Thursday, January 6, 2011

Morning with astronomer Shrinivas Kulkarni

      It is an absolute coincidence. On the morning of January 6,2011 ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM)'' met an extremely pleasant star struck person a few hours before the prestigious Infosys Prize function. What is unique about him ?  He celebrated his first birthday in a different way. Any Guess?  He was born on October 4, 1956, at Kurudwadi in Maharashtra, and his first birthday was marked with the world entering the space age thru the launch of Sputnik by the former Soviet Union!

     He is Shrinivas Kulkarni, director, Caltech Optical Observatories at the prestigious California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Over a cup of coffee at the fortress-like Taj hotel, this eminent astronomer and BMM exchanged views about various developments in the field of space science and technology, astronomy and other related areas. Undoubtedly, for BMM it was the most rewarding experience. He was in Mumbai on January 6 in connection with the Infosys Prize ceremony. He chaired the jury relating to the field of physical sciences.

     He grew up at Hubli in Karnataka and is a distinguished alumnus of IIT Delhi.

     While talking about India, the topic turned to a more than a billion dollar project which will come up at Mount Kea in Hawaii. Described as the most powerful telescope in the world, once commissioned in 2019, the massive Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)  will study objects in our own solar system, stars, the entire Milky Way and the neighbouring galaxies at the very edge of the universe. The project forms a part of the Caltech Optical Observatories.

     On June 24,2010, Prithviraj Chavan, then minister of state for science and technology, announced in California that India will join the international telescope project as an observer. Having an observer status is the first step in becoming a full partner. His announcement was greeted enthusiastically by American space scientists and astronomers, including the legendary Ed Stone, the chief scientist for the Voyager project.

     Kulkarni told BMM that at the moment final negotiations are in progress between the government of India and those connected with the project regarding this country joining the programme. ``India is seeking a 10 per cent share and it would have to spend 100 million dollars over a 10-year-period,'' he said, while emphasising that he was extremely optimistic that plans will be firmed up by the middle of the year. ``There is tremendous scientific capability in India,'' he added.

     If the project materialises then once again India will become an exclusive member of an global astronomical club along with China, Japan, Canada and of course the Caltech. It is already a member of the international lunar club with the US, Russia, China, Japan, and the European Space Agency thanks to the success of the Chandrayaan-1 mission. And also the nuclear club with the success of Pokhran-1 and Pokhran-2.

     Three Indian institutes, the Pune-based Inter University Centre For Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences, Nainital and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore, are involved with the TMT project. The department of science and technology has formed a group of astronomers who are working on the plan.

     Caltech is the nodal institute. Apart from China and Japan, its major partners are the University of California and the Association of Canadian Universities For Research on Astronomy.

     Apart from the TMT, Kulkarni said that he was informally exploring the idea of small satellites which are less than 100 kg which can do quick science in an inexpensive way unlike missions which are large. ``Israel has shown a lot of interest in this project,'' he said.

     It was a great and memorable morning for BMM.

     Thank You Shrinivas. And thank you Infosys for giving me an opportunity to meet him.




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