Indian scientist leaves his mark on Pluto

Christening a crater

Christening a crater: Bishun Khare (Photo courtesy: SETI Institute)

The farthest zone in the solar system now has an Indian connection.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has named a crater on Pluto after Bishun Khare, a little-known Indian physicist born in Varanasi who extensively studied the atmosphere of Pluto, long considered the ninth planet of the solar system.

Khare, a long-time associate of legendary American astronomer Carl Sagan, published several seminal research papers on tholins, the organic molecules that probably account for the darkest and reddest regions on Pluto, according to a statement from the IAU.

The Khare crater was among the 14 Pluto features christened by the IAU on the basis of a proposal from Nasa’s New Horizons team that carried out the first reconnaissance of Pluto and its moons with the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015.

Born in Varanasi, Khare earned degrees in physics, chemistry and mathematics from Banaras Hindu University. He did his doctorate in physics from Syracuse University and conducted post-doctoral research at both the State University of New York (Stony Brook) and at the University of Toronto, according to a short note on him posted on the SETI Institute website.

From 1960s to 1990s, he worked at Cornell University and published approximately one hundred papers with Carl Sagan. In 1996, he moved to Nasa Ames Research Centre as a Senior National Research Fellow and in 1998, joined the SETI Institute that was established to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. He died in August 2013 at the age of 80.

Besides the India-born scientist, IAU also named Pluto features after the Wright brothers, American astronomer Percival Lowell and Swiss inventor Auguste Piccard, who is the inspiration behind Cuthbert Calculus — the absent-minded professor in Tintin comics.

This is the second round of nomenclature for Pluto features. In the first round in 2017, IAU used the names of Everest pioneers Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary to describe two mountains on the icy dwarf planet.

Incidentally, IAU had last month assigned a star–planet system to India for naming as part of a global public outreach programme to christen thousands of exo-planets and planetary systems discovered by astronomers in recent years.

Lying about 340 light years away from the earth, the star-planet system comprises star HD 86081, which is slightly hotter, larger and older than our sun and its lone planet HD 86081-b. It appears similar to Jupiter in size and mass, but orbits very close to the star, thus expected to have very high temperatures. The star is located in the constellation of Sextans and is visible in Indian skies.

A contest has been launched under the supervision of Pune-based Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics to invite name suggestions from school and college students.

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