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In Bengal, a school for space adventurers

- Nadia institute chosen to host centre for excellence meant to train students

Calcutta, Jan. 6: An institution in Bengal will host an academic consortium called the Centre for Excellence in Space Sciences to pursue research in astronomy and space physics and train students for India’s future space missions.

The Union human resource development ministry has selected the Indian Institute for Science Education and Research, Mohanpur (near Kalyani in Nadia), as one of 16 sites across India for centres for excellence in training and research in diverse frontier areas of science and technology.

The Centre for Excellence in Space Sciences at IISER, Mohanpur, will seek to decipher the origin and mechanisms of storms on the Sun and develop computational tools to help search for gravitational waves predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity but not observed yet. The Mohanpur centre will also provide data analysis support to Aditya, India’s first solar space observatory, scheduled for launch by 2016.

“This is an investment to create the human resources needed for India’s future space research projects,” said Dibyendu Nandi, principal investigator of the proposed centre which will also draw on researchers in academic institutions in Bangalore, Pune and Udaipur as co-investigators.

The IISER centre will tailor its MS education and PhD training programmes to help graduate and even undergraduate students acquire the ability to handle tasks in national large-scale research projects in the space sciences.

Scientists, speaking yesterday at a plenary session on mega-science projects at the 100th Indian Science Congress meeting here, had expressed concern that India’s plans to launch large research projects were likely to face a shortage of skilled young researchers.

“This initiative is important as it will be linked to several research projects that India is planning in the coming years,” said Siraj Hasan, distinguished professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, and a member of the proposed centre’s advisory panel.

The centre plans to take in 10 PhD students each year, beginning in August this year, who will have to take basic coursework at IISER, Mohanpur, after which they could move to any of the other participating institutions. The co-investigators are at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, IISER Pune and the Udaipur Solar Observatory.

A key objective of the programme is to help India develop expertise to predict space weather — the impacts of solar magnetic storms on Earth. Solar storms can disrupt satellite communications, knock out electricity supply networks, and force aircraft flying over polar regions to change their routes.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) plans to launch by 2016 a space observatory called Aditya to study zones on the surface of the Sun that produce phenomenon called coronal mass ejections.

“We’d like to analyse data from Aditya and model the conditions that generate the coronal mass ejections,” said Nandita Srivastava, a co-investigator at the Udaipur Solar Observatory.

The new initiative will also lend support to a plan by India to join an international hunt for gravitational waves. Co-investigator Rajesh Nayak at IISER, Mohanpur, hopes to drive the centre’s efforts to develop computational methods to help detect these waves.

The IISERs provide undergraduate and postgraduate education in the basic sciences, and space science investigators believe some of the 100 students who graduate with an MS degree in physics would also be tempted to continue PhD at the centre.

Scientists associated with the project said the HRD ministry wants the proposed centres for excellence to benefit the region in which they are located. “We have plans to reach out to local institutions such as St Xavier’s and Presidency to involve them for maximising the impact,” Nandi said.

Hasan had told the science congress yesterday that the number of faculty and young researchers in space sciences in India needed to go up by a factor of 10 over the next five years.The other 15 proposed centres for excellence that the Union HRD ministry has agreed to support are located in academic institutions in other states and will focus on research areas ranging from energy to transportation to biomedical science.

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