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Chennai techie helps NASA find Chandrayaan-2 lander: ‘Every white spot was Vikram for me’

And all it took for Shanmuga Subramanian (33) to find what the world was looking for was perseverance, a corner of his apartment in Besant Nagar and a basic image viewer on his personal laptop. May be that’s why, facing a crowd of media cameras, the man himself says “it’s not a big deal”.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Chennai | Updated: December 4, 2019 9:49:42 am
Chennai techie helps NASA find lander: ‘Every white spot was Vikram for me’ Shanmuga Subramanian helped located the Vikram lander on Moon’s surface and his findings were validated by NASA as well.

Nearly three months after ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 made a “hard landing” on the lunar surface, NASA tweeted Tuesday that it had spotted the remains of the Vikram lander and credited an unexpected source for the discovery — a software programmer in Chennai.

And all it took for Shanmuga Subramanian (33) to find what the world was looking for was perseverance, a corner of his apartment in Besant Nagar and a basic image viewer on his personal laptop. May be that’s why, facing a crowd of media cameras, the man himself says “it’s not a big deal”.

“Anyone could have traced it… ISRO or NASA or any individual with an interest. It’s just that I happened to trace it first. I was new to this, and probably my enthusiasm helped me over others who have been using advanced technologies to trace the lander,” he said.

After the early hours of September 7, when ISRO said that the lander had made “a hard landing”, Subramanian started trying to trace it from photographs available in the public domain, primarily NASA’s website.

NASA image shows Vikram’s impact site and debris. PTI

What he finally found was one of the many parts of the lander scattered across an area of about 4 km.

“The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) Camera of NASA frequently takes photos of the moon’s surface, almost every month. After the ISRO mission failed, I downloaded pictures clicked by LROC before and after the crash and studied them, zooming in pixel by pixel on each photograph,” he said.

“I was focusing on a particular location where the lander was believed to have crashed. While comparing old and new pictures, I noticed a single dot, the only difference I could trace among the many. Some opined that it may be dust. But I was certain. There were specifics… for instance, the difference in light reflections. Reflections from craters and stones are different to those from man-made objects. A man-made object will have a reflection around it. This is what made me realise that I was correct,” said Subramanian.  “I tweeted to ISRO and NASA and later sent an email on October 18. Finally, today morning, they (NASA) sent a confirmation mail,” he said.

NASA said in a statement that Subramanian “contacted the LRO project with a positive identification of debris. After receiving this tip, the LROC team confirmed the identification by comparing before and after images”.  ISRO said it has “nothing to add to what NASA has said today”. “ISRO had already found the Vikram lander two days after the crash and we had made that public,” Vivek Singh, head of ISRO’s public relations office, said.

Subramanian, meanwhile, says what worked in his favour was his lack of expertise. “When you are an expert in something, you take certain things for granted. That’s what probably delayed others (scientists). But for me, every white spot was a Vikram lander… of course, I had many false positives, too. But after I first traced this spot, on the third day of my research, I zoomed in further and spotted the differences in light,” he said.

It was far from easy, though. “I manually counted and measured each and every crater, and made comparisons between older and newer ones. I worked for four or five days, seven or eight hours each, before I sent alerts to NASA,” he said.

ISRO is yet to get in touch with him, says Subramanian. “Let me make it clear that I don’t expect any kudos from ISRO. Everyone knows it was a hard landing. Finding debris, anyway, is not a big thing,” he said.

Hailing from Madurai, Subramanian completed his BTech in mechanical engineering from a government college in Tirunelveli and has been working in the IT sector in Chennai for the last 12 years. He has designed a few apps, including one for tsunami alerts and another for text-only reading without images and videos, and runs Chennai Rain, a Facebook page on weather forecasts.

On Tuesday, Subramanian posted on Twitter that NASA has credited him for finding the lander. Along with the tweet, he posted an email from John Keller, Deputy Project Scientist, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission. It ended with these lines: “Congratulations for what I am sure was a lot of time and effort on your part. You will probably get some inquiries from the press on your discovery.”

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