SciTech Now Episode 328

In this episode of SciTech Now three female scientists share their experience working on India’s Mars Orbiter Mission; seniors try out virtual reality; and a girls club in Utah builds weather balloons that soar high above the earth.



Coming up, India's first interplanetary mission.

The Mars Orbital Mission was a mission to prove that we have the capability to actually reach a planet and orbit around it.

I think, today, only 40% of the missions to Mars were successful, and we've done it in the first attempt.

[ Laughs ] And it was done on a shoestring budget and done in a very short time.

Seniors benefiting from virtual-reality technology.

Virtual reality, in its immersive 360 nature, can provide and evoke responses much more significant than just a 2-D image.

We're showing them things that are meaningful to them in a new way that's not possible with just, you know, watching it on television.

Engaging girls in engineering.

All: ...2, 1...

So, this is our payload box, and right here, we have a camera so that we can see when the balloon pops and we can see the curve of Earth.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

In 2014, India became the fourth nation to launch a satellite to Mars and the first to do so successfully on a first attempt.

In this story, three female scientists share their experience working on India's Mars Orbital Mission.

Take a look.


That is good height.


It was a race against time.


There were nail-biting moments.


We are going in a marathon race.


Now, can we reach Mars in the very first attempt?


ISRO -- that is the Indian Space Research Organisation -- was formed in the 1960s.

Based on the experience we gained at growing the space-science community within the country, ISRO decided that they could go farther out and go into interplanetary space and go to Mars.

I am Seetha.

I work as the program director here.

I coordinate all the space-science activities of ISRO.

MOM, or the Mars Orbital Mission, was a mission to prove that we have the capability to actually reach a planet and orbit around it.

That itself was a big challenge.

MOM had to be built within 18 months.

It was a race against time, because we were all first-timers working for an interplanetary mission.

I don't think I ever thought I would be working in ISRO Satellite Centre.

If you are doing mission operations, you're really doing it to watch a science-fiction movie.

You see that excitement in our day-to-day lives.

I'm Nandini Harinath.

I was designated as a project manager, mission design, and a deputy director for the Mars Orbiter Mission.

The placement of Earth and Mars such that you traverse with minimum energy.

That comes once in two years.

We wanted to get into a capture orbit.

Capture orbit in the sense this orbiter remains around Mars.

We went for an elliptical orbit, because a more circular orbit would have required more fuel.

The main purpose of Mars Orbiter Mission to derive many other technologies -- launching, insertion in the orbit, autonomy, but, also, we should have payloads so that our scientists also start working on the Mars atmosphere, Mars science, which will be helpful for the future missions.

And I was deployed on this project.

I'm Minal Rohit and I'm a scientist/engineer.

And I was project manager for Methane Sensors for Mars.

That's one of the payloads which was flown on the Mars Orbiter Mission.

When I was small, I saw many scientists wearing white garments, and it was so fascinating.

And, at that moment, I thought like, 'Oh, wow.

How good to be there.'

One challenge was -- all the payloads were made small and compact.

15 kilograms for all the payloads.

And these payloads had to be meant for the rugged space environment.

So that was a challenge.

Methane Sensor for Mars -- I consider it's a first baby.

The presence of methane indirectly hints at the possibility of the presence of life.

That was one of the reasons why that payload was extremely important.

So, for that, it was very less time.

It was hardly, I think, six months.

And we had to come up with all designs, all concept model, everything.

Dr. Seetha -- she's a very strict lady, okay?

[ Laughs ] She was very particular like, 'What is the primary objective?

Are your cameras going to meet that?

How are you going to meet that?

How are you going to demonstrate it?'

It was very stressful.

We have a Mars Colour Camera, MCC.

It was for outreach to the country.

Motivation and enthusiasm into the public -- they wanted to bring it.

Every launch gives me butterflies in the stomach.

[ Laughs ]

The weather was not favorable.

The prior six days was delayed.

Already, the margins were getting eaten up.

Stand by for the time mark.

Mark is one minute and counting.

Please lift off.

Please lift off.

Plus-1, plus-2... [ Cheers and applause ], plus-5.

We were relieved and happy that the launch vector had put us in the right orbit.

After some few hours, Mars Colour Camera is going to be on.

