Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Subramaniam Chandrasekhar 100th birth anniv

         On Tuesday, October 19 the world observed the birth centenary of the internationally renowned astrophysicist and Nobel Laurete, Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar. A number of events were held to celebrate the anniversary, but one aspect remained largely remained unnoticed---the naming of a Nasa spacecraft after him in December 1998.

         Nehru Centre in Mumbai organised two interesting talks on Chandrasekhar--one by Bal Phondke and other by S.M.Chitre.

        When Nasa decided to launch the x-ray observatory, it was called the Advanced X-Ray Astrophysics Facility. But the space agency decided to give it a name and how did they go about it? It organised an international naming contest which attracted nearly 6000 enteries from 50 states and 61 countries. Several suggestions poured in and finally it chose the name recommended by a high school student from Idaho, and a physics and astronomy teacher from California. The name of the student was Tyrel Johnson, and that of the teacher, Jotila van deer Veen.

        What was the name they suggested? Chandra, in a tribute to Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar. They said that in their essay, which was scrutinised by a panel of eminent judges, that this would be the most appropriate name for the mission as it dealt with astrophysics and Chandrasekhar was an eminent astrophysicist. It was accepted and the spacecraft was christened the Chandra X-ray observatory.

        One of the prizes given to them was an opportunity to witness the launch of Chandra on July 23,1999, at the Kennedy Space Centre. Its original mission life was five years, but it has stretched to 11 years. Long live Chandra. I recall watching the launch on a TV at the The Times of India. It was morning and except for a handful of people, the third floor of editorial hall was almost empty. Therefore, the awesome roar of the space shuttle Columbia's lift off carrying Chandra did not really create much a problem!  Infact even those who are not generally interested and excited about space stood around the TV and watched the launch.

       At the moment Chandra flies 200 times higher than Hubble, more than one-third of the way to the moon. The electrical power needed to operate Chandra and instruments is two kilowatts, about the same power as a hair dryer.

        The spacecraft is the third of Nasa's four great observatories. The first was Hubble Space Telescope; second, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and the last is the Spitzer Space Telescope.

        Chandra consists of four pairs of mirrors and their support structure. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Cambridge, MA, hosts the Chandra X-Ray Centre. It operates the satellite, processes the data and distributies it to scientists around the world for analysis. During the last 11 years Chandra has beamed  millions of interesting data and imaged the spectacular glowing remains of exploded stars.

       With three years left for the launch of Chandrayaan-2, we feel that Isro along with other agencies should emulate the example of Nasa by organising a naming contest for the rover which will fly on this mission and land on the moon. It can perhaps team up with organisations to hold a nation wide contest for students to name the rover.The winner can get an opportunity to watch the launch at Sriharikota.

        With my space colleague and good friend, Pradeep Mohandas, we have already initiated the first step in this direction and we are eagerly waiting for a response.

        We hope we succeed.  Incidentally, we still do not know how former PM, Atal Behari Vajpayee, decided to christen India's moon mission with such a beautiful name ``Chandrayaan.'' Surely, he could not have done it on the spur of the moment while giving his I-day speech in 2003 from the ramparts of Red Fort in New Delhi. 

       Does anyone know?   

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