Science & Mathematics

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Agni-II missile test-fired

The strategic Agni-II missile, which can carry nuclear warheads, soaring into the sky from a rail-mobile launcher on the Wheeler Island, off the Orissa coast on Friday.

Marking a hat-trick of achievements in the past one week, India successfully flight-tested Intermediate range, nuclear weapons-capable Agni-II surface-to-surface missile for its full range of over 2,000 km from Balasore, Orissa on Friday.

The missile was fired from a rail mobile launcher by the Army’s Strategic Force Command personnel at 9.30 a.m. as part of a training exercise after it was picked up from the production lot.

After a 10-minute flight, the 21-metre tall Agni-II reached the pre-defined target in the Bay of Bengal with precision and accuracy, a top Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) official told The Hindu from Balasore soon after completion of the mission.

Two naval ships located near the target point, electro-optical and telemetry systems tracked the missile’s flight path and its final moments.

Agni-II has been developed by the DRDO as part of the medium and long-range surface-to-surface missiles and is one of the main weapon systems of India’s nuclear deterrence doctrine. The two-stage solid-propelled missile can carry a payload of one tonne and is equipped with an advanced navigation system and anti-ballistic defence counter measures. It has already been inducted into the Armed Forces.

Scientific Advisor to Defence Minister V.K. Saraswat described it a dream launch and one of the finest copy-book launches of Agni-II. All the performance parameters of the mission such as velocity, terminal phase, trajectory and destruction of the warhead went as per copybook profile.

Avinash Chander, Chief Controller, (Missiles and Strategic Systems), DRDO said that in the wake of two failures of Agni-II and one of Agni-II Prime earlier, a number of steps were taken to improve the quality. He said a specialist dedicated quality control agency did a good job of overcoming the control problems in the first stage.

V.G.Sekharan, Director, Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) said the main aim was to ensure that the user could launch and that was achieved. “We always knew that this was a good missile”, he said.

NASA’s dead satellite crashes over the Pacific

In this file image provided by NASA is the STS-48 onboard photo of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) in the grasp of the RMS (Remote Manipulator System) during deployment, from the shuttle in September 1991. NASA's old research satellite is expected to come crashing down through the atmosphere Friday afternoon, September 23, 2011, Eastern Time.

The biggest spacecraft to crash, uncontrolled

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s dead six-tonne satellite fell to the Earth early on Saturday morning, starting its fiery death plunge somewhere over the vast Pacific Ocean.

Details were still sketchy, but the United States Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Centre and NASA say that the bus-sized satellite first penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. That doesn’t necessarily mean it all fell into the sea. NASA’s calculations had predicted that the former climate research satellite would fall over a 500-mile (800 km) area.

The two government agencies say the 35-foot satellite fell sometime between 1.23 a.m. (GMT) and 5.09 a.m. (GMT). NASA said it didn’t know the precise time or location yet.

Some 26 pieces of the satellite representing 1,200 pounds (550 kg) of heavy metal were expected to rain down somewhere. The biggest surviving chunk should be no more than 300 pounds (135 kg).

The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) is the biggest NASA spacecraft to crash back to Earth, uncontrolled, since the Skylab space station and the Pegasus 2 satellite, both in 1979.

Russia’s 135-tonne Mir space station slammed through the atmosphere in 2001, but it was a controlled dive into the Pacific.

Before UARS fell, no one had ever been hit by falling space junk and NASA expected that not to change.

NASA put the chances that somebody somewhere on Earth would get hurt at 1 in 3,200.

But any one person’s odds of being struck were estimated at 1-in-22 trillion, given there are 7 billion people on the planet.

NASA’s “errant satellite” plummeting to earth at 27,000 kph

To anyone who grew up on a staple diet of Asterix comics, the illustrated series about a Gaulish tribe by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, it is well known that their greatest fear was that the sky would one day fall on their heads.

Today the fears of that tiny tribe gripped the entire world as a massive but dead satellite floating on the outer edge of the earth’s atmosphere began a fiery, high-velocity descent of indeterminate terminal location.

