Where Does ISRO Stand on Surgical Strikes and Silica Aerogels?

ISRO scientists have separately claimed that data from a CartoSat satellite was used to assist with the surgical strikes and that they invented the lightest material ever. Why were these claims made?

The PSLV C34 rocket in the vehicle assembly building, Sriharikota, with a group of engineers visible near its base. The C34 mission launched the CartoSat 2C satellite. Credit: ISRO

The PSLV C34 rocket in the vehicle assembly building, Sriharikota, with a group of engineers visible near its base. The C34 mission launched the CartoSat 2C satellite. Credit: ISRO

As a physics writer who enjoys debunking dubious claims, I have been tragically fortunate enough to have been kept well-fed by the big, fat Indian pseudoscience scene. Of late, however, there has been more scope to write these pieces because of an implicit encouragement that India’s BJP-led government at the Centre has ushered in, particularly with its conviction – to put it broadly – that anything homegrown is awesome (and anything that defies the awesomeness of homegrown things isn’t welcome home). Unfortunately, this has encouraged many people to make the flimsiest of claims and receive open state support. The best example is BGR 34, the supposedly anti-diabetic drug developed by the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research with no known peer-reviewed studies published as to its efficacy or even its safety, and which Prime Minister Narendra Modi openly endorsed earlier this month.

One brand of news, so to speak, that has consistently steered clear of suspicions of pseudoscience is space news – especially that involving the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The perception is that ISRO has been doing excellent work in terms of space research and transportation. Even since 2014, when the BJP came to power, chest-thumping reports in the mainstream media about the feats ISRO has accomplished have never seemed problematic. In fact, of all the government-funded organisations in the country, ISRO – alongside those research institutions backed by the Department of Atomic Energy – have produced good work whose significance it has been hard to overstate. So this is why it is joyous to write about ISRO as well: there is often nothing to debunk, no land-mines to look out for. However, of late, matters may have taken a turn for the worse, particularly after the Uri attack on September 18 this year.

One of the attack’s most significant outcomes has been a surge of hyper-nationalism within the country. It has been sad to see even otherwise reasonable people reflexively resort to using vicious language; here’s one example. This attitude has percolated through to ISRO as well, at least in its representation in the mainstream media. In fact, one new concern is that one no longer knows where to draw the line here, a claim better elucidated with two specific news items. The first was that ISRO provided Indian soldiers with information about the location of terrorist camps using data from its (recently launched) CartoSat 2C satellite. The second was that ISRO has supposedly invented an aerogel that is the lightest material on Earth and which can be used to make special jackets for Indian soldiers labouring in extremely cold climes.

Neither new nor lightest

As has been discussed before, ISRO has had some trouble securing civilian space technology from foreign space agencies because its involvement in civilian and military activities aren’t well-demarcated. The same organisation that develops motors for use on its PSLV rockets has also helped develop motors to be used in missiles, according to former ISRO chairman U.R. Rao in his 2014 book, India’s Rise as a Space Power. As a result, discussions on technology transfer have often been suffused with suspicions about what ISRO might use new tech for, how limitations can be worked into agreements and how they can be monitored over time. I asked a policymaker friend of mine, who wished to remain unnamed, about this. The reply:

Space is strategic and it’s good that India has started using it with that in mind – not just for executing projects but also as a means to drive home a point. And the reason India has become more assertive about using space for its defensive needs is because it has more friends than before, driven by economic and geopolitical interests. It’s difficult to turn back from here. Earlier, we were a non-aligned nation. Are we right now? No; now we’re a nuclear- and space-power country, an economic giant with a large and young population. We can’t be ignored like we were in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now, though it does make sense to seize this opportunity and draw more attention towards ourselves, it also matters who has been projecting the assertiveness – a point better highlighted through the aerogel article. Two articles were published by NDTV and Indian Express in April 2016 under the authorship of Pallava Bagla, a journalist noted for his access to ISRO. Though the articles predate the Uri attack by five months, they were published at a time when hyper-nationalism was already on the uptick, especially since India’s own Lewis Prothero had springboarded off of a doctored video clip on his ‘news’ show to wrongly accuse two JNU students of being Maoists and then do a volte face.

Bagla wrote in Indian Express, “ISRO has developed the world’s lightest insulating material and also high-powered search and rescue beacon technologies that can touch and save lives of Indian soldiers serving on the world’s highest battleground.” That indigenous tech is helping serve niche, indigenous needs is good to hear. However, the article fails to mention that silica aerogel, the insulating material in question, is neither ISRO’s invention to claim nor is it the lightest material in existence (Bagla is also careful in both articles to quote an ISRO official as saying that silica aerogel is the lightest material in existence and not make the claim himself). By themselves, these charges don’t amount to much. At the same time, by advertising themselves as pioneers and their invention as holding a record of some kind, ISRO does attract a lot of media interest. Which headline reads better: “ISRO reinvents material first made 85 years ago to create light-as-air aerogel” or “ISRO makes lightest synthetic material ever made by man”? Either way, both NDTV and Indian Express featured headlines celebrating the material’s usefulness as a thermal insulator to India’s soldiers at Siachen.

