At home in space - Scientist hooked on Spock as 6-year-old

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  • Published 9.08.13
Anita Sengupta with her Shera Bangali award on Thursday. Picture by Pabitra Das

New Delhi, Aug. 8: Anita Sengupta is living her dream of exploring the unknown and is hoping to similarly inspire others.

At age six, growing up in New York, she was hooked on Mister Spock, the character in Star Trek, an American science-fiction television series featuring the voyages of a 23rd-century spaceship and its crew to distant worlds.

Fascinated by the idea of space exploration, Sengupta became an aerospace engineer, joined the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), and developed a parachute that played a critical role in the successful landing of a robotic spacecraft on Mars last year.

Now, she is leading a Nasa experiment to create the coldest temperature ever — and an exotic state of matter called Bose- Einstein Condensate, named after the 20th century physicists Albert Einstein and Satyendra Nath Bose, for the first time in space.

Sengupta, an engineer at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), is also a qualified pilot, rides a 600cc motorbike for fun on weekends and enjoys Mira Nair’s Bollywood productions.

She arrived in Calcutta today to receive the Shera Bangali award from ABP Ananda. Over the next two weeks, she is scheduled to deliver talks to students and the scientific community in Calcutta, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai.

“I believe professionals have a responsibility to educate and inspire the next generation, and space exploration is a natural avenue to inspire and educate,” said Sengupta, daughter of a Bengali father and a British mother, who was born in Scotland and raised in New York.

She is the project manager for the JPL’s Cold Atom Laboratory Mission to design and build a facility for an ultra-cold gas experiment, to be launched in 2016 on the International Space Station (ISS).

In the experiment, scientists will use lasers to cool a gas to a temperature much colder than minus 269 degrees Celsius, the average temperature in deep space.

“At this temperature, atoms cease to behave like colliding billiard balls and behave like waves,” Sengupta said. “On the ISS, we hope to create macroscopic matter waves, and also the first Bose-Einstein Condensate in the micro-gravity environment of space.”

Her public talks in India are likely to centre on the challenges of landing the Curiosity spacecraft on Mars a year ago, for which she had designed and developed a supersonic parachute that helped slow down the hurtling spacecraft before its safe touchdown.

“Her achievements are bound to be inspirational for any aspiring student of science or engineering,” said Dibyendu Nandi, a space physicist at the Centre for Excellence in Space Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Calcutta.

In Calcutta, Sengupta will deliver a public lecture at Science City on August 16, an event jointly organised by the IISER, the American Centre and the West Bengal Science Forum.

Sengupta had worked on space propulsion systems before her parachute project, and her current work on the Cold Atom Laboratory Mission is a big switch from cutting-edge applied aerodynamics to the frontiers of atomic physics.

But she has more dreams and is ready to list them: working on future robotic landers designed to scoop up material from the surface of Venus or to explore the ocean believed to lie beneath the icy surface of Europa, one of the Jupiter’s moons.

Many of her colleagues share her enthusiasm for Europa. “It is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to have life today,” said Robert Pappalardo at Nasa’s JPL. “And a landed mission would be the best way to search for signs of life.”

“There are so many fascinating places to explore in our solar system, each with its unique challenges and infinite possible scientific returns,” said Sengupta who, when off work, likes to fly a single-engine Cessna, ride a motorbike or catch a Bollywood film.

Sengupta recalls a childhood filled with travel, exploration and learning about both science and art. Her father, an IIT-trained mechanical engineer, met her mother, a French and German language expert, while pursuing a PhD at the University of Liverpool.

“My father taught me what it means to be an engineer ---- it’s a profession that trains you how to think and solve problems unlike any other,” Sengupta said.

“My mother taught me the love for art, language, music and history and how to have an incredible work ethic. It is why I am who I am today.”

Sections of the scientific community view her achievements as even more significant as she is a woman engineer.

“Even in the US, women leading the fields of science and engineering are rare,” said a senior Indian scientist who has spent several years in the US.

Sengupta said the challenge had, in some ways, defined her journey. “It has made me stronger.”