Our 5 Favourite Indian Contributions to Space and Astrophysics
It’s the year 2022 and a modern space race seems to have burst into life. Breaking the forces that confine humanity to this planet, the dawn of our journey to tame and populate the solar system finally appears to be just a few challenging hurdles away. These vital steps on the road to assuming larger, interstellar challenges are no longer sole driven solely by government interests. SpaceX, Blue Origin & Virgin Galactic are the most visible of a sea of private players entering the field, spurred on by the thrill of breaking new frontiers and further riches being procured. Superpowers, and India jostling to be among them, see the moon as a vital base for future ventures into the unknown. Manned missions to Mars are imminent. Is science fiction finally becoming our reality?
Where does India stand in all this? Similarly to our place in the pharmaceutical industry, ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) and HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) have long been considered as more of the mass production system than pioneers at the cutting edge. Our modern roadmap and achievements include setting records for cost-effective launches of satellites, and manned missions to the moon, and it would be an easy narrative to align with. However, this generalisation overlooks significant building blocks to space and astrophysics that Indian scientists, engineers and mathematicians have made throughout history, shaping our understanding of this final frontier. Let’s go on a stroll through time, and learn about 5 ways innovation in India has shaped our understanding of space and astrophysics.
1 —Theorising Gravity
Let’s get the most contentious topic done as soon as possible eh? While scientific consensus agrees that it is in fact Isaac Newton who can be credited with quantifying gravity, it’s that word “quantifying” that is key here. Observations of the effect of gravitational force were written by 2 Indian scholars, first the astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata between the 5th & 6th century, and later Brahmagupta in 7th century. With both describing, in different ways, that matter will cling to the surface of our planet, the force was only quantified, rigorously challenged in the scientific arena and accepted as law centuries later. However, some credit at least must go to the Indian scholars because, well, FIRST!
2 — Accurate values for the length of a day and year
This observation is verifiably one that can be credited to Aryabhata, and it was his calculations that, until only recently, were the most accurate measure of a day and year, known as sidereal periods. His calculations of sidereal rotation, or a day, at 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds are only 0.009 seconds off today’s calculations. The same goes for the calculations of the sidereal year, with an error of just 3 minutes and 20 seconds over a 365 day period. With modern atomic clocks we have managed to get magnitudes of improvement on our timekeeping abilities, a key innovation that makes many modern essentials like GPS communication possible.
3 — Wireless communication & modern telescopes
A man of many talents, the ‘father of Bengali science fiction’ also contributed landmark breakthroughs in botany, but it is his work in communication technology that lands him on our list. By being the first to use semi-conductors in radio receivers, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose’s research into microwaves set humanity on a journey that brings us to modern telescopes, the most talked-about being the James Webb Space Telescope. JWST, and its predecessor Hubble, aren’t looking for visible light, but infrared radiation. This type of light has a wavelength which is much smaller than what our eyes can detect, but has the ability to travel much further distances, and even through cosmic gas clouds that are billions of kilometres across. As we gain further insight into the ever expanding shroud of the cosmos, remember that without Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, we would maybe never have these images of where humanity may one day tread.
4 — Lunar Water
Science-fiction fans out here would be familiar with the trope of an invading bloodthirsty army coming to earth to drain us of our water. We hate to disappoint, but waging war for a resource as plentiful as water simply don’t make sense. Consisting of 2 of the most common elements in the universe, H20 is abundant in comets, asteroids and other celestial bodies. We did not, however, know that this was the case on the moon until the late 2000s. While there were suspicions of frozen water in the depths of lunar impact craters, probes sent by 2 NASA craft and ISRO’s Chandrayaan-1 detected, without any doubt, that there was in fact water on the moon, and not just in the impact craters as previously thought. The moon is tidally-locked, i.e. we only see the same side of the moon from the Earth’s surface, and what was surprising about these findings was that even the sun-facing side has water. It would appear we have a lot more to study on subsequent moon missions.
5 — Black Hole Observations
Black holes are among the most massive objects in our universe, known for their sheer attractive force sucking everything, even light, into its event horizon. Even though he crafted the equations that explained the phenomena, Albert Einstein didn’t believe that such objects could exist. Even though the first black hole was discovered using deductive reasoning and calculations in the 1970s, it wasn’t until recently that we got the first visual confirmation in April 2019. Until this point, the only proof that these forces of nature even existed were in observations of the behaviour of other celestial bodies. C.V. Vishveshwara was a part of this journey from the very beginning, contributing significantly to the discussion among peers such as Einstein and Penrose. HIs discovery of quasi normal modes of black holes are how we currently measure distortions in space-time called gravitational waves. Think Interstellar and the manoeuvre costing them several years. Yeah, this was a crushing blow in the cumulative cost to rescue Matt Damon, and showing the work of C.V Vishveshwara in action.
So here we are. Those are 5 pivotal Indian contributions to space and astrophysics. Did I miss anything? If you’d like us to get into the grimy details of any of these, do let us know in the comments.