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Conquer the final frontier

With India having launched its first mission to the moon, a whole new space race is set to take off. The US has renewed its interest in the moon. China, Japan and Europe, too, despatched unmanned moon probes last year. In fact, all space-faring nations are eyeing ambitious interplanetary missions. The bottomline is clear: space is going to be the hottest career destination in the years to come.

“This is the space age for research,” says Jean H. Swank, project scientist at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa) Goddard Space Flight Centre (GSFC) at Maryland. “The opportunities are endless. They cover the earth, planets, heliosphere (bubble in space produced by solar winds) and more.” Agrees Sandip Chakrabarti, head of astrophysics and cosmology at the S.N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Calcutta. “The sky is the limit,” he says. “There is much scope for not only scientists but also professionals in associated fields such as engineering, communications, software, safety and management.”

Strictly speaking, however, there are two main avenues — science and engineering. “A space scientist looks into the universe using space-bound instruments or giant telescopes located on earth, while a space engineer designs those instruments as well as the spacecraft that carry them,” says Chakrabarti.

“There is, however, an overlap between the two areas because the scientist must know the limits of current technology, and the engineer needs to have a strong scientific background to be able to create an instrument that will help in the study of space,” he adds.

Aspirants who choose space science apply to research laboratories, universities and similar agencies for employment, and may begin their career as astronomers or astrophysicists. A rookie space engineer, on the other hand, joins industrial companies, consultancies or government space agencies like the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), headquartered in Bangalore, or Nasa.

However, the thin line between the two fields often gets blurred — industry sometimes looks for people with an academic background and universities too need experienced engineers.

So what are the academic qualifications required to pursue space science? “In most cases, one needs at least a bachelors degree in physics, maths or engineering, although there are opportunities for apprentices and technicians too,” says M. Annadurai, project director of India’s moon mission Chandrayaan-1.

“Look at spacecraft design and its associated constructions, for example. It needs engineers of almost all hues — electrical, electronic, propulsion, structural, mechanical, civil and thermal, as well as those versed in basic physics and maths,” says Annadurai.

Although a degree course may skew the academic knowledge of an aspirant in a specific direction, it may not necessarily deter one from a given career path. “It is often more important to have the flexibility to learn new things and a positive attitude,” adds Annadurai.

Consider the trajectory of space scientist Alok Chatterjee, for instance. Chatterjee is a project systems engineer at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology in the US. A BTech from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, he later specialised in aerospace engineering at JPL. After graduation, with a specialisation in aeronautical engineering, Chatterjee joined Isro with the dream of becoming a rocket scientist. His boss was none other than A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Eventually, he shifted to Nasa in 1984. According to Chatterjee, the degree is more about indicating the suitability of a candidate than preparing him or her for a specific job. “The key to success is eagerness to learn and innovate, irrespective of the background,” he says.

“There are plenty of opportunities at the technician or apprentice level,” says D.K. Bhandari, director of the thermal systems group at Isro. They typically involve working in cleanroom environments, either building or helping to test space-qualified equipment. Indeed, it is the technician who actually gets to build a spacecraft, much to the chagrin of many a space engineer. Chatterjee, however, points out that engineers too work with hardware in development labs, and so “it’s not just about sitting behind PCs in offices”.

In this regard, Chatterjee’s stint at Nasa has been more than eventful. He participated in the designing of spacecraft headed for Mars. Right now he is working on an Isro-Nasa joint venture project for Chandrayaan-1. “I am involved with the designing of one of the two Nasa instruments, the Moon Mineralogical Mapper (M3),” says Chatterjee. The M3 is an imaging spectrometre that will map the mineral composition of the moon.

An astrophysicist interested in blackholes, Sandip Chakrabarti, too, worked at Nasa-GSFC in the mid-90s. “We place tools in space to examine aspects of nature that cannot be otherwise observed,” he says. Loaded on spacecraft, these instruments study the stars, galaxies, universe and beyond, measuring infrared light and X-rays and gamma rays that cannot be detected from below the earth’s atmosphere. Naturally, such research includes studies in climatology, atmospheric science, meteorology, geophysics, ecology, oceanography and so on. A truly global view of things.

Science in space also takes into consideration certain unique properties of spaceflight, such as the existence of very low gravity — called microgravity — or a near-perfect vacuum. “The microgravity environment creates opportunities for in-space laboratories that span a wide range of topics. These include biomedical studies of the effect weightlessness may have on astronauts and ways to minimise those effects,” says Chakrabarti.

There is also scope for more basic studies in biology that examine the role of gravity in the development and functioning of plants and animals.

