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Sunday, January 26, 2020

To the moon and back

That gets you a bit of interest because of the Chandrayaan orbiter earlier this year. And there are people from all over sitting by their computers trying to figure out stuff.

Written by Parismita Singh | New Delhi | Published: December 29, 2019 6:00:58 am
ISRO, NASA, moon mission, moon isro mission, isro moon satellite, indian express news There are no real names, of course. He said he’s from Estonia or Czech Republic or somewhere. (Source: Parismita Singh)

— Let me put on the coffee, first…

— You look well. I expected…

— What did you expect?

— Seriously, I thought I would find you in a slightly deranged state. Like you get sometime. Your phone call had me worried.

— (Laughs) I didn’t mean to alarm you, but I am glad you came. I had a good night’s sleep. I must have slept after ages.

— So, I presume you have solved whatever it was that kept you awake all these days or weeks, was it?

— Come. Let’s drink our coffee in the balcony. It’s nice in the mornings, before the crows get here. You know, as a teenager, I read somewhere, of how looking into space is like looking back into time. I think that’s what got me hooked to the skies.

— You told me that once. That there was nothing romantic in the night skies, the stars we see could have burnt out in the time it took for the light to reach us, that its shining was from a time that had already passed in whatever distant gallery it was.

— I did?

— So you have been looking at the skies?

— Yes, but it’s a longer story. This friend wanted to do an art project on moonbounce.

— Moon bounce?

It took longer to convince NASA that I had located the debris. But I got the email yesterday, they’ll be making a public announcement today.

— It’s basically getting radio waves to bounce back from the moon. Shai didn’t know much about it either. She had this idea and she sold it to a curator. I had finished work on my last project, had some time on my hands. I thought I could get her started with some amateur moon radio communication. There’s a lot of that kind of thing at the amateur level. You need powerful transmitters and antennas, but people can access these in regular radio bandwidths. And with the internet, you can dig around, make contact with operators and listen in without too much trouble.

— You mean these radio operators transmit to the moon?

— And back. The signals are weak but you get hooked to the sounds, it’s a bit like listening in on the galaxy’s soundscape. There’s a lot of galactic noise — from the stars and the planets — and these sounds peak and fade. It’s like listening to the seasons. So, every day, I tuned in to these bandwidths online, listened in on sounds transmitted by these EME radios. There are some oddballs, quite a few are illegal connections, but there are also some really good discussions. There are entire online communities out there devoted to these radio transmissions and space sounds.

— Then how…

— No, so listen. That’s how it began…

— I thought you were looking for the Vikram Lander. And now what, aliens? (laughs)

— Yes, I think most of us were just tired of the noise around us. We told ourselves we were listening in to other worlds. I didn’t take the whole thing very seriously but I liked being around. And then the recording arrived.

— Recording?

— You know, I identified as Indian in most of these forums, as a part of my introduction, my user name. That gets you a bit of interest because of the Chandrayaan orbiter earlier this year. And there are people from all over sitting by their computers trying to figure out stuff. Sometimes they are keen to start a conversation about their theories, things like that. Then, this one fellow told me about the recording.

— A radio recording?

— There are no real names, of course. He said he’s from Estonia or Czech Republic or somewhere. We had been communicating for a while when he sent me the recording. First, I thought it was spam or some hoax. I almost didn’t open the file. But, then, for some reason, I did. I just felt like he had something…

— What was it?

— A recording from the moon.

— But that’s not possible. I mean, it’s a vacuum and all that, isn’t it?

— Yes. But his EME radio picked up something in the midst of the static, and he was convinced it was from the moon.

— Aren’t these online forums full of people like this, with conspiracy theories and alien sightings? But wait, what did

you hear?

— Screams.

— Screams?

— It was a short clip, it’s in there (pats an envelope). You can hear it later. But that’s how I found the Vikram Lander.

— What! You did what? (Laughs) And that’s why you are here — wait — let me finish –

— Tracing the audio clip was easy. It was an audioclip smuggled out of Kashmir from the first few days of the clampdown. It was from a recording the security forces had made of detained men being tortured. They had recorded it to play it out to the village in loudspeakers, as a warning. There was some mention of it in the news — do you recall?

— No, but it’s Kashmir, you know. There’s always stuff like this happening there and in August, there was no way to verify anything with the shutdown. There was very little coverage, just these rumours.

— It wasn’t a rumour, I heard the tape.

— I mean its veracity… but forget that… what did you find out?

— I wrote back to this guy. He was so freaked out, he noted down the time and bandwidth all of that, but didn’t report it to anyone. He was just glad to be telling someone. By the time he sent me the date, I already had a hunch as to where it could’ve come from.

He heard it on the 7th of September, the day the Vikram Lander lost contact. A few weeks later, ISRO made an announcement about having obtained a thermal image of the lander, that it was intact and that they were trying to make contact. But once I had the recording, I knew that was not possible. The Lander had shattered and disintegrated along with whatever load they were carrying, on contact with the moon’s surface. Maybe, they were carrying a time capsule with recordings and other codes from India, who knows? ISRO is hardly going to answer my questions. But the recording, I suspect, has escaped from the broken craft. I spent the next few months poring over the photos released by NASA of the area around the Moon’s South Pole.

It made sense, because the quality of sound from moon waves is dependent on so many things — and it just worked out for this guy and where he was located. Maybe others heard it, too, and didn’t make anything of it. But I realised that ISRO had no idea where the craft was or in what condition. A few weeks of poring over these images was all it took, and I got a lot of help from these Twitter groups. It took longer to convince NASA that I had located the debris. But I got the email yesterday, they’ll be making a public announcement today.

— My god, you’re what — a hero? This will be the biggest news of the year end. Do you want me to manage your media interviews and things because there’s going to be a storm over this! You know that, right? But the recording, did you tell them about it?

— Yes, but that email reaches them later today. Once I have left.

— But this is crazy, oh god Sam, don’t do this. Why?

— It’s not a big deal. Here — (hands over an envelope) — there is a copy of the recording — if I need it to be released, I will manage to send a message to you.

— But where are you going?

— Someplace, where I can’t hear the screams any longer.

Parismita Singh is the author, most recently of, Peace Has Come (Context)

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