As Perseverance finds place in Mars, astronomers battle bleak job prospects
In India, several qualified astronomers are taking to teaching in private engineering colleges or jobs in data mining and machine learning, due to lack of opportunities.
Mars, the Red Planet, has always had an inexplicable allure. Therefore, it was a defining moment for NASA when its robotic rover “Perseverance” landed on the floor of the Jezero crater on the Martian surface at 3.55 p.m. in the US on February 18, 2021, which is 2.25 a.m. on February 19 in India.
“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” Swati Mohan of NASA announced breathlessly into the microphone in the Mission Control Centre (MCC) at the Jet Propulsion Centre (JPL) at Pasadena, California. In no time, NASA engineers and scientists at the MCC shot up from their seats, pumped their fists in the air and clapped to celebrate the occasion.
In India too, television channels and digital media celebrated the development for Dr Swati Mohan, the operations lead is an Indian-American engineer in the rover Perseverance’s landing team. She led the development of attitude control and the landing system of Perseverance.
The rover will collect samples of the Martian soil. An outstanding feature of the mission is that NASA will later attempt to bring back to the Earth these samples of the Martian soil and small rocks. An important goal of the mission is that Perseverance will search for ancient microbial life on Mars. Importantly, NASA will fly a helicopter drone called Ingenuity in the Martian atmosphere, which will be mankind’s first powered flight on another planet. The helicopter will emerge from the one-tonne rover and whirr about.
The mission is named Mars2020 because the launch of the robotic rover took place on July 30, 2020, from Cape Canaveral space Force Station in Florida State, USA. The minimum distance from Earth to Mars is 54.6 million km.
Dr B.R. Guruprasad, former scientist, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and a noted science communicator, said, “This is a good beginning towards the next phase of the exploration of Mars, which will be the sample return mission. In turn, the sample return mission from Mars will pave the way for the human exploration of Mars.”
Interestingly for India, one of the instruments aboard Perseverance will rely on what is called Raman spectroscopy; to find the elemental distribution of the Martian rocks. C.V. Raman was given the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930 “for his work on the scattering of light and for the discovery of the effect named after him.”
Mars has, for long, fascinated professional astronomers. Countries such as the US, Russia, India, China, the United Arab Emirates, and the European space agency have sent spacecrafts to Mars. The US has, so far, sent five rovers to Mars and they include the Sojourner in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity in 2004, Curiosity in 2012 and now Perseverance. India achieved a rare distinction of inserting its spacecraft in the Martian orbit in its maiden attempt itself on September 24, 2014. The mission’s success displayed that ISRO has an assured access to space and that it can undertake deep space missions to Mars and the Moon.
But why is Mars, much like the Moon, a preferred destination for exploration? According to Dr Guruprasad, of all the planets in the solar system, Mars shares several similarities with the Earth. In addition to being the nearest planet to the Earth, after Venus, both Mars and the Earth have solid surfaces. Both have a day, which is roughly about 24 hours. Both have an atmosphere but the Red Planet’s atmosphere is very thin. A year on the Earth lasts 365 days while it is 687 days on Mars. The Earth’s axis is tilted from the vertical at an angle of 23.5 degrees. It is 25 degrees for the Red Planet. Both the planets have seasons. “More than anything else”, Dr Guruprasad, who has extensive knowledge on the space programmes of various countries, said, “Mars has water on its surface. It is not liquid water but water vapour and ice or snow.” He added, “This excites scientists because if there is water below the surface of Mars, there may be micro-organisms there.”
While the Moon and Mars are celebrated in poems -- including those for children -- and there are romantic notions of astronomers looking at the Moon, Mars, Venus or Neptune and stars in the Milky Way through ground-based and space telescopes, life has become a hard grind for astronomers now. Jobs for professional astronomers are hard to come by and career prospects are bleak for them. After a young astronomer completes his PhD and does three post-doctoral contractual assignments -- each lasting about three years anywhere in the world - there is no guarantee that he will find a permanent job as an astronomer. Besides, the number of permanent jobs available to them in 2021, is the same as it was 20 years ago.
The system that prevails in the field of astronomy is that after a person obtains a PhD in the discipline, he cannot directly go for a permanent job. He has to do two or three post-doctoral contracts or assignments. Each post-doctoral assignment will entail work for two years and a half to three years. In most cases, these three post-doctoral assignments are done in different countries such as France, the US, Italy, South Korea, England or India. Thereby, most of these young astronomers remain single. What is galling even more is that the chances of a person getting a permanent position as an astronomer after he does his PhD in the subject and completes three post-doctoral contracts/assignments are bleak. In India, therefore, these