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From Mangalyaan to Higgs boson research, Indian scientists are making a global mark

Over the last decade, India and its scientists have become a visible presence in astrophysical science through their involvement in global experiments, and home-grown missions to the Moon and Mars..

india Updated: Dec 20, 2017 18:36 IST
Snehal Fernandes
Snehal Fernandes
Hindustan Times
Indian scientists,ISRO,Higgs Boson
A file photo of former ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan (in white shirt) with other scientists after the PSLV C25 launch for the Mars mission, in Sriharikota, India in 2013.(Nathan G./ HT Photo)

In September 2008, when the world’s largest underground atom smasher — built to search for the Higgs boson or God Particle to understand the origin of the universe — was set in motion on the Swiss-France border, it was a moment of triumph for 71 scientists from five Indian institutes collaborating in the experiment.

A month later and 7,500 kilometres away, space scientists at Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, cheered as Chandrayan 1, India’s first unmanned mission to the Moon, put the country in a select group to launch lunar missions.

In 2011, the Indian team co-authored a paper on the discovery of the Higgs boson in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which led to two physicists winning the Nobel Prize in Physics two years later. And within a year of its launch, Chandrayaan 1 reported the first evidence of water-ice molecules on the Moon’s surface. Over the last decade, India and its scientists have become a visible presence in astrophysical science through their involvement in global experiments, and home-grown missions to the Moon and Mars.

“India is gradually becoming a mature economy, which means we are integrated into the world, can withstand all kinds of problems, and can expand. The same holds true of science and astronomy, where we are becoming mature and thinking confidently with young people participating in projects; exchange between countries, and exchange between science and industry,” said Ajit Kembhavi, vice-president, International Astronomical Union.

Before India’s maiden Moon mission, there were rocket explorations and satellite missions that focused on the Earth’s atmosphere. “Space missions before Chandrayaan 1 were looking at the Earth for weather or cloud information, and not necessarily at sciences from astrophysical objects,” said professor Dibyendu Nandi of the Centre for Excellence in Space Sciences India at the Kolkata-based Indian Institute of Science Education and Research. “But in terms of astrophysics missions, Chandrayaan 1 was the first to go beyond the Earth, followed by a Mars mission and India’s first dedicated astronomy satellite, Astrosat.”

If the low-cost Mars Orbiter Mission – Mangalyaan 1 – built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) in 2014 became the first in the world to reach the red planet on its maiden attempt, Indian scientific institutions and universities were instrumental in developing novel algorithms that in 2015 helped discover gravitational waves predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago. At least 37 Indian authors made it to the paper on the discovery of gravitational waves.

“India is developing very rapidly in the fundamental fields of physics and astronomy. The intellectual skills have been in India for a long time, but now India has emerging capability to make advanced technologies for the most fundamental research programs,” professor Barry C Barish, among the trio to win the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of gravitational waves in October, told HT in an email interview.

Unlike the Isro that launched the first sounding rocket in 1963 and the first Indian satellite Aryabhata in 1977, seeds for the 10-year-old success story in basic science experiments were sown in the 1990s with scientists such as PK Iyengar and Govind Swarup convincing the Indian government to work on front-ranking national and international experiments.

Swarup, who later became centre-director of the Pune-based National Centre for Radio Astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), approached the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to fund the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) at Khodad, north Pune. Operational since 2000, the GMRT, the world’s largest low-frequency radio telescope, detected and tracked the landing of a European Space Agency spacecraft on a Mars mission last year.

Scientists said no one in the 1970s and 1980s sought government funding for science projects. “Indian science was restricted to small groups working in their laboratories. The GMRT is the first international facility on Indian soil that people from all over the world came to use,” said Somak Raychaudhary, director, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune. During the same period, Iyengar, a former atomic energy commission chairperson, signed an umbrella agreement with the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) and India started participating in LHC experiments.