[ Laughing ] India came up there, and that was the moment.

We needed a certain velocity to get out of the Earth sphere of influence.

And we couldn't do it in one shot, because our engine wasn't that powerful.

So we had to gain that energy slowly.

So every time we went around the Earth, we would fire the engine to get that extra energy.

So, after six such burns, the orbiter had enough velocity to exit from the Earth sphere of influence.

And it went into the cruise.

The cruise to Mars -- that was about nine months.

Just like a baby's delivered, but nine months in the womb, it has to be taken care.


Our Mars Orbit Insertion was the grand day.

That was 24 September 2014.

We'll never forget it in all our lives.

Of course, the Mars Orbit Insertion -- that was the most critical maneuver.

If we had had slightly less velocity, we would have crashed onto Mars.

If we had had more velocity, we would have just gone off as a fly-by.

It's like hitting a bull's-eye on a dartboard, standing some 10,000 kilometers away.

We want to turn it.

It turned behind Mars, and then for 15 minutes, we just were holding our breath.

Communication was established, and we saw the telemetry and that it was in orbit.

That was probably the sweetest words we heard on that day.

Orbiter was working.

Everybody got it from the console.

[ Laughs ]

It was an excellent moment.

People will never forget that moment.

Then Madam Seetha asked, 'Where is the data?'

[ Laughs ] Now the focus turned on the camera.

This image is from various Mars missions.

We're actually using mosaicked images, using several hundred images.

And because the orbit -- The farthest point was 80,000 kilometers away, we could get the entire Mars disk in one single frame.

And, so, that was what caught the public eye.

That's the reward.

We are there.

We are there, looking with our own eyes.

We had designed it for a six-month lifetime.

And since our instruments are working well, we continue to operate the mission and take as much data as we can.

I think, today, only 40% of the missions to Mars were successful, and we've done it in the first attempt.

[ Laughs ] And it was done on a shoestring budget and done in a very short time.

There are hundreds of engineers who have worked day and night to push this on time.

When I started my career, there were few ladies working along with me, and now there are quite a lot of women, in both science and engineering, working in ISRO.

♪♪ This has been a great stepping-stone for ISRO to get the confidence for going farther out into space.

It's one event in which the whole country participated.

There were schools watching it live.

And there were so many people looking at it at that point of time.

When I was, like, small, I had a dream to help common man.

When they see something like this in newspaper and media, then they really feel that, 'Yes, why not?'


With the help of virtual reality, seniors are exploring national parks, scaling ancient ruins, and traveling back in time to their childhood homes.

An MIT startup called Rendever is combating the physical limitations of age by bringing V.R. to assisted-living communities.

Joining me now is the C.O.O. and co-founder of Rendever, Reed Hayes.

So, what gave you this idea in the first place?

So, we were inspired to make Rendever from personal experience, where I had a couple family members who were living in assisted-living communities throughout my life.

And every time I'd, like, go in to see them, I would notice how, like, kind of sad they were, that they weren't getting out, that they weren't able to do the things that gave them joy when they were younger.

You know, they had a hard time -- They wanted to see the family more.

They wanted to see the sports games and things, graduations.

And over time, I saw multiple times -- I knew that something could be done in this space.

You know, there was very little, you know, technology-makers, you know, designing technology for this older adult population.

And, so, I decided to go to business school to build a business around this and help address issues with isolation depression and cognition for the older adults.

How is this different than just, say, the Internet, which has photographs, which allow people to take virtual tours, so to speak?

So, the thing about older adults is -- they actually have a hard time using technology.

So even if you give them the iPad, which is pretty much one of the most simple devices to use, they get frustrated pretty quickly.

They don't have the dexterity in their fingers to actually click on Safari and type in the address they want to see.

But, also, there's a lot of research that shows that virtual reality, in its immersive 360 nature, can provide and evoke responses much more significant than just a 2-D image.

You know, for example, we took, you know, a couple dementia patients back to their childhood home.

And if the caregiver showed them their home in a 2-D image, it doesn't really evoke memories or it doesn't trigger any kind of recollection of it.

But when we put them in V.R., it was like tears of joy that they were so happy to be back home that only virtual reality could have provided.

And a 2-D image with the caregivers simply wasn't doing it.

