Astrosat puts India in a new league

With the successful launch of Astrosat, India’s first multi-wavelength space observatory, the country has entered a new age of space research. Astrosat has been compared to Hubble telescope, though it is much smaller in scope and power than the pioneering American space observatory which has provided invaluable data for the past 25 years. The mission life of Astrosat is five years. During its active service, its telescopes will study the universe in visible light, ultraviolet and low and high energy X-rays. It also carries an X-ray scanning monitor that can detect transient X-ray emissions and gamma ray bursts. The instruments aboard the satellite are also expected to study the core areas of galaxies like the Milky Way which are believed to contain massive black holes. It took many years for the idea of a full-fledged space observatory to become a reality through development of all systems and acquisition of instruments needed by the satellite. It has made India a member of the select group of countries which have the technical expertise and devices for the study of the space beyond the earth’s immediate environment.

The earth’s atmosphere does not allow X-rays and ultra-violet rays from reaching its surface. So telescopes which are positioned on the ground cannot make use of them for the study of objects and phenomena beyond the atmosphere. That is why observatories have to be placed in the outer space to undertake such studies. Earth-based laboratories near Pune and Ladakh have studied radio and infrared waves that come through the atmosphere. But for the study of high frequency space radiation ISRO had to seek the help of other space agencies like Nasa or the European Space Agency and get data from them.

Most of the payloads for the satellite have come from research organisations like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, the India Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru, and the centre for astrophysics in Pune. That is an indicator of the technical expertise and scientific knowledge available in these institutes. The data to be collected by the observatory will give a boost to research in these institutes, which will have the right of exclusive usage of the data for a period. The launch of Astrosat underlines the growing importance being given to pure scientific research. Most of ISRO’s launches have had practical and utilitarian aims like improving communications or mapping of geographies and resources. But projects like the lunar and Mars missions and the Astrosat programme have their focus on pure knowledge. This is a welcome trend.

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