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World Space Week:

Honing on modern technology

The apparent snail’s pace Sri Lankan space exploration is moving forward may be frustrating for science fiction buffs. But with the World Space Week beginning today the limelight has yet again fallen on space science and technology. And what better place to start a discussion on ‘Space’ than the Arthur C. Clarke (ACC) Institute, dedicated to space science education, training and astronomy research.

A water rocket at the National Water Rocket Competition

Speaking of education, the theme of this year’s World Space Week, is ‘Space for Education’ and the ACC Institute is bent on popularizing astronomy via education. The ACC Institute has started a special astronomy and space popularization program targeting schoolchildren and teachers under which many seminars, lectures, workshops and night sky observation programs are conducted. The ACC Institute has encouraged the establishment of school level astronomy societies which were later registered in the ACC Institute.

The institute also helps students with their school science projects by supplying research material, free access to such material, Internet access and technical know-how.

“The success of the space popularization program won us the membership of the Asia Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF) sponsored by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA),” said Indika Medagangoda, Research scientist on astronomy. Under the APRSAF’s space education awareness program, the ACC Institute conducts school level water booster rocket competitions, winners of which are sent to regional level competitions at the Annual Session of APRSAF.

The institute conducts annual astronomy and space science, the certificates for which was signed by Sir Arthur C. Clarke himself when he was alive. “The institute also conducts special programs for the public in the case of astronomically important phenomena, such as the Comet Hale Bop observation and solar and lunar eclipses”, said Medagangoda. Moreover, making use of the largest telescope in Sri Lanka it houses, the ACC Institute attempts to promote astrophysics among undergraduates. The institute is also focusing on human resource capacity building by conducting continuing professional development courses for practicing engineers.

“But the ACC Institute does not identify itself as an educational institute. Neither is it a private corporation”, said Sanath Panawennage, Director, ACC Institute.

“We are a government sector organization.” In fact, the ACC Institute has several divisions such as microelectronics and electronics, communications, information technology and industrial services division.

He further explained that their mandate is to accelerate the introduction of modern technology such as electronics, microelectronics, telecommunications, space science and technology, robotics - by engaging in research and development, which is one of their major functions.

“Some of the research is done with the collaboration of public and private sector organizations.”

He explained that research is aimed most often at finding technological solutions and products.

During the national conference on geo informatics held last year, many academics and researchers had the opportunity to share their findings.

ACCIMT telescope Facility

Geographic information systems, GPS and remote sensing were the main technologies involved. The data gathered through remote sensing (observation of the earth through satellites) can be used for land resource planning and agricultural purposes such as detecting moisture conditions in the soil, plant growth levels, etc... Meteorology or any natural resource that is spatially distributed can be observed using remote sensing. Armed with a robotics laboratory, robotics is another new area the ACC Institute has ventured into.

“In industrial automation robotics has a lot of applications”.

“Only very recently have these technologies gained popularity in Sri Lanka”, explained Director Panawennage.

“The ACC plays a major role in acting as a focal point in facilitating the development and the use of such technologies”, said the director.

A national collaborative framework among the main public sector institute, which is involved in space technology related applications is now in progress. This, the ACC Institute hopes would answer the space technology related data requirement of different national agencies.

“This way Sri Lanka can collaborate with space agencies of various other countries like Japan and India.”

He explained that the ACC Institute is hoping to establish a satellite ground station.

Indika Medagangoda explained that although astronomy is not a commercialized subject, job opportunities and infrastructure is yet to be developed and such programs have to be started from grass roots level. In other words, we have to start somewhere.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene explained that much of astronomy in Sri Lanka is done at a hobby level. Moreover he pointed out that all professional astronomers that Sri Lanka produced are employed abroad.

“Professionals need to conduct hardcore research” and for this they require observational equipment and high powered computers. “But some observational data are luckily available on the net and anyone with a computer can access these data from thousands of miles away.” This has truly widened the horizons of astronomers in developing countries like Sri Lanka.

But Sri Lanka has already entered the space age no matter how slow getting there has been. Gunawardene further explained that space applications such as remote sensing and telecommunications technologies are nothing new to Sri Lanka. It is just that we do not generally identify them as results of space technology. “In fact these data have been provided by Indian and US satellites for nearly 20 years.” He explained that Google Earth - a fairly low resolution mapping system - is a good example for how space technology has seeped into the daily life, technologies that were yet to be discovered when they launched the sputnik 1 half a century ago, which is what the World Space Week commemorates.Nalaka Gunawardene explained that in the short span of a little more than half a century we have achieved much. “And the best is yet to come.”

He pointed out that increasingly private investments are being made for space exploration. Who knows maybe space exploration will be affordable for the public in our own lifetime. Space Week will be till October 10.

Coast clear, no Little Green Men

But SL space exploration discovering small miracles of its own:

The ACC Institute has been conducting quality research in astronomy since its establishment. It’s home to Sri Lanka’s largest telescope, creating an ideal setting for research. The ACC Institute, previously known as the ACC Centre was established in 1995 after the installation of Sri Lanka’s largest telescope - a 45 cm Cassegrain Optical Telescope, donated by the Japanese Government, under the recommendation of UNESA (United Nations European Space Agency).

An artist's impression of the nova explosion in RS Ophiuchi,a binary star system

With Sri Lanka’s largest telescope at their disposal the ACC Institute have been doing their own research in Stellar astrophysics, in plain language research on stars, Be otherwise known as B emission line stars to be more specific.

“Every star has an atmosphere” explained said Indika Medagangoda, Research scientist on Astronomy. “...and certain wave lengths are absorbed by some atmospheric elements” resulting in what is referred to as absorption lines in the electromagnetic spectrum. “But Be stars have a circumstellar disc, made of gases and dust” these stars create what is referred to as emission lines, the opposite of absorption lines.

“We study the properties of stars, their orientation, periodical changes, etc...” explained Medagangoda. Over 25 stars are now under the scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s largest telescope. This has been an on going research which started in 2005. “We can’t expect to make major breakthroughs, but we are making research level discoveries as we speak.”

Another recent observation has been Novae. The phenomenon Nova takes place when the intense gravity of a white dwarf causes the transference of matter from a nearby star. “The newly acquired matter explode, resulting in a nova” explained the scientist.

So he assures that the coast is clear. No Little Green Men, not very good news for those science fiction buffs. But also claims that the ACC Institute with the help of the largest telescope in Sri Lanka is discovering small miracles.

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