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The astronomical sciences in India have become the preserve of the few, this is because of lack of quality institutions to support students pursue their interests. India which is a nation of 1.25 billion has only about a dozen institutions spread across the country where one can professionally pursue the study of our solar system and deep space objects. This paucity of professional courses on astronomy and cosmology has resulted in a brain drain with many students seeking to pursue astronomical research abroad. We spoke to professional astronomer and researcher at IISER, Dr K. Sasikumar Raja about what ails astronomy research in India, given below are his responses.
How did you develop an interest in Astronomy? How did you end up in an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career such as this?
Basically I was very passionate in pursuing my career in physics. My father motivated me to do Ph.D in physics. As a teacher, he always induced thoughts which made me go deeper into subject matters. After my masters in Physics I joined at Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) as a trainee and it so happened that I got to meet many scientists in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Working with them inspired me towards pursuing astronomy and instrumentation related to it.
Why did you choose to specialize in Solar Physics?
The Sun and its activity influences the space weather and our Earth’s climate. The Sun follows a 11 year solar cycle in which the number of sunspots increases (solar maximum) and decreases in some years (solar minimum). There is some evidence that such activity influences our space weather. Also a sudden brightening in the solar atmosphere (called solar flares) and Coronal Mass Ejections are responsible for geomagnetic storms and beautiful Auroras at poles. Coronal mass ejections can damage our satellites, jams our radars, breaks our power grid networks and cause problems to astronauts and satellites.
Many other unresolved mysteries on Sun like the coronal heating problem, why Sun’s outer most layer (corona) is 1 MK (10^6 Kelvin) when the visible disk is just 6000 K? These are a few unexplained properties of the Sun that makes it very interesting. All these unsolved mysteries that the Sun is yet to reveal about itself inspired me to pursue a career in solar physics.
How was your experience in working with the Himalayan Chandra Telescope. How easy is it to get observing time on that scope?
I was a telescope trainee at IIA for a while. At that time, I used to remotely operate the Himalayan Chandra Telescope and other instruments from CREST Campus of IIA, Hosakote. But the telescope is at Indian Astronomical Observatory, Hanle in Jammu and Kashmir, India. My duty was to operate the telescope and observe different celestial objects according to needs of the scientists and other researchers. That was a wonderful experience and that’s where I acquired expertize in observational astronomy.
Which post graduate course do you think is the best suited for an astrophysicist?
In order to continue astrophysics as a career, a post graduation in Physics and Mathematics will be a good choice. Even then, astronomical institutes and research organizations requires all kinds of engineers from almost different engineering disciplines. For example, civil, mechanical, electronic, electrical etc.
Any advice for budding astronomers in India? What career path they should take?
My suggestion to the young minds who wants to pursue a career in astronomy and astrophysics is, they should go for masters in physics and mathematics. But this is not mandatory. There are many outstanding scientists in India and abroad, who completed their engineering in various fields and then moved to astrophysics. Only dedication and perseverance matters!
What are your future research plans?
I will continue my scientific research on Sun and space weather. I would like contribute and build new world class radio/microwave telescopes on ground and space.