The bus-sized Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, or UARS, launched in 1991 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is 35 feet long, 15 feet in diameter, and weighs a staggering 6,500 kilograms. It will re-enter the earth’s atmosphere sometime Friday night or early Saturday Eastern Time NASA said, noting that it was as yet too early to predict the time and location of re-entry with precision.

However the agency cautioned that it could not rule out the United States as a landing spot, saying, “There is a low probability any debris that survives re-entry will land in the United States, but the possibility cannot be discounted because of this changing rate of descent.”

Meanwhile a U.S. Air Force space operations team in California was said to be tracking the “errant satellite’s” movements. “If the satellite doesn’t incinerate when it enters Earth’s atmosphere, NASA officials expect to see 25 or 26 pieces of debris from the craft. The biggest piece is estimated to weigh 300 pounds,” Jeremy Eggers, Public Affairs Director for the operations centre, said in a statement.

If the satellite doesn’t incinerate when it enters Earth’s atmosphere, NASA officials expect to see 25 or 26 pieces of debris from the craft, the USAF said, adding that the biggest piece is estimated to weigh around 136 kilograms. It was currently estimated to be travelling at approximately 27,000 kilometres per hour.

NASA however hastened to add that the risk that “re-entering orbital debris” posed to public safety or property was “extremely small” because a significant amount of such debris does not survive the severe heating which occurs during re-entry.

“Components which do survive are most likely to fall into the oceans or other bodies of water or onto sparsely populated regions like the Canadian Tundra, the Australian Outback, or Siberia in the Russian Federation,” NASA explained, adding that during the last 50 years an average of one catalogued piece of debris fell back to Earth each day and “no serious injury or significant property damage caused by re-entering debris has been confirmed.”

Yet obviously no place on earth was entirely safe from the dead satellite’s descent – in a small footnote on its website NASA recommended: “If you find something you think may be a piece of UARS, do not touch it. Contact a local law enforcement official for assistance.” This of course assumes it missed the individual in question.

Heat-resistant fungal spores found in Western Ghats

THE LITMUS TEST: The Bartalinia sp. was able to withstand the sudden and steep increase in temperature from 20 degree C to 115 degree C.

The spores survived and germinated after being exposed to 115 degree C for two hours

Can the mesophilic fungal spores that normally grow at 20 degree C to 35 degree C survive higher temperatures and still be able to germinate when the conditions are right? Believe it or not, laboratory studies have shown that some species of mesophilic spores can indeed survive even when exposed to 115 degree C for two hours! The duration of survival was longer at lower temperatures.

“The fungi are among the most heat-resistant eukaryotes on record and are referred to as ‘Agni’s Fungi,’ after the Hindu God of Fire,” notes the paper published recently in the Fungal Biology journal.


This has been a serendipitous finding of a Chennai based scientist T.S. Suryanarayanan and his team. Dr. Suryanarayanan is the Director of the Vivekananda Institute of Tropical Mycology.

“We were studying the fungi for enzymes of pharmaceutical interest and discovered the heat-resistant trait accidentally,” said Dr. Suryanarayanan. “We were very surprised by the find.”

Leaf litter became the natural choice to look for new species as bacteria and fungi facilitate the degradation of the leaves. And the search was further narrowed down to endophyte fungi that normally live inside living leaves and turn into leaf-litter degrading fungi once the leaf dies.

Tropical forests are one of the best habitats to search for new endophyte species. Hence the search for leaf litter naturally took him to a forest adjacent to the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary.

As Dr. Suryanarayanan recalls, the fungi were isolated from the dead leaves and cultured for extracting the enzymes of interest. In the process, the fungi with the spores had to be heated to 115 degree C for two hours to completely remove the water content.

However, after weighing the fungi along with the spores, for some inexplicable reasons, the scientists did not discard the waste material. Instead they cultured the spores of Bartalinia sp.

What happened next was totally unexpected. “The spores germinated and produced fungus after a few days,” he said. The ability to germinate was sufficient proof that the spores had indeed survived the heat treatment.

The scientists repeated the experiment several times to be sure that the phenomenon was real and not due to any contamination. Having observed this strange phenomenon in one species, the researchers studied a few more species and saw them behaving the same way.

