How to become an astronomer in India?

Photo of the lunar surface snapped by Prabhakaran

Chennai: In an era of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, several talents have been unearthed from digital corners of Internet. The instant ability to showcase hidden skills through photos or videos has helped netizens to create an online portfolio of their passion. Among such community which has thrived are for budding astronomers and astrophotographers. Several Facebook groups and Instagram pages offer palettes of vibrant photographs of heavenly bodies and post articles to quench thirst for knowledge on space science.

Certified stars

Prabhakaran

News Today got in touch with Trichy-born astrophotographer, Prabhakharan who spoke in length about how to get a formal education to step into this field. Prabhakaran’s love for science drove him to start a YouTube channel, ‘Scientific Thamizhans’, with his friend Nirmal Rajah. Here, he shares videos on astronomy. Prabhakharan uses Facebook and Instagram (@prabhuskutti) to share his space photographs which has helped him gain a growing tribe of over 4,000 followers.

‘When it comes to amateur astronomy, one need to be passionate. But if we are talking about professional astronomy, then it’s a whole different ball game, ‘ Prabhakaran says, ‘In India, it is not that easy as institutions which offer course in astronomy are very less.’ To become a professional astronomer, a PhD degree is compulsory, he explains. ‘Students need to complete 10+2 examination under science stream. After that, they can join an undergraduate course in astronomy or physics, followed by PG. After completing their master’s, students can do specialization leading to PhD.’

Career opportunities
Prabhakaran says astronomers can look for steady positions as researchers either at universities or government research centres. ‘Eventually, they are granted university tenure, a permanent position where they generally work for rest of their career,’ he says. ‘Astronomy is a small field but very popular. Only those with strong education, ability and deep passion for the subject are likely to find a permanent position.’

Photo of the moon captured by Prabhakaran

Tips
In order to grow in this field, Prabhakharan urges to have excellent communication and writing skills as astronomers are made to ‘write numerous scholarly articles’. He adds, ‘Be prepared for possibility of spending long night-time hours in observatories and attending conferences’. ‘Astronomers must be up to date with new findings and astronomy news,’ says Prabhakharan. Experts like him also talk about the growing need for astronomers to learn photography.

Space awareness
To understand the need to support amateur astronomers, Mrunalini Deshpande, a Research Associate at Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) in her observations, Realising the potential of Amateur Astronomers for enhancing India’s Space Situational Awareness, writes about the necessity to have a strong ‘Space Situational Awareness or SSA capability’. ‘It is cardinal for any space faring nation to protect its space assets and also to ensure its undeterred access to space,’ she says.

Aiding amateurs
Her study stats that currently, India has only one ground based sensor dedicated for SSA purposes. However, Mrunalini is optimistic that with the help of amateur astronomers, the space community at large can get benefited. She notes the role played by space enthusiast from Chennai, Shanmuga Subramanian, who successfully identified the debris of Vikram Moonlander which had lost radio contact minutes before landing on lunar surface.

‘The capability of astronomer community has been acknowledged in US and Europe where amateur astronomers are encouraged to crowdsource their observations and contribute to space catalogue building and maintaining process,’ she writes. ‘But the amateur astronomer community is not a very strong movement in India and therefore, their potential has been unutilized.’

Mohammed Rayaan