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Space research receives a Big Bang
- Boston University astronomy professor bags NASA nod for satellite project

From a young star-gazer in space-jammed Ramrajatala, to the director of the Centre for Space Physics, Boston University, Supriya Chakrabarti has come a long way. Now, notching up another milestone in his meteoric rise, the astronomy professor has convinced NASA to grant his department a $90-million satellite project, to probe, and “hopefully”, find answers to “fundamental questions in cosmology” and explore “major and profound” mysteries as well.

How do galaxies form, evolve and cluster with other galaxies, is a fundamental question. That would mean taking a closer look at — if not punching holes into — the Big Bang theory. “Big Bang suggests that the universe came into being around 16 million years ago from an infinitesimally small point with a large mass, created space time and everything in between,” says Chakrabarti, at his home in Howrah, where he is down for the holidays.

“Cosmologists glued to the Hubble (telescope) have discovered that around eight million years after the Big Bang, there was 80 per cent original matter (what we can see and feel, or Barion, in scientific parlance). That today has come down to 4 per cent and we really don’t know where the rest of it has disappeared.”

Hypothetically, it is thought that the matter has condensed to form cosmic web and gas filaments spanning the universe. The SMEX (small explorer programme), led by Chakrabarti, and the SPIDR (spectroscopy and photometry of the intergalactic medium’s diffuse radiation) satellite being built will probe the ‘matter’.

The 1975 pass-out from B.E. College, who had designed, with his Boston University students, a small satellite in response to a NASA challenge of putting it together under a strict $4-million budget, said it was his team’s ability to deliver feasible and low-risk plans that clinched the project.

Chakrabarti, who completed his Ph.D from Berkley University, California, in 1982, was conferred a senior fellowship the following year. “It was then that I stumbled upon a summer job and began tinkering with gadgets that are used in a satellite… For the rest, I can only thank my lucky stars,” announces the scientist who, in 1992, joined Boston University as professor for astronomy and electrical and computer engineering.

The satellite, to be launched from the bottom of an aeroplane flown out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in 2005, will be one metre wide and two metres long. The “pocket” satellite will traverse a “high earth orbit” (approximately 50,000 km from the watery planet) and record spectral images of gases ranging between a few thousand to a few million degrees. “A guest investigation period of 20 weeks will be thrown open to everybody who wants to join in our three-year research adventure,” says Chakrabarti. But what if the findings don’t conform to the earlier hypothesis' “We hope that does not happen,” smiles the scientist, headed back to his workstation on Monday. “Because cosmologists will then have to get busy rewriting many of the text books.”

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