There is something more important than the spores’ ability to withstand higher temperatures. “The change in temperature was not gradual. There was a sudden and steep increase in temperature from 20 degree C to 115 degree C,” said Dr. Suryanarayanan. “But the fungal spores still survived.”

Another aspect is the nature of the heat. “It was dry heat, and this type of heat has a very different effect on the fungal cells,” he underlined.

The mechanism of survival may be very different as the temperature shift was very sudden and steep, and the heat was dry in nature.

The temperature inside the oven and the kind of heat that they were subjected to were very different from what even the higher temperature resistant thermophilic fungi can withstand. The optimum temperature at which thermophilic fungi grows is around 50 degree C.

So how did the mesophilic fungi withstand such high temperatures? The answer lies in the original habitat from where the litter was collected.

“The location from where we collected the litter is often subjected to forest fires,” he said. “Our hypothesis is that periodical forest fires have made the spores adapt to and survive high temperatures.”

Dr. Suryanarayanan is leaving this month-end as a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Fellow to the Department of Biochemistry, Ohio State University to study the feasibility of using fungi to produce biofuel from plant waste.

A slate for micro-finance

A hybrid digital slate that allows both paper-based and digital record-keeping. Photo: Special Arrangement

Low-cost system combines writing on paper and recording entries in digital format

Over the past three decades, the global micro-finance sector has grown substantially, with mainstream banks realising its benefits for social support and meeting profit margins. But simple issues still plague everyday operations.

In India, for instance, handwritten entries on paper forms, which are often illegible, incorrect or incomplete, make it difficult to maintain accurate and updated local records on microfinance self-help groups.

Addressing this, Aishwarya Lakshmi Ratan, as part of the Technology for Emerging Markets Group at Microsoft Research India, spent 15 months figuring out how to help local microfinance cooperatives improve the quality of their financial records.

The solution she explored with colleagues at Microsoft Research and with a partner non-governmental organisation, PRADAN, is a low-cost digital system that combines the convenience of writing on paper, while simultaneously recording the handwritten entries and instantly storing them in a digital format.

“We used a hybrid digital slate prototype device that allows both paper-based as well as digital recordkeeping. It comes with an A5-size digitising pad and digital pen as well as a small touch screen. The ledger book is placed on the digitising pad and entries are made with the pen in ink. The minute you start writing, the movement of the pen is tracked in the background and all the entries have a corresponding digital copy created.

“The digital entries are then run through a digit recognition tool and the numbers are fed into a local database on the device. These figures are then processed and instant updates are generated. A financial record management application, based on the paper accounting system used by the self-help group, allows the accounts writer to verify all entries on the screen. Audio feedback in the local language is then played back so that the entries are validated by the members. Once the errors are corrected, the data is saved. What this means is that the solution allows users to get digital processing and feedback in response to regular handwritten paper-based entries,” explains Ms. Ratan.

An immediate advantage is that these digital records can be shared easily with banks supporting the self-help group. This hybrid solution, which made it to the MIT Technology Review TR35 list of 35 innovators under age 35, yielded entries that were 100 per cent complete in field trials with significant improvements in accuracy.

“Each self-help group runs its own little banking system. We realised that there were lots of gaps in the quality of financial data, and we wanted to help meet this need. Usually, the paper records are sent to town and then someone transcribes them into digital records for processing. Printouts of updates are then sent back to be used at the next meeting. The logistics of getting the data transcribed were heavy, and the reconciliation of errors was difficult, since the people who entered the first set and those who were transcribing it were different,” Ms. Ratan adds.

Among the many challenges the solution faced was one of no power or unreliable electricity since the device needed to be recharged. A solar charging unit was then attached to it, but that raised costs. Ms. Ratan says: “The other challenges included issues of the audio output. Our first prototype just had the numbers being read out, but field tests showed that saying them in a locally familiar format improved member engagement. We were very conscious that the solution needed to either meet or beat current costs, so we explored methods by which groups could share a device since each group only meets once a week.”

