Bangalore: Three years back, S K Shivakumar, the director of ISRO's telemetry division, chose a piece of land in Byalalu along the Bangalore Mysore Highway as the site for his pet project - a dedicated command station for scientific experiments that missions like the Chandrayaan would be carried out.
An engineering marvel that only four other countries have achieved so far, the dish antenna - 32 metres in diameter - can rotate and revolve to track satellites millions of miles away.
“This is a huge dish, generally the distance involved in getting data from a mission like Chandrayaan is, so far, 4 lakh km and radio signal is what we are talking about. Radio waves start from spacecraft far away from this antenna on earth and signal strength is very small. If you make antenna bigger, capturing capacity is better,” he says.
If Bangalore is known for Business Process Outsourcing, then this antenna village in the outskirts of Bangalore could well be known for space outsourcing next.
The antenna installed for Chandrayaan is large enough to be used for other space probes. So if NASA or a European space agency wants to send a mission to the moon or even Mars next, they can use our antenna to collect data.
“Bangalore that way has an advantage, a vantage position in terms of location. It’s closer to the equator and such a facility available for deep space missions. It has a wonderful vantage position in terms of location itself, so naturally people will come for their mission and we are ready do that,” says Shivakumar.
The command station has already caught the attention of local people.
“First we thought it was a strange thing, now we know it's a dish to track satellites,” says a local boy.
Explains his friend, “It's an antenna that'll track our satellite. We're sending one to the moon, it's not yet started, but when it is, then we can know its movements from here.”
ISRO hopes to get more people interested in, and even working for, the project.
Scientists admit it isn't easy to draw people away from the riches of the IT sector. But scientific excitement does have its takers now and then.
“Actually we managed to get someone from IBM now getting one-fifth of what he was paid, but he's happy. We have to sell them that interest, career also means satisfaction. That doesn't come always but until we sell it properly it won't work, that itself is an art,” says Dr P Sreekumar.
The art of selling science is on display every Saturday at St Joseph's College in Bangalore. ISRO runs a short academic programme there, to try and kindle an interest in astrophysics in these students.
“The idea is not all of them emerge as a top scientists. And the thing is even if five to ten per cent are really motivated and make it to that kind of level, we'll be very happy,” says Prof Sivaraman of Indian Institute of Astrophysics.
Few students here have already been bitten by the science bug. Gaurav Pathak is a 19-year-old you'll find more often at the planetarium than at the movies.
“I would pursue science because of job satisfaction. You do the work you like. I like science, I like the work, I know the work I want to do. There are hurdles; people say I won't get paid much. It's a small thing. People say, no you can say now, when you grow up, when responsibilities come on your head and you know money is a big thing, then you'll feel sad for decision you've taken but I feel most important thing to pursue in career should be your interest and yes, I'm interested in science,” he says, firmly.
As for 20-year-old Chandrika, she has set her sights on becoming an astrophysict before India's next lunar mission.
“The fact that there is life existing in any body other than earth is fascinating. Probably it's for biologist to think about how it’s going to develop and if say million or billion years down the line, we're going to have the same forms of life on earth, that should be an interesting search. I think that's the balance, that's where both the biologist and physicist can come together and you know work,” she says.
If it is successful, Chandrayaan could well be the sign of things to come. Chandrayaan 2 - a mission which will land on the moon - is already being planned.
And even a manned mission within the next 7 years is already on the drawing table.
“Space travel has been a challenging topic for all. We started with a small rockets which could hardly go up to 10 km out of earth surface. From there, we came to PSLV - 1,000 km, then GSLV - 36,000 km. Now the same PSLV - goes to 4 lakh km. That's phenomenal growth. Next may be, a mission to Mars may be our dream,” ISRo Chairman Madhavan Nair.
For us Indians, the moon has religious, romantic, even mythological significance.
But Chandrayaan will mark the beginning of its scientific significance. Understanding the moon will help us understand the earth and the solar system and possibly tell us if we can ever live on the moon one day.
And that is a journey well worth making.