to draw comparisons between extreme areas on Earth and external planets, and provide insight on sustainable life.

Pandey says, “As scientific thinkers, we have been grappling with the idea of life on another planet for the past 60 years. It is imperative to look upwards and ponder over the fact that we’re sitting on a pale blue dot. The chances of no life anywhere else in the universe is very low; we just need to know what we’re looking for.” He suggests the possibility of life on Jupiter’s moon Europa, as its surface is covered with a layer of ice, leading scientists to believe there is an active ocean beneath its surface.

“While movies like Gravity and Interstellar contain a few scientific inaccuracies, it is important to encourage space conversation and scientific knowledge,” he says. With the collection of information from projects like the Spaceward Bound Program and other scientific breakthroughs from organisations like NASA or ISRO, we’re moving in the direction of finding survival in a world other than the one we call our own.

Astrobiology in Ladakh: NASA Spaceward Bound India 2016 will take place today at 5 pm at Nehru Planetrium, The Hall of Culture, Discovery of India building.

The author is a freelance writer

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 6:07:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/Alien-lands-right-here-on-Earth/article14176234.ece

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