Intel aims to lower PC power consumption by 300 times

The world’s largest chip-maker Intel Corporation on Friday said it is working on a host of futuristic technologies that would improve the power efficiency of PCs 300-fold in the next 10 years

The world’s largest chip-maker Intel Corporation on Friday said it is working on a host of futuristic technologies that would improve the power efficiency of PCs 300-fold in the next 10 years, as well as ensure the security of data and user identities.

Speaking on the final day of the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) 2011 here, Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner said the company was developing technologies to take computing to the next level, with better performance and lower power consumption.

Energy efficiency was a key theme of the three-day IDF summit this year and a number of Intel executives demonstrated the efforts being taken by the company in this regard. The move assumes significance in light of consumers gravitating toward always-on computing devices with a greater degree of mobility.

Mr. Rattner said that Intel’s multi-core technology, in which more than one processing engine is built into a single chip, has become the accepted methodology for increasing performance while keeping power consumption low.

These technologies would enable faster web access, improve PC user security and reduce the requirement for wireless infrastructure to provide the optimal online experience, among other benefits, he said.

Mr. Rattner demonstrated a new technology for better PC security, wherein users would be able to see images and other data on social networking sites and other platforms only if the computer recognises his or her face.

The technology will enable parallel cryptographic and facial recognition services to improve security on Ultrabooks and traditional notebooks, besides desktop PCs, with the help of Intel microprocessors, he said.

Intel was also collaborating with China Mobile to replace existing “costly base-station hardware used on cell towers today with a fully programmable and far more cost-effective, software-based PC alternative”, he noted.

Mr. Rattner revealed that Intel Labs was working on a new ‘Near-Threshold Voltage Processor’ that has enabled an experimental Pentium-class processor unit to deliver five times better energy efficiency levels, with the ability to run a processor with a solar cell the size of postage stamp.

He said the extreme-scale computing technologies that Intel was working on would help achieve the goal of a nearly 300 times improvement in energy efficiency levels in the next ten years and potentially even a 1,000-fold improvement in the future.

Mr. Rattner also disclosed a new JavaScript solution that could speed up browser-based content such as 3D games by up to eight-fold and said that Intel would also soon launch the world’s first processor with Many-Integrated Core (MIC) architecture, which promises to revolutionise high-performance computing.

Planet orbiting two suns discovered

This image provided by NASA shows an artist's depiction showing a world where two suns set over the horizon instead of just one. The planet, called Kepler-16b, is the most "Tatooine-like" planet yet found in our galaxy. Tatooine is the name of Luke Skywalker's home world in the science fiction movie Star Wars.

Astronomers claim to have discovered a planet which orbits two suns, like the fictional planet Tatooine featured in the sci-fi film series Star Wars.

An international team, which made the finding through NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, says the planet, called Kepler-16b, is about 200 light years from Earth and is believed to be a frozen world of rock and gas, about the size of Saturn.

It orbits two stars that are also circling each other, one about two-thirds the size of our sun, the other about a fifth the size of our sun. Each orbit takes 229 days; the stars eclipse each other every three weeks or so.

Alan Boss, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC and a member of the team, was quoted by the media as saying, “You would never get constant daylight because the two stars are so close together.

“They would come together in an eclipse every 20.5 days and then move apart again. As their separation increased, they would go down at different times, and that could make cocktail hour hard.”

In fact, the team, led by Laurance Doyle at the Carl Sagan Centre for the Study of Life in the Universe at the Seti Institute in California, spotted the planet after noticing unusual signals in data collected by the Kepler spacecraft.

Images captured by Kepler’s camera showed two stars orbiting each other and producing eclipses as they moved in front of one another. Both stars were small in comparison with our own sun, at about 69 and 20 per cent of the sun’s mass.

On closer inspection, the footage revealed further eclipses that could not be explained by the movement of the two stars, or an additional third star. Instead, a subtle drop in light from the stars, which amounted to a dimming of only 1.7 per cent, was attributed to an orbiting planet.

The astronomers turned next to a ground-based telescope, the Whipple Observatory in Arizona. With this, they monitored the shifting velocity of the heaviest star as it moved around in its orbit.

