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Mixing music with Mars - Nepal-born student who spotted 'water' also plays guitar

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  • Published 7.08.11
Lujendra Ojha, the lead guitarist in a heavy metal band named Gorkha

New Delhi, Aug. 6: Eight years ago, Lujendra Ojha was a schoolboy in his native Nepal trying to sharpen his skills on the guitar, but also dreaming about pursuing research on parallel universes, designing time machines and exploring space.

Drawing inspiration from comic books, science fiction films, and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which he recalls reading while he was in the 9th grade at Kathmandu’s Galaxy Public School, Ojha wanted to do “something fascinating” in science.

If he couldn’t travel around the world as a star guitar player, that is.

Ojha is now an undergraduate geophysics student at the University of Arizona, Tucson, where he moved with his parents in 2005 when he was 15. And he is lead guitarist of a student band named Gorkha that specialises in heavy metal.

But this week, Ojha appeared to leap towards a career in planetary science with his first research paper — a publication in the US journal Science — describing intriguing features on the planet Mars that scientists are interpreting as the flow of liquid water.

Ojha, a co-author in the paper, was the first to spot dark finger-like features on images of the surfaces of steep slopes in the southern hemisphere of Mars, captured by a camera orbiting Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“They appear only in the summer, grow during the summer season and fade away in the winter,” said Ojha, an undergraduate member of a research team led by principal investigator Alfred McEwen that examined the features over three Martian summers.

These dark, finger-like features that appear and extend down some Martian slopes during the warmest months of the Mars year may show activity of salty water on Mars. They fade in winter, then recur the next spring.

“These features appear only when the temperatures rise during summers, only on steep slopes, and only in the mid-latitudes — the best explanation we think is the flow of liquid water with salts,” Ojha told The Telegraph in a telephone interview.

Although geological features observed on Mars earlier have indicated that liquid water once flowed on the planet, scientists believe that the possibility of liquid salt-laden water could have implications for future studies in the decades-old search for life on Mars.

For his discovery, Ojha was among only two undergraduate students from Arizona invited to share their research findings with the government and representatives of science agencies during a special event in Washington DC in April this year.

He believes the opportunity for research that his university offered him as well as the invitation to present his research are both tremendous honours.

“I’m from halfway around the world, came here, and got involved in some awesome research. For me to move from Nepal to Capitol Hill in such a short (time) feels like a great accomplishment,” he told his university newsletter earlier this year.

Ojha is determined to continue with his studies in geophysics and hopes he can become a planetary scientist. He still plays the lead guitarist in Gorkha, but says music is now only a hobby.

“I still sometimes dream of travelling the world playing the guitar — but science is fascinating.”