ASWIN SEKHAR is India’s first professional meteor astronomer. Kumar Venkataramani is an astronomer at CalTech who observes comets and asteroids. Ashok K. Verma is a senior flight dynamics engineer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Rutu Parekh is a planetary geologist studying icy surfaces on various celestial bodies, including Mars. Until recently, the four scientists had only one professional commonality―their involvement in advanced space research. However, on June 21, there came another. At the annual Asteroids, Comets, Meteors meeting (a renowned international gathering of scientists), the International Astronomical Union (IAU) named four minor planets after these scientists.
They joined an esteemed group of Indian scientists―Srinivasa Ramanujan, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, C.V. Raman, Vikram Sarabhai, and Vainu Bappu―who have had the same honour.
“There are two ways in which minor planets are named,” said Sekhar, whose minor planet lies about 5.87 crore kilometres from earth. “The first way is more ceremonial; any person who discovers an asteroid or a minor planet has the right to name it after someone. However, there are criteria that prevent randomly naming it after any person; it must undergo a filtering process by the IAU nomenclature committee. Once the committee assesses the contributions and track record, they approve those names.” This is how M.K. Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Viswanathan Anand had minor planets named after them.
“So that is almost like a discoverer’s small gift to the person he/she would like to honour,” said Sekhar, currently an astronomer in the meteor science team at the prestigious Institute of Celestial Mechanics, Paris Observatory. “The second way involves scientific nominations. In this case, accomplished individuals in the field of astrophysics nominate a fellow scientist for the IAU’s consideration to have a minor planet named in their honour. The IAU then examines the nominee’s body of work and contributions to science before approving or rejecting the name.”
Sekhar’s job is to forecast potential threats to earth from asteroids or other celestial bodies. Essentially, prevent a hit like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Currently, earth is relatively safe from highly impactful collisions, he promises. “Such events are pretty rare,” he said, adding that earth is more susceptible to threats from smaller celestial bodies, specifically those with a diameter of less than 1km. “There are numerous objects within this size range, and we lack an exact database or precise knowledge of their locations,” he said.
Understanding the trajectories of near-earth objects is crucial to defend against them, and Verma, 39, has done this for years. He has developed software to determine the orbits of asteroids and has played a major role in enhancing the world’s radio astronomy capabilities.
These asteroids, while dangerous, can also hold valuable insights. And Venkataramani dissects them. His work, he said, primarily focuses on studying the chemical composition and evolution of comets and asteroids, which offers clues about the early stages of the solar system’s formation.
Parekh, the fourth in this quartet, studies ice found on planets and moons using data obtained from exploration missions like Cassini and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Ice is a key ingredient for creating a habitable planet. A recipient of the prestigious Chevening scholarship, the 32-year-old’s interests are evident in her Twitter username, ‘Icy_planetnerd’. She recently joined as a post-doc at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory-CalTech on the Europa Clipper mission. Europa is one of Jupiter’s moons.
“I had quite a roller-coaster ride, I did my under-graduation in biochemistry but then switched to remote sensing and earth science for graduation,” she said. “After graduation, I worked for a few years and conducted research on agriculture, urban planning, and land-cover mapping. At this time, I was introduced to planetary science and instantly fell in love with the wonders of the universe. I remember looking at the images of Saturn’s moon that were acquired during the Cassini mission in early 2000. I could not wrap my head around the fact that we had reached so far in the solar system, yet there were endless secrets we needed to unlock.”
Although many researchers in the field discovered astrophysics later in life, many others were enthusiastic star gazers as children. “One incident that really motivated me [as a kid] was a star-gazing event organised by Nehru Science Centre near my house in Mumbai,” said Venkataramani.
Sekhar, raised in a family where most members wanted to be doctors, attributed his passion for astronomy to two childhood mentors who sparked his interest― Krishna Warrier, former additional director of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, Thiruvananthapuram, and Shashi Warrier, a novelist. “They used to encourage me to visit the planetarium and science museum, and observe celestial phenomena such as meteor showers, comet visits and eclipses,” he said.
Sci-fi movies also helped grow the curiosity. “One movie that comes to mind is Independence Day, which portrayed an alien invasion,” he said. “It was both scary and fascinating at the same time. I believe I was in eighth grade when I watched it, and it made me contemplate the existence of aliens and related topics. Although Hollywood often depicts exaggerated elements, it also sparked thoughtful ideas.”
The young astronomer is also passionate about his science outreach programmes in India. “I undertake various projects to inspire children, particularly those from rural and tribal areas,” he said. “I collaborate with numerous individuals within the government to contribute to science education and science outreach initiatives. I also strive to create opportunities for young individuals to pursue research outside India.”
Indeed, it is these very outreach programmes that have the potential to create the next Sekhars, Venkataramanis, Vermas and Parekhs.