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Meet the citizen astronomers who chase stars

Despite many hurdles, India has a thriving citizen astronomy community — extremely tech savvy and motivated, says Vishal Upendran, a PhD scholar in Pune who classifies them into two groups — data analysers and astro-photographers.

, TNN|
Dec 08, 2019, 10.30 AM IST
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(This story originally appeared in on Dec 08, 2019)
Megha Rajoria loves poring over photos of the sky. Not those Instagrammable pictures of pretty blue skies but very high-resolution images of the night sky captured by the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) stationed on the campus of National Institute of Radio Astrophysics in Pune.

Rajoria is a part of a growing tribe of citizen astronomers who track celestial phenomenon, and are suddenly in the spotlight following Shanmuga Subramanian’s contentious discovery of the debris of Vikram lander on the moon.

Aryan Mishra was just 14 when he discovered an asteroid in 2014 along with his friend Keertivardhan while analysing data shared by the International Astronomical Search Collaboration, a global citizen science programme. Now, as a physics undergrad at Ashoka University, Mishra has his own citizen astronomy project, Spark Astronomy, which helps set up astronomy labs (five so far) in schools with government help. “In India, citizen astronomers don’t get access to data from big observatories, or to big telescopes. For example, only professional astronomers can use the robotic telescope in Ladakh. We don’t encourage young people to come forward.”

Despite these hurdles, India has a thriving citizen astronomy community — extremely tech savvy and motivated, says Vishal Upendran, a PhD scholar in Pune who classifies them into two groups — data analysers and astro-photographers. Data analysers sift through publicly available data in the search for something new while astro-photographers click deep sky objects and put up these pictures online. “Sometimes new objects may be found in these too, but this is rare,” says Upendran, 24.

Humans know only about 5% of the universe and the rest is all out there to be seen, discovered, understood. And yet what drives passion for citizen astronomy is not just the possibility of discovery but the sheer beauty and brilliance of celestial objects and phenomenon.

Dr Tejal Thorve, 40, a dentist and a citizen astronomer, recalls witnessing the annular eclipse in 2010 at Kanya Kumari. “When annularity comes in, that is when the sun starts looking like a golden ring — it’s just too beautiful to put in words,” says Thorve, who is a member of the Akash Ganga Centre for Astronomy (AGCA) in Thane that conducts programmes in studying meteor craters, like the Lonar crater in Maharashtra. “I am also involved in tracking and documenting meteor showers and eclipses,” says Thorve, who owns a DSLR and a telescope.

As one of 4,000 members of RADathome, an online citizen science research project, Rajoria uses DS9 software to study black hole galaxy systems. “If we spot an object with interesting features, we look it up in the NASA SkyView database. If it’s new, then our finding is shared with scientists,” say Rajoria, 30, a physics graduate preparing for the civil services. “Even if citizen astronomers don’t discover anything, the measurements they take, the recordings they make are relevant to professional science,” says Mishra.

At IIT Madras, students are involved in citizen astronomy projects that study light emitted by stars. “We use data from Sloan Digital Sky Survey to analyse the spectra of stars in a cluster and study its evolution. Another group of students studies the light curves of variable stars. We also have a team dedicated to radio astronomy,” says Pranav Satheesh, a third-year student, citizen astronomer and a member of Horizon, the institute’s physics and astronomy club.

However, climate change and pollution have made things difficult for these scientists. “Light pollution is killing the night sky in the metros. We occasionally go to rural areas for good astro-photography sessions,” says Satheesh. Astronomers in India have a small window — from October to April — to study the sky. “But climate change is making it even smaller. We are not getting clear skies even in December,” complains Thorve.

Despite the challenges, these DIY astronomers are a driven lot. “We believe science should not stay contained within institutes but also come down to the level of the common man,” says Bharat Adur, a senior member of AGCA and a retired astronomer.

He points out that India got its first Nobel Prize thanks to citizen science. Sir CV Raman discovered the Raman Effect while working as a citizen astronomer. “He was employed as an accountant with the government in Kolkata and would spend his afterhours, from 5pm to 9pm, working at a lab in the Indian Association of Science Cultivation,” says Adur.
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