“Astrobiology is a relatively new field that explains how life formed in the universe and how it has evolved,” says Sonali Chakrabarti, an astrobiologist at the Indian Centre for Space Physics, Calcutta. “Astrobiologists also seek to ascertain whether there was or is life beyond earth, and the possibility of such occurrence in the future.”

The profundity of such scientific queries ensures that astrobiologists draw heavily on biology, chemistry, astronomy and planetary science.

How exciting is the job of a space scientist working in a laboratory? “Work is just as much fun as on a holiday, if not more,” says Roopesh Ojha, astronomer at NVI/US Naval Observatory, Washington DC, and affiliated scientist at Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. “Professionals like their work so much that they don’t want to retire. As a result, the field is full of people well past retirement age, some who have formally retired but come and work every day,” he adds.

The career paths of Chatterjee, Chakrabarti and Ojha aptly illustrate the international nature of the space industry. “This is because no individual company — or country — can do everything,” says Chakrabarti.

What are the challenges in this field? “They are similar to those in any scientific discipline,” replies Paul Wiita, professor of physics and astronomy, Princeton University, the US. “But one thing must be remembered. If you are participating in an experiment or are relying on data from one, you must bear in mind that ill luck can sometimes lead to breakdowns that bring to naught months or even years of work.”

In the technology domain, the satellite services sector is one of the biggest growth areas for space jobs. Direct broadcast satellites, digital audio radio and Internet services via satellite are among the fastest growing sectors in the space industry.

“Most of the information gathered from satellites is processed through software systems and this provides another avenue for space careers,” says Surendra Pal, programme director, Satellite Navigation Programme, Isro. “Information technology (IT) is used extensively in the space sector for analysing earth observation data, developing software to go onboard satellites and controlling them from the ground,” he explains.

Despite the huge demand in the space industry across the globe, there is an acute shortage of skilled youngsters. “To address the talent crunch at Isro, we have set up an institute at Thiruvananthapuram,” says B.N. Suresh, director of the recently-founded Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST). Suresh has been a rocket scientist with Isro for 35 years. According to him, aspiring technology graduates have already begun to shun careers in the IT industry — which is currently on a downslide — and lap up jobs at Isro.

IIST offers four-year undergraduate BTech programmes in avionics and aerospace. It also offers a five-year integrated MSc in applied sciences. “Undergraduates are also given the opportunity for hands-on experience at Isro,” says Suresh. “The current batch has already worked on a payload for Chandrayaan-1. One of the students has even designed a rover that can be used in interplanetary missions in future.”

Isro, until recently, had to cope with a massive brain drain. The agency had been losing as many as 150 fresh recruits every year to multinational companies — especially IT and finance biggies — in India and abroad. But now, following the pay hike brought about by the Sixth Pay Commission recommendation — coupled with the downslide in the IT industry — Isro has been able to reverse the brain drain.

In fact, the increasing number of space ventures has increased the workload of Isro scientists so much that the institute has been forced to outsource work to institutes across India. And this is further opening up research and work opportunities for budding space scientists.

So what are you waiting for? Reach out for the skies.

at a glance

Institutes in India for astronomy and astrophysics

Indian Institute of Science (IIS), Bangalore

Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai

Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad

Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bangalore

Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune

Raman Research Institute (RRI), Bangalore

S.N. Bose National Centre for Basic Science (SNBNCBS), Calcutta

Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), Thiruvananthapuram

Centre for Astroparticle Physics and Space Science (CAPSS), Bose Institute, Calcutta

Admission

To join as a research scholar / postdoctoral fellow, one needs to qualify the Joint Entrance Screening Test (Jest). However, institutes like TIFR conduct their own examination

Minimum qualification for astrophysics: MSc in physics or MSc / ME / MTech in a related discipline

Admission to IIA requires a BE / BTech / MSc in mathematics

Admission to IUCAA, RRI, and SNBNCBS requires a BE / BTech

Graduates with BSc in physics are considered for some courses at SNBNCBS

Top institutes abroad

California Institute of Technology, the US

Harvard University, the US

Princeton University, the US

Max Planck Institute, Germany

Cambridge University, the UK

Job avenues

India

Apart from Isro and the Defence Research Development Organisation, New Delhi, the above mentioned universities recruit astronomers and experts in astrophysics. In addition, there are universities which hire professors and lecturers.

Isro normally recruits 350-400 engineers / technology graduates every year; nearly 50 per cent is provided by IIST.

Abroad

Space agencies, observatories, universities, satellite communication companies and meteorological offices

Salary upon entry

Isro: Rs 30,000 a month

Research scholars at universities / institutes: Rs 15,000 a month

Postdoc fellows: Rs 23,000 a month

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