The Space Age began with Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957 when the football-sized spacecraft became the first man-made object to be sent into orbit. Astronomers had already been using captured V2 rockets for more than a decade after WWII and the picture below (from NASA) shows the first pictures of the Earth from space. A new frontier in astronomy was opened with Sputnik with astronomical telescopes being sent for extended periods. Astronomy from space became bigger and bigger culminating in the NASA Great Observatories of Hubble (UV/Optical), Compton (Gamma-ray), Chandra (X-ray) and Spitzer (IR). These were the golden years for space-based astronomy and have revolutionized our understanding of the heavens.
Research budgets have become tighter and large projects are taking increasingly longer from conception to flight. These missions are critical to our progress in astronomy – for example, the James Webb Space Telescope will explore everything from exoplanets to the deepest reaches of the Universe but are few and far between.
There is now a new paradigm in space where the old agencies, whether NASA or ISRO, are no longer the sole players in a restricted industry. The new brand of rocket scientists, including but not limited to SpaceX (Elon Musk) and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos), are pushing access to a much broader base with more democratic access. We have taken advantage of this at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics by building compact, low cost payloads which will address limited areas of astronomy but will contribute to the furtherance of those areas.
We began with a balloon program which we used to develop prototypes and perform atmospheric science. One of our launches is pictured below with photographs from our on-board camera shot from an altitude of 25 km.
We are continuing with our balloon flights and have expanded into space payloads. Our next flight will be with Team Indus to the Moon. We have been collaborating with them for several years to develop an observatory on the Moon, or at least the first prototype of one. Our telescope (LUCI) will stare at a fixed angle to the Lunar surface and will slowly scan the sky with the rotation of the Moon. We are looking for transients – that is, for flashes in the sky: anything from supernovae to planets falling into stars to near-Earth asteroids.
We have other opportunities and are actively search for more. Space has now become accessible to a much larger pool of people as may be seen from the large number of universities who are building satellites. Unfortunately, there have not been any that are successful to date. These, I believe, are largely due to a lack of focus. Although it has become much easier to build and even to fly space missions, there is still an enormous scope for mistakes. Space is unforgiving and simple errors will lead to mission failures. Universities try to build missions with dozens of students and faculty who may not be experienced or have the time to bring everything together. We have adopted a different approach. The first is to focus on our core expertise: we build scientific payloads and not satellites. The second is to have one person responsible for the entire payload – from conception to publication. As a result, we expect to have successful missions.