“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” ― Carl Sagan
A complex, fascinating, and ever-evolving subject, astronomy encompasses mathematics and physical science, culture and history, myth and imagination, and more. It has been studied by humans for millennia, yet continues to be rich with exploration opportunities and unanswered questions.
As exploration reaches farther into space, as technology for telescopes and space travel develops, and as the search for life beyond our own planet accelerates, astronomy can be a lifelong passion and hobby, a fascinating career possibility and it is always a continuing education.
This is why a couple has been working tirelessly for over two years to make the knowledge of celestial objects accessible to all kids in India. Founders of Enscitec Production, science enthusiasts Rakesh and Sonam Rao are the brains behind Astroproject, an initiative to develop a documentary series on Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space-related research in India.
Rakesh (left) and Sonam Rao
Rakesh and Sonam came up with the idea of Astroproject when they were still in college.
“We were able to get detailed facts about what was happening in NASA and ESA but when it came to space research by ISRO and IIA, we were rarely able to get any information from their websites. It was to address this issue that we decided to develop a series of documentary films that would highlight Indian research in astronomy and would be easily accessible to youngsters,” says Rakesh.
Born and raised in Goa, Rakesh is a filmmaker who believes in promoting science through innovative, educative and well-researched motion pictures and photographs. A postgraduate in physics, he has been a part of several documentary-making projects for premier science organisations like the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research, Department of Science and Technology, Goa Pollution Control Board, the Centre for Environment Education, and the Forest Department.
Recently, he spent 16 months (over a span of 3 years) in the icy continent of Antarctica to document the construction of India’s third research station, Bharati. Apart from pursuing photography and filmmaking, he has also been actively working with Association of Friends of Astronomy (a Goa-based NGO that works to encourage amateur astronomy) for the last 15 year.
Rakesh and Sonam (left) with a team member.
Rakesh’s efforts are well supported by those of his wife, Sonam Arora Rao. After completing her Masters in Applied Physics from Punjab University, she worked as a research trainee at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics(IIA) in Bengaluru for two years.
She is currently pursuing her M. Tech in Space and Atmospheric Science through a programme funded by the United Nations and organised by Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific (CSSTEAP) along with Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad.
“We had always been fascinated by astronomy and would often visit the websites of Indian scientific institutions working in this field for more information about ongoing research. That’s when we realised that these websites were not very user-friendly and provided very less first-hand information about what was happening in astronomy in India,” adds Rakesh.
In 2014, Rakesh and Sonam sent their proposal to Office of Astronomical Development (OAD) under the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the international governing body for all astronomical research institutes in the world. Out of the 230 proposals OAD received from across the world, they shortlisted only 7 proposals for public outreach and the Raos’ proposal was one of them.
The Astroproject team.
Delighted that their proposal had been accepted, Rakesh and Sonam immediately got to work.
“The first observatory we visited was the one in Kodaikanal. There are only two places in the world that have 100 years of solar data. One is in USA and the other is in Kodaikanal in India. Located on the southern tip of the Palni Hills in Tamil Nadu state, this observatory has an immense historical importance and yet Indians have hardly heard about it. So, we started our journey from here.”
Travelling across the length and breadth of the country, the dedicated couple visited all astronomical research institutes and observatories in India. Asked about any memorable experiences from this sojourn, Rakesh recounts two special moments.
“We were visiting the Vainu Bappu Observatory in Kavalur, which has the largest optical telescope in Asia. Nestled amidst the verdant wilderness of Javadi hills, this observatory’s telescope is so powerful that it can easily resolve a 25 paise coin kept forty kilometres away. While doing time lapse photography of the night sky from the forest surrounding the observatory, we felt something slithering around our legs. We looked down to see a bunch of scorpions and a really long snake moving in the grass around our feet!
Vainu Bappu Observatory
“Another great experience was when we camped at Ladakh with scientists from ISRO, NASA, ESA, Italy and Australia as a part of NASA’s Spaceward Bound India project. These were people studying everything from the origin of life on Earth to Martian topography. Visiting remote schools in the region and watching such notable scientist interacting with students was really special. Also, the night sky from the observatory at Ladakh, one of the world’s highest, is absolutely stunning and seeing it is an experience I will treasure for life,” he says.
With kids in Ladakh.
Rakesh and Sonam also interacted with students from schools and colleges across Indian to understand what they thought about astronomy and what were the questions they wanted answered. This is when they realised that providing information about research in astronomy without explaining the basics of space science would defeat the very purpose of their initiative.
So, in addition to their films about astronomical research happening in India, they decided to make four movies that would explain fundamental concepts of space science. The first one in their documentary series, ‘From Dust to Stars’ is being launched today at the Goa Science Centre. Other than being uploaded on Youtube and Vimeo for public viewing, it will be converted into several regional languages to increase its outreach in rural areas.
“We don’t want language to be a barrier that stops any Indian child from knowing about this fascinating subject. We will also be putting this entire not-for-profit series in public domain so that anyone who is interested can access it, learn from it, and share it with others,” explains Rakesh.
Apart from documentaries, Rakesh and Sonam now plan to create a stand-alone website that provides all information about astronomical research in India in one place. They are planning to tie-up with educational institutions and research organisations for this project. They also hope and want science enthusiasts in India to come forward and contribute through ideas and information to make this project a success.
“When it comes to science, if you talk about quantum mechanics, people tend to get bored soon. But if you talk about stars, planets and black holes, the same people want to know more about the subject. So, by encouraging interest in astronomy, we ultimately hope to make people curious about science as a whole.”
“Also, with such exciting things happening in the world of astronomy, from Chandrayaan’s launch next year to Team Indus’s lunar mission, we want our films to take the knowledge of this fascinating world to people in the remotest of Indian villages. That is our ultimate goal,” Rakesh concludes.
Here’s the interesting trailer of Rakesh and Sonam Rao’s documentary series, Astroproject.
To contact Rakesh Rao, click here.