So, what have you seen so far?

I mean, what are you showing them?

What are the examples?


What's a place that you could take them while they're sitting in their facility?

So, virtually anywhere in the world.

So, we develop algorithms that mines the Internet, from Google Street View to Flickr, that will take images, 360 panoramas, anywhere from their childhood home to the top of Mount Everest to Iceland.

Anywhere in the world they want to go, they can.

And we're also out there filming cultural events, you know, things in New York City or Boston to get them exposed to, you know, what's happening around them.

But we're also showing them things from their family.

We think that that's a big need in this space, and families want to stay connected with their loved ones.

And, so, they can watch their granddaughter walk down the aisle or maybe they watch, you know, Thanksgiving dinner or just a holiday dinner with the family.

So we're showing them things that are meaningful to them, in a new way that's not possible with just, you know, watching it on television.

So, when you say 'Thanksgiving dinner' or 'walking down the aisle,' does that mean that you are or your company is placing a 360 V.R.

camera at that location for them?

Yeah. So, we help the family get the camera, and they will give guides of how to set it up.

They put it, you know, around the table, and it has two lenses -- at least two lenses -- and it's just shooting 360 degrees.

They film it and then upload the file, and then a tablet will get the notification saying, 'You know, hey, Betty, your grandson has sent you a video.

Would you like to watch it?'

And, so, we help facilitate the families to capture and share these important life moments.

So, it's literally -- It's as if they were sitting in the center of that table and having -- and they are looking around and they're seeing their family members talk to them.

Exactly. And that's something that is -- The more research we did -- And we actually lived in a community for seven days and just really got to feel the experience of being an older adult living in these retirement communities.

And we saw that the older adults were almost desperate to be back with the family.

Like, you know, a lot of times, their family would come once a month or every other week, and they would have a time where the daughter would go pick them up.

And say it's noon.

The older adult would go down there at 9:00 a.m.

And they would say, 'Why are you going down to her so early?'

It's like, 'I don't want them to miss me.

I don't want them to forget about me.'

And so you have this strong desire for them to still stay connected with the family.

And, you know, life's getting busy, and it's hard for families to make it over there sometimes.

And, sometimes, it's just a geographic problem, where they can't get there, physically.

This enables it.

What about the virtual national-park experience from where they are?

What kind of images do you end up showing them?

Everything from Yosemite to basically all the national parks.

That's actually a pretty huge hit.

And we actually have a lot of imagery and videos of people, like, climbing some of the walls and rock climbing.

And, believe it or not, that's actually a pretty big bucket-list item for older adults.

Like, they want to do bungee jumping.

You know, they want to do all of these extreme sports.

And we get them a taste of it without, you know, any risk involved.

And, so, it's pretty funny when you do that.

And, actually, a lot of times, older adults -- you know, they have a history that we don't even know about.

You know, you think they're unassuming, but in the summer, we took a lady back to Yosemite.

And she was about 88 years old.

And she immediately began telling us a story about how she went camping out there, and the only thing she had was a sleeping bag and a shotgun.

And she was 88 years old.

You're just like, 'How is this --' You know, you had no idea.

She said she's out there for about 2 or 3 weeks.

And then she was telling us all these other stories about, you know, her time camping out there that, you know, without us showing that into virtual reality, we may have never known about.

Have you tested what's happening to their brains and how their life changes because of access to this new frontier?

Yeah. So, we have a study kicked off with MIT's AgeLab, looking at the impact of wellness, cognition, depression, that, you know, older adults using our virtual-reality system will have on them.

And, so, that study is on the way -- or under way now.

And, so, we'll have results probably in the first quarter of next year.

But there is a lot of studies and published research that shows there are benefits to using virtual reality for cognition in this population.

And, so, hopefully the science will be able to publish it, coming next year, though.

What do you see 5 years out, 10 years out, especially to this large community of people?

So, how I really see it playing out is -- virtual reality is, effectively, the portal to the Internet for this population.

What makes virtual reality different and why they can't use Internet now -- they lose dexterity.

Their fingers -- they can't touch touch-screen computers and they can't interact with the devices.

But what makes virtual reality different is -- we're not asking them to understand how file systems work.

We're not asking them to understand how profiles work.