The LHC was the first mega international science project that became a blueprint because it was the first time that the Department of Science and Technology and DAE jointly funded a project.

“By the mid-1990s, it became clear to people in power or were convinced by scientists that participation in front-ranking experiments is needed if India has to reach a regime of high technology,” said professor Atul Gurtu, formerly with TIFR, and a co-author on the Higgs boson discovery paper.This outlook over the last 10 to 15 years paved the way for India to finance and build technology for multinational experiments, and scientific institutes and universities started collaborating on big projects.

Today, India, as an associate CERN member with an annual fee of Rs 85 crores, has a stronger voice in scientific and finance meetings. Indian industry can bid for tenders and procurements.

Next year will see a ground breaking ceremony for the third gravitational wave detector (LIGO-INDIA), most likely in Maharashtra, which, when built, will help determine the position of the gravitational wave source.

On space sciences, India will expand its inter-planetary research. In 2020, India will launch its maiden mission to the Sun – Aditya L1 – that will study various aspects of the Sun and space-weather.

“The Sun influences space environment through winds and solar storms which impacts our atmosphere and space-based technologies such as GPS navigation, telecommunication and earth orbiting satellites,” said Nandi. “If our mission helps us understand what creates space-weather, we will be able to protect our technologies that rely on space.”

Perhaps the only biggest basic science experiment that is staring at a 10-year delay is the Rs 1,583-crore proposed underground India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) at Tamil Nadu that has got mired in environmental concerns and political controversies. The INO team is looking at Andhra Pradesh as an alternative site for the facility.

“The project is behind schedule, and will affect the speed of getting results. That important science is getting delayed, is disheartening,” said Vivek Datar, project director, INO, TIFR. Scientists said big-ticket science projects have made the field attractive to students.

“Two generations ago, no child thought India could do any science and that one had to go abroad,” said Raychaudhary. “Today students know that it’s possible to sit in India and work on projects in Australia or Hawaii, and also build LIGO in India. I’ve seen the change in my lifetime.”

India wrests its space: A look at India’s scientific achievements and notable projects in the field

Astrosat

The country’s first astronomy satellite was launched in September 2015, and has five instruments on board. The aim of Astrosat is to observe all kinds of objects together in the sky, such as stars, galaxies and clusters in large wavelengths to understand what is happening around regions that are very hot, with strong gravitation and undergoing strong acceleration processes, which produce X-rays.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in India (LIGO-India) is most likely to be housed in Maharashtra. The estimated ?1,260-crore Indian detector has the geographical advantage of forming a triangulate with the existing two US detectors that will help locate the source of the event that caused the gravitational wave.

The Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii

India is a 10% partner and will co-own and build components for the largest optical and infrared astronomical observatory. Construction of the US$1.4 billon TMT that is slated to begin mid-2018 will provide information about the early stages of evolution of the universe, finer details of undiscovered planets, objects in the solar system and planets around other stars.

Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR), Germany

With its contribution of ?270 crore, India is building high technology equipment for the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR), Germany, for which construction work has begun.

Chandrayaan 2

Isro will send second unmanned mission to the moon, Chandrayaan 2, in March 2018. Weighing 3,250kg, Chandrayaan 2 will investigate the moon for water-ice, water molecules, minerals and other elements, in addition to understanding the geology of lunar surface.

Mars Orbiter Mission 2 (MoM 2) or Mangalyaan 2

The Indian government approved the second mission to Mars (MoM 2) in its budget this year. Isro is likely to place the lander on the planet in 2021-2022.

Aditya L1

In 2020, Isro will launch its first mission to study various aspects of the sun and space-weather. Scientists said Aditya L1, at a cost of approximately ?400 crore, will be the only third full scale solar observatory after the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Square Kilometre Array (SKA)

Construction on SKA is scheduled to begin in mid-2018. India as a full member of SKA organisation will be co-own the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope.

First Published: Dec 20, 2017 14:26 IST