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India’s man on Mars mission
- Amitabha Ghosh is the only Asian in Nasa’s Pathfinder team

Calcutta, July 29: As an eight-year-old, Amitabha Ghosh’s dream was to board a bus that would take him to the nearest “space port”, from where he could take the next shuttle to the moon, “Tintin-style”.

By the time he was 23, the Don Bosco Park Circus alumnus had finished his masters in applied geology from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, and his childhood dream had flown an extra 300 million miles. Ghosh had swapped “destination Moon” for “mission Mars”.

Now, at 33, the extra-terrestrial geologist is the only Asian member of Nasa’s 1997 Mars Pathfinder Mission Control.

“The Earth had been done to death. The Moon had been conquered. I was out to further the frontiers of the unknown,” recounts Ghosh, back in his Ultadanga home a fortnight after the launch of Nasa’s craft carrying the Martian rover, Opportunity.

In his eight-year association with Nasa, Ghosh says he has been the first to analyse a Martian rock at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. This lover of the red planet has also made his mark in Martian history by naming a rock, Jedi, at the site where the Pathfinder landed on July 4, 1997.

“No Star Wars connection here, though,” he hastens to add. “I named the rock Jedi after a mutant of Leishmania donovani, a parasite which causes a disease like Kala-azar.” His wife, Anuradha, was working on this for her PhD in Kentucky.

Fondly recalling the “unbelievable thrill” of analysing the composition of Barnacle Bill, one of the now-famous rocks on Mars, Ghosh says: “The discovery shattered popular perception that rocks on Mars were primarily basaltic in composition. My interpretations showed the rock was Andesite, one that requires water to be formed. It was a new find and maybe I should have shouted Eureka, but I only ended up asking myself ‘where the hell did I go wrong with my calculations’'”

The fact was that he hadn’t gone wrong with his figures. The “job-well-done” earned him the Nasa Mars Pathfinder Achievement Award.

Ghosh, who will enter “mission critical mode” in January, analysing rock and soil samples beamed from Mars to Earth by the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity once they start scouring the Mars landscape, has been able to squeeze out time to come home after three years.

“It is a relief to get a break from the sols (a Martian day, approximately 24 hours and 40 minutes). But a part of me is always there,” confesses the member of the science team of the Mars Odyssey Mission, 2001, the spacecraft now orbiting the planet.

One of the 15 IITians to be feted for exceptional achievements during the 50-year celebrations of the institute at Santa Clara, California, in January this year, Ghosh did his MS in supercomputing after his PhD in planetary science from the University of Tennessee, USA.

His destination in the solar system may have shifted, but Ghosh continues to be driven by a fantasy from his childhood days. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wake up one morning and realise that we are not alone in this universe'” he exclaims, before displaying on the computer one of his sketches dating back to 1978, showing a rocket zooming off towards a full moon. The caption: “My next holiday, 240,000 miles away.”

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