Saturday, October 18, 2008

A few firsts...

The first first: My first visit to INPE (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais). Thanks to one of the teacher's at the language school who organised it, I took 4 students on a field trip (well, a 20 minute walk) onto the campus of UFRN (Universidade Federal Rio Grande do Norte) where INPE have a base. INPE is to Brazil what NASA is to America, except on a much smaller scale.

I learned a whole lot from the hour-long presentation, given by a middle-aged, CPE-level, English-speaking engineer who went by the name of Alexandre Nowasad. Principally, I gathered some interesting insights into why a developing country like Brazil needs to be involved in the space race.

Brazil doesn't have it's own satellites but it shares a couple with the likes of China and the USA. They also have 10 offshore buoys (compare to the USA which has a whopping 300!) which measure depth, sea-temperature and weather patterns and Brazil has some fancy equipment at the South Pole amongst other places. INPE seem to have their fingers in a lot of pies, working with the likes of the the Brazilian Air force who launch INPE's satellite pieces, the private sector in testing materials and products in specialised conditions, with the Navy and also with various environmental agencies, governmental and non-governmental, as they try to map and account for the climate changes in the oceans and the amazon. The last point is crucial for Brazil. As our excellent host informed us, vast expanses of dense foliage still mask potential species of animals and plants and possibly some lost Indian tribes still in the jungle of Brazil's interior. Brazil's vastness makes it exceedingly difficult to govern efficiently - INPE are trying to help the country's elected officials have some idea about who and what they are officiating over. Also, given the controvesy in recent years concerning the destruction of the rainforest, Brazil needs to know what's going on inside its own borders for the benefit of future generations. As Alexandre succinctly put it: "We have to know whats in our own house if we want to protect it".

THE DUMMIES GUIDE TO INPE: As I'm no engineer or scientest I appreciate all the help I can get in understanding the intricacies of something like INPE. At one point Alexandre said: "Has anyone seen the film The Day After Tomorrow? Do you remember the satellitles, the buoys and the control room at the start of the film - basically, we do that for Brazil but on not such a big scale". Helpful.

A few more firsts tomorrow and through the week...

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