Those observations gave Mr. Doyle’s team the details they needed to reconstruct the orbits of the stars and its planet.

They showed that the two suns orbit each other every 41 days at a distance of about 21 million miles. The planet completes a circular orbit around both stars every 229 days at a distance of 65 million miles, according to the findings published in the Science journal.

Josh Carter, another team member, added: “Kepler-16b is the first confirmed, unambiguous example of a circumbinary planet — a planet orbiting not one, but two stars. Once again, we’re finding that our solar system is only one example of the variety of planetary systems nature can create.”

Soyuz on way home; U.S., Russia agree to resume launches

A Russian Soyuz TMA-02M space ship is transported to the launch pad.

A Russian Soyuz craft carrying three astronauts undocked early on Friday from the International Space Station and headed back to Earth, where it is to land at 0400 GMT.

The capsule is carrying Russian Andrey Borisenko, the departing commander of the space station; Russian Alexander Samokutyaev and American Ron Garen. It is expected to land in the Central Asian steppes, in Kazakhstan, where rescue vehicles and physicians were awaiting the 3-ton capsule.

Its final descent will be slowed by a parachute, Russian officials said.

The undocking came just a day after the U.S. and Russia agreed to resume launches by Russian Soyuz craft following an accident last month, ensuring the International Space Station (ISS) will not have to be temporarily abandoned.

The three astronauts have been on the ISS since April. Three other astronauts — an American, Russian and Japanese — remained on the ISS.

The next Soyuz is to fly to the ISS with three astronauts in mid-November, following an unmanned flight on October 1.

“Our top priority is the safety of our crew members. The plan approved today, coupled with the conditions on orbit, allows the partnership to support this priority while ensuring astronauts will continue to live and work on the station uninterrupted,” said ISS programme manager Michael Suffredini.

He praised Russia for their quick investigation after an unmanned Russian Progress cargo rocket bound for the ISS failed last month, raising concerns about its motor that is also used on the country’s manned Soyuz craft. That failure had raised the spectre of temporarily abandoning the space station if the problem could not be fixed before some of the crew was to come home in November.

Since the retirement of the US space shuttle in July, the Russian craft are the only ones capable of taking humans into space.

“Our Russian colleagues have completed an amazing amount of work in a very short time to determine root cause and develop a recovery plan that allows for a safe return to flight,” Suffredini said.

VSSC to organise Mars habitat design competition

Daybreak at Gale Crater in Mars.

Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) is conducting a ‘Mars Habitat Design Competition’ for the college students of Kerala in connection with World Space Week celebrations from October 4 to 10.

Participants are required to submit original design of Martian Habitat conceived by them. They should be creative and realistic considering the Martial atmosphere and the current maturity level of technology.

The VSSC will post competition guidelines and entry form at its website <> in a few days. The last date for uploading entries is September 27. The short-listed designers will be invited to present the design during the Space Week celebrations at VSSC.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight. So, ‘50 years of human spaceflight’ has been chosen as the theme for this year’s celebrations.

How to Address a Letter to a Judge

Address a Letter to a Judge

Some letters are more important than others, but few will be as important as a letter to a judge. Take the time to address it properly and it will serve you well.


Things You’ll Need
Paper & envelope

  • Address the first line of the envelope to “The Honorable [First and Last Name].” You can abbreviate “Honorable.” Example: The Hon. Jane Doe.

  • Write the second line and include the official title of the judge (for instance: “Associate Justice” or “Judge”), add a comma, then include the full name of the court. Example: Chief Justice, United States Supreme Court.

  • Use the remaining lines for the address of the court.

  • Repeat the same full address at the beginning of your letter, which should be in a standard business format (see Resources).

  • Use “Dear Judge [Last Name]” as your greeting.

  • Proofread the address carefully for typos so that it can be delivered properly. If handwritten, be certain all letters are legible. Submit it to the mail when you are certain it contains no errors.


Tips & Warnings

  • Print and keep a copy of any letters you write to a judge, or any other official.
  • If you are addressing a judge about an ongoing case, always talk to an attorney first.

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