Aditya mission, an ode to Indian science : The Tribune India

Join Whatsapp Channel

Aditya mission, an ode to Indian science

Attempts to dilute the autonomy of these institutions, in the name of reorganising R&D, will harm the future of science in India.

Aditya mission, an ode to Indian science

ADITYA: Thousands of scientists from dozens of institutions across the country are behind its success. PTI

Dinesh C. Sharma

Science Commentator

THE excitement in the space sector continues. After achieving a perfect touchdown for Chandrayaan-3’s lander, Vikram, Indian scientists have successfully launched a mission to explore the sun. The two high-visibility missions in quick succession have kept the public gaze on the work of the national space agency — Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) — though the two are not interconnected.

These endeavours come just days before the much-publicised G20 summit in New Delhi and have given an opportunity to the government to highlight these achievements to the visitors. Hoardings and posters showing the Vikram lander on the lunar surface, along with photos of PM Modi, adorn the airport area and VIP routes in the national capital. Science Minister Jitendra Singh has gone to the extent of claiming that ‘the recent space marvels have only been possible under PM Narendra Modi’. The official press note issued on September 2 quoted the minister extensively, but made no mention of the Aditya mission director and other senior scientists either in the note or the captions of the attached images.

While the minister unabashedly credited the PM for ‘the confidence, the courage and the conviction to reach out to the stars’ and ‘for making us realise the enormous potential of our space fraternity’, the mission and project directors present on the podium were gracious and modest enough to recall the contributions of thousands of scientists, technologists and reviewers from dozens of institutions across the country that have contributed to making the Aditya mission a reality. For instance, Nigar Shaji, Aditya Project Director, mentioned the pioneering role of UR Rao, former ISRO Chairman and founder of the satellite technology centre, which is now named after him.

Missions like Aditya have a long gestation period and require sustained engagement of multi- and inter-disciplinary teams from units within ISRO and research institutes outside it. Since the initial concept of a satellite to study the sun, it has taken more than 15 years to make it a reality. In the process, the idea went through several iterations. It was first proposed to call the mission Aditya-1 as it was to have only one payload — Visible Emission Line Coronagraph (VELC) — and was to be placed into an 800-km low earth orbit. Subsequently, the scientific community felt it would be better to place a satellite in the halo orbit around the first Lagrangian Point (L1) of the sun-earth system since it could provide a continuous view of the sun. The mission was thus reconfigured as Aditya-L1 and it was decided to place it 1.5 million km from the earth towards the sun. Instead of just one payload, seven instruments were planned for data collection.

The institutions involved in the Aditya project are unique and have had interesting trajectories. The Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), which has developed the VELC, has a long history of studying the sun. It traces its origins to a solar observatory set up in the late eighteenth century at Kodaikanal under the aegis of the Madras Observatory, founded by the East India Company. The observatory has photographed the sun using evolving techniques and has valuable data about sun spots, which has now been digitised.

The Kodaikanal Solar Observatory took the shape of IIA in 1971 due to the efforts of a young astrophysicist, MK Vainu Bappu, who was the Director of the observatory in the 1960s. He also established a new field observatory at Kavalur and finally brought the two under the new entity, the IIA, headquartered in Bangalore in 1971. The IIA operates some of the most sophisticated telescopes in India and was pivotal in developing the first space observatory, Astrosat, launched by ISRO in 2015.

Bappu was also behind another institution participating in the Aditya project — the Nainital-based Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES). Before coming to Kodaikanal, Bappu was the Chief Astronomer of the Uttar Pradesh State Observatory (UPSO) that was to be developed in Varanasi. On realising that the conditions for astronomical observations in Varanasi were poor, he suggested to the state government an alternative site in the hills. The observatory then came up in Nainital and evolved into a full-fledged research centre over the years. Bappu was also a member of the Indian National Committee for Space Research (Incospar), which preceded ISRO.

The Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, is another unique institution which has contributed to the Aditya mission. It is the brainchild of celebrated astrophysicist Jayant Vishnu Narlikar, who, upon his return from Cambridge in the 1970s, realised that India did not have institutions that combined teaching with research. There were well-funded national research labs on the one hand and universities with poor research facilities on the other. To address this gap in the S&T infrastructure, he proposed a hybrid model of inter-university centres in specialised subjects. These centres were designed to support researchers from universities and act as a coordinating agency equipped with research facilities. University Grants Commission Chairman Yash Pal supported the idea and the IUCAA and two other inter-university centres were born in the 1990s.

A relatively new entrant to the chain of novel institutions is the Centre of Excellence in Space Sciences India, a multi-institutional Centre of Excellence hosted by the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata. It is also a key player in the payload development for Aditya.

The Aditya project has provided us an opportunity to recognise the work of such a diverse set of academic and research institutions in addition to those belonging to ISRO, like the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad. Most of these institutions have thrived because of sustained government support over the decades, credible scientific leadership and the autonomy they have enjoyed in their functioning.

Recent attempts to dilute the autonomous character of these institutions, in the name of reorganising R&D, will harm the future of science in India. If anything, they need more funding, greater autonomy and no political interference.  


Top News

India's mission in touch with Kuwaiti authorities to provide relief to its citizens affected in Mangaf fire

India's mission in touch with Kuwaiti authorities to provide relief to its citizens affected in Mangaf fire

The fire started in a kitchen of the 7-storey building housi...

5 killed as fire breaks out in residential building in Ghaziabad

5 killed as fire breaks out in residential building in Ghaziabad

It is suspected that a short circuit caused the fire


View All