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ASI at 50: Skill youngsters, engage with international astro unions and develop human resource for next generation astronomy

Senior scientists strongly feel that it is time India encashed its strengths in instrumentation, IT and engineering, whose contribution in building, maintaining and upgrading telescopes and observational facilities will only grow in the coming years.

Written by Anjali Marar | Roorkee |
March 28, 2022 3:24:46 pm
New and upcoming trends in major areas of astronomy in the data-driven world discussed at the 40th annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of India. (Source: Twitter/IndiaDST)

From a humble beginning in the early 1970s with about 100 astronomers, the Astronomical Society of India (ASI) today has grown to become an institute having 700 members.

In its journey spanning five decades, the society has witnessed a slow but steady growth with India now being part of at least three mega science projects – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT), and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) – among other collaborations. And as these facilities become ready in about a decade from now, the ASI officials feel that there would be a need of 500 active astronomers and are hopeful of taking the ASI membership to 2,000.

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The slow growth was largely owing to the fact that astronomical studies and research remained confined to a select few institutes like the Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES) in Nainital, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bengaluru or the TIFR – National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) in Pune, predominantly because they owned and operated telescopes.

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“In the earlier days, most researchers were pursuing cosmology whereas the number of students studying observational astronomy was low. Even when the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru started the joint astronomy programme, there were just five students during the initial batches,” Dr GC Anupama, the incumbent ASI president, told indianexpress.com.

Over the years, the student community has grown with research undertaken using data from outside the host institutes, a trend that soon caught up.

“The observational time for using an Indian telescope was made available to students submitting a good proposal. But the main driver for the increasing number of students was the spread of astronomy courses outside the national institutes into the IITs, IISERs and so on. But we still have to make a significant presence in the universities and colleges, where the research component has to be increased,” said Anupama.

Professor Ajit Kembhavi, astrophysicist and former director, Inter University of Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), proposed that the ASI promote focused capacity building programmes, particularly using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) techniques.

“India has unlimited and high quality human resources. What we now need is inspiring faculty to lead the next generation of astronomers,” said Kembhavi, who suggested that future ASI meetings be made more interesting to attract and host deliberations among a larger number of mid-career and senior-level faculties and students of astronomy.

Along with AI and ML, Anupama recommended that students be put on hands-on training for using and analysing astronomical data, which can be best done on data gathered from smaller telescopes.

The senior scientists strongly feel that it is time India encashed its strengths in instrumentation, IT and engineering, whose contribution in building, maintaining and upgrading telescopes and observational facilities will only grow in the coming years.

“When we start obtaining and using the 10 metre- or the 30 metre-class telescopes, astronomers will have to function differently and work closely with data scientists, engineers and computer specialists,” said Anupama.

Kembhavi urged the ASI to actively approach industry and companies for funds under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) scheme.

Among the planned year-long celebrations marking the ASI’s golden jubilee, Professor Dipankar Banerjee, while speaking at the 40th ASI meet underway at IIT-Roorkee on Monday, said the society will soon revive its Young Astronomers Meet (YAM).

“We plan to have more interactions with the International Astronomical Union, other Indian global societies working in the field of astronomy alongside engaging those working in the planetaria,” said Banerjee, director, ARIES, Nainital.

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