We're only asking them to look around, do something they've done for 70-plus years.

And, so, you know, a lot of older adults -- you know, they can watch television, but they don't know how to put in a Blu-ray or turn the Blu-ray on.

And so you need to make sure, when you deploy this technology and for it actually to be used in, say, 5 or 10 years, that most people can do it in this population and in this setting.

And, so, how you design virtual reality -- you have to make it so easy that they never get frustrated with it, especially the first interaction and that, as you're building it, that it's usable and it's fun and they have an incentive to do it and they actually are being able to go and see things that are stimulating and interesting to them and not just, you know, watching, say, 'The Price is Right' or something that, you know, it's okay for them to watch, but they don't wake up early in the morning to go see it.

All right.

Reed Hayes of Rendever.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you very much.

When it comes to engaging youth in engineering, one club in Utah is taking the challenge to new heights.

The all-girls Makers Club is building weather balloons to soar 30,000 feet above the Earth.

Here's the story.

I see more of the, 'Oh, how do you do this?'

I experience more of the things that I haven't experienced before.

My favorite part is when you get to see the finished product.

Kevin had 12 girls, about age 12, learn how to program Arduino and outfit a little satellite box, like a CubeSat, sent it up in a big helium balloon and collected atmospheric data, got video of the Earth.

So, those 12 girls that did that launch last October are now mentoring a new set of girls through this, preparing to launch in June.

Over the last nine months, I've been working with an all-girls group.

And that's been a lot of fun.

We launched a high-altitude balloon up to 115,000 feet, and the girls built a payload, put some sensors on it, and had a blast learning about programming.

We're working on launching a weather balloon up into the sky.

And we're going to attach little payloads, which are boxes that contain sensors, to gather information about, like, how the pressure and the temperature and stuff like that change.

So, this is our payload box.

And right here, we have the camera so that we could see when the balloon popped and we could see the curve of Earth and pretty much the whole launch out of this.

And then some of our sensors that we used, like this one right here -- that measured the pressure.

And so we could see the different pressures all the way up there and down here on Earth.

We also used one where it could tell the temperature, which is probably either this sensor or this sensor, since they look kind of alike.

The first thing that we did was build some antennas out of tape-measure elements and PVC pipe so we could find the balloon when we could no longer see it.

So, like, when it's up in the air, we can point our antennas and we can hear the signal of where it is.

And then when it comes back down and the payload parachutes back to Earth, when it's on the ground, we can get in the general vicinity, but we may not be able to see it, 'cause there's bushes and trees or hills.

We can use the antennas and we can home in on it.


Oh, those balloons are to detect, like, the air going, so how fast the air is.

We want, like, very little air, like it is right now.

It's perfect.

The air is cooperating.

So, this is the antenna.

We hook it up to this box, which comes off, and we don't get to keep it.

But it's basically the thing that turns this on, by flicking that, and it sets the frequency on this so we'll pick it up.

And then we hook it up to the walkie-talkie, which is the one which tells us, like, all the noise, the annoying noise that we get from the fox beacon.

So, these are the payload boxes, and they have all of our sensors and cameras in here, like the GPS.

[ Indistinct conversations, laughter ]



We had a really successful launch.

The balloon went up in right the direction we had planned for it to go.

And it landed near Thatcher, Idaho, about 3 miles short of where we predicted, but that's not bad.

We got to the landing site and used our direction-finding antennas to kind of narrow in on it.

We found it.

When we got to the payloads, we opened them up and we realized that there was a problem.

A few things went wrong.

So, our camera -- somehow, it got knocked out of place.

And, also, our sensors didn't work, 'cause they got knocked out of place.

And, so, we only have pressure as our data.

The improvements that we're gonna make for the next launch is -- our parachute was all tangled up in the two packages.

But we hit 95-mile-an-hour winds up there in the jet stream, so those boxes got tossed around.

Is there something we can do about it?

We don't know.

But we're gonna look into that.

And then the other thing is securing the memory card, the SD card in the package, building something to protect that so it doesn't come out and also looking at our payloads again.

We're gonna go back and fly again.

That's what we do.

When stuff doesn't work, you regroup, you plan, you figure out what went wrong the best you can, you try to fix it, and you try again.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...