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Eye in sky but blind on ground
- Software glitch prevents Mumbai rain insight

New Delhi, Aug. 14: If Indians had a little more faith in the abilities of fellow Indians, weather scientists could have given a better advance assessment of the rain that devastated Mumbai.

Cameras aboard two Insat satellites orbiting the earth for several years have never been fully used for weather analysis because of software glitches on the ground, space and weather scientists said.

The cameras (called charge coupled device, or CCD, which is a sensor that is present in digital cameras) are on the Insat-2E launched in April 1999 and on the Insat-3A launched over two years ago. Software to analyse the images from the cameras can generate information about cloud, wind and moisture patterns.

The satellites have been transmitting images to the ground, but software trouble has frustrated attempts to use these images to extract data, scientists in the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) said.

Neither has made public the trouble with the software.

Weather scientists had hailed the cameras as a technology milestone. But IMD scientists could not get crucial data such as cloud movement and wind speed and direction from the images during Mumbai’s freak rain last month or during Orissa’s super-cyclone in October 1999.

The IMD had tried to develop the software for the camera on the Insat-3A on its own, but had outsourced the task for the Insat-2E to a Canadian company. Neither has led to successful generation of weather data from the images, Isro and IMD sources, who requested anonymity, said.

Accusing the IMD of lack of planning, independent scientists also question the decision to outsource the software rather than to collaborate with Isro which has the expertise.

“It’s a shame that so many years after the satellites went into space, all possible data from the CCD cameras is not available to users,” said Jayaraman Srinivasan, chairman of the centre for atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Now, more than six years after the Insat-2E launch, the IMD has asked Isro for software to process images from the Insat-3A and Kalpana, the weather satellite.

“We’ll also work together to develop software for the Insat-3D to be launched next year,” an IMD source said.

A senior IMD source said the Canadian company’s software could not be used successfully to extract data because the camera aboard the Insat-2E was sending “contaminated signals”.

Isro sources admitted that there was a mild defect in the camera, but said it was not unusable. Scientists at the Space Applications Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad, have successfully used the images to study vegetation and other features on the ground, they said.

The IMD decided to tailor the Canadian software for the camera aboard the Insat-3A. “But we’ve encountered software bugs that need to be cleared up,” a senior IMD scientist said.

Space department scientists, however, say the efforts to develop the software ran into trouble because the process requires detailed knowledge of optical and electronic features of each camera. Isro had declined to share this with the Canadian company.

IMD sources said it decided to outsource the software because expertise to develop it did not exist in India. But senior scientists say SAC, Ahmedabad, has developed software for satellite image processing.

A database of cloud patterns generated from several years of CCD data may have helped scientists pick up the signals of heavy rainfall, Srinivasan said.

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