Now, the existence of silica aerogel has been known since at least 2003 and it was outperformed on the density front in 2013 by aerographene, a material over six-times lighter for the same volume. The former clocks in at 1,000 g/m3 while the latter, at 160 g/m3. Given that the density of air is 1,200 g/m3, even being “light as air” seems insufficient to be able to stake the claim of being the least dense solid ever. (A caveat at this point: I’m assuming ISRO did not invent a new form of silica aerogel that is lighter than aerographene, and I’m secure with this assumption because the articles don’t discuss any sort of novelty associated with ISRO’s material.) So, in effect: did ISRO make its claim to be able to draw attention to silica aerogel’s usefulness for Indian soldiers at Siachen? Or was it that the journalist wrote the articles to be able to draw attention to ISRO’s contributions to Indian military efforts? Because if you took away the ostentatious peg of the articles – that a “new” material that is also the “lightest” material has been created – these are the two meaningful claims that remain.

Circling back to the point about who it is that has been assertive, the Indian media or ISRO itself: it matters because of intent. As my space-policy friend said earlier, if it is so that ISRO’s newfound friendships have encouraged it to stake bolder claims, then so be it. I agree: In the Indian Express article, Bagla quotes an ISRO scientist as saying that her lab is in talks with the Indian Ordnance Factory “to see how this new material can be sandwiched between layers of cloth for making light weight parkas, socks and gloves for the soldiers who are posted at Siachen.” The scientist was speaking to a journalist and ought to have been aware that her words would be publicised – so this might just as well be ISRO positioning itself to advertise its role in doing something for the Indian armed forces.

Preferential access

But let’s say for the sake of argument that a journalist hadn’t quoted this scientist and had simply written about the material’s potential use in soldiers’ jackets – as is the case with the NDTV article – what then? That is, if it is so that a journalist is pressing innocently offered claims into the service of nationalism through uncritical reporting, then it wouldn’t bode well, if only because where do you draw the line? Though it makes sense to become more assertive, matters could cross a line at some point. For example, would the onset of this assertiveness have been able to justify a journalist’s uncritical reportage? It wouldn’t. So who will call him out? Not ISRO. Then again, whoever calls him out will likely be branded as being “anti-national” by pro-government agents. It would just all be… icky.

A confounding factor concerns some journalists’ preferential access to ISRO. ISRO is notorious for its poor public outreach efforts. The most that happened of late was when the Mars Orbiter Mission took off in November 2013 and the organisation’s Facebook and Twitter pages were abuzz from a month before then. But a few days after the launch, the updates turned into a stultified trickle once more. Anyway, ISRO officials speak only to a few journalists regularly. As a consequence, it is often hard to dissociate ISRO’s claims from these journalists’ claims; after all, it is not possible for most others to be able to verify ISRO’s claims independently because its officials won’t speak, at least not as freely. And so it is important to ask as a corollary if some news reports published in the media, concerning ISRO, are published because the organisation wanted them published or because the journalists did. In other words, would some stories exist at all if not for the journalists’ intervention?

An example: On October 2, a journalist wrote in Times of India about how ISRO had provided data for the Indian armed forces’ surgical strikes across the Line of Control using its CartoSat 2C satellite – drawing on an article that appeared first on Defence News. These strikes were conducted by soldiers of the Indian army on September 29, ostensibly in response to the Uri attack, to cull terrorist camps in the area. Curiously enough, the article quoted three scientists in descending order of enthusiasm. The first scientist couldn’t have been “more proud” that ISRO data was used for make benefit glorious nation of India. The second was more cautious in his phrasing about how ISRO data could be used. The third scientist flat-out denied being able to confirm if the army used information gleaned by CartoSat 2C. However, despite this article – or the dozens of others that appeared along the same lines – ISRO did not put out an official statement discussing its role in the strikes. So did this article represent

  1. Times of India/Defence News‘s position on where ISRO should stand?
  2. The reporter’s position on where ISRO should stand?
  3. Where ISRO itself stood?

(A minor moral: In these highly polarised times, well-intentioned but uncritical reportage – just the way scientific achievements have been represented in the Indian mainstream media – might as well have not been well-intentioned at all.)

Note: On October 30, a reference was added for the claim about ISRO aiding in the development of motors for missiles – to former ISRO chairman U.R. Rao’s 2014 book, India’s Rise as a Space Power.