Few geological events have fascinated us as much as the one that happened 66 million years ago. Evidence suggests that a huge asteroid hit our planet, triggering a chain of events that led to a mass extinction of species on earth, including the dinosaurs.
While that is undoubtedly the most famous asteroid, there have been others as well. In fact, earlier this month, an asteroid estimated to be the size of six football fields whizzed past our planet, at a safe distance.
So, it would be safe to say that in the future, the possibility of an asteroid impacting Earth is very real.
That is why Vishnu Reddy, an Associate Professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson, is studying their origin, nature, composition, intent, and potential impact on our planet, using a range of earth and space-based objects.
“The Moon is being explored, Mars is being explored, but these Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) have not been explored yet. NEOs are comets and asteroids that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth’s neighborhood. When an asteroid or meteor passes close to the atmosphere, small rocks from it land on Earth’s surface. These rocks have a water retention capacity which means bigger asteroids can contain 10% water. They also contain valuable materials like platinum, nickel, iron and more which can be mined,” explains Vishnu.
Vishnu’s journey to space began in 1978 at a small village just West of Sriharikota, Chennai.
“It was the ’80s, and I was living in a village with spotty electricity, so I spent a lot of time being in the dark, and would always gaze at the sky and wonder about its many mysteries. I remember how the Hindu newspaper would publish a star map every month, and I would cut it up and use to identify them,” says Vishnu.
His behaviour baffled his father, who, in an unusual turn of events, wanted his son to complete his studies and become an actor. The two eventually reached a compromise—Vishnu agreed to study Visual Communications, from a college in Coimbatore, as long as his father bought him a telescope. He claims that he spent more time in the physics lab with his telescope than in the media department.
After his Bachelor’s Degree, for a few years, Vishnu did multiple summer internships, and even got small roles in Tamil films. Eventually, he got frustrated with the unsteady nature of his job and decided to move to another field of work.
He says, “I was tired of finding new roles every 6 months. In 1998, I joined ‘The Asian Age,’ in New Delhi, as a trainee journalist. I worked there for four-five years.”
First Asteroid Discovery
In 2001, while working with The Asian Age, Vishnu got the opportunity to attend a lecture by Tom Gehrels, an internationally recognised planetary scientist and astronomer, one of the first members of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona and founder of the Spacewatch Program, which surveys the sky for near-Earth asteroids.
“His lecture did not have the story I wanted, so I approached him for an interview. He agreed, and I accompanied him on a 45-minute car ride to his hotel. My first question to him was why does India need to worry about asteroids? He responded that since India is surrounded by water on three sides, an impact from an asteroid in the ocean could cause a Tsunami. My next question was—‘What are Indian scientists doing about it?’ After a pause, his response was that Indians like mathematics more, and they think NASA has solved these problems. Which was true at the time. So I asked him whether amateur astronomers, including myself, can study asteroids. He told me that anyone with a certain telescope can study asteroids, and I would be one in a billion to do it,” says Vishnu.
Being an enthusiastic young man, he started to do a lot of research online, he even contacted many observatories in India to allow him to use their telescopes. But they turned him down, thinking he was part of a sting operation.
“All I required was a telescope. But I could not afford it. A friend I made online trusted me so much that he bought me a telescope worth $3000. By the time I got that shipped to India, the money I saved up to buy a lens was over. I was heart-broken,” says Vishnu.
That is when Roy Tucker, an amateur asteroid-hunter and Vishnu’s virtual friend, offered to help him. The two had met through an astronomy club. Being very impressed with Vishnu’s research and interest towards asteroids, Roy offered to help him by lending his telescope for three months, if he ever visited the USA.
“Roy had a slightly bigger telescope, and I was determined to find an asteroid. So I immediately sold everything I had in my tiny apartment in Delhi, and got myself a visa and a ticket to the USA. He hosted me on his couch. For three months, he helped me put together all of my research in order to find an asteroid. Finally, we sent across a list of all the asteroids we saw to Harvard University. They cross-checked all the information we sent with their database of existing asteroids. Out of the thousand asteroids we captured, one was my discovery,” says Vishnu.
Vishnu jokingly says he expected at least a certificate or a letter of appreciation, to acknowledge his discovery but only got an email from Harvard University. The next day, the two drove to the University of Arizona to meet Mr Gehrels and prove him wrong for saying an Indian would not find an asteroid.
“He was shocked and proud to see me,” says Vishnu.
The same month, he returned to New Delhi and continued to work as a journalist for one more year. In that time, he wrote his GREs, TOEFL, and applied to the University of North Dakota.
“In 2003, the University offered a two-year Master’s program in Space studies, and it allowed me to transition from a non-science major into a science doctoral student. After this I took four years to complete my PhD in the same,” says Vishnu.
He went on to work at the National Observatory in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, where he studied about the asteroids that hit the Earth, and killed the dinosaurs. In 2011, Vishnu worked with Max Planck Institute in Germany, on a NASA mission called ‘Dawn Mission’. The aim of the project was to study asteroids by sending a spacecraft through the two largest objects in the asteroid belt—Vesta and Ceres.
That same year, Mr Gehrals passed away and his position at the University of Arizona opened up. It was refilled only 2015, by Vishnu.
“It never fails to amaze me that I sit three doors away from his old office,” he mentions.
Today, Vishnu and his team of 11 researchers at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, are working towards answering the big question—Will the Earth get hit by a giant asteroid in the next 100 years?
To answer this, they are launching an infra-red telescope into space, because asteroids can be viewed better under infrared light than under visible light.
“Asteroids like planets reflect sunlight. They don’t have their own source of heat. But the light reflected from an asteroid has different wavelengths. Some are blue, green, red, and beyond red which is infra-red. To find tiny asteroids that might impact the earth, we are developing a telescope with an infra-red lens to launch into space and study them. The telescope will probably launched as soon as 2025,” says Vishnu.
As it is cold in outer space, the infrared lens would only pick up heat sources which could be of an NEO. On earth, there would be too much noise for the lens as there are multiple heat sources, including the scientist operating the telescope.
From a young boy who gazed at the sky in wonder, to working as a journalist, discovering an asteroid, and finally, stepping into his idol’s shoes at the University of Arizona—Vishnu has certainly had an interesting life, and he knows it.
“I knew what I wanted to do from a very young age, and though I did go off-track, I never lost sight of that. And that is the most important thing for young scientists, or anyone really. We should believe in ourselves and work towards our goals, no matter what. While it may have taken me 17 years to reach where I am, I wake up everyday thinking, these people are paying me to do my hobby,” he concludes.
Featured image courtesy of The University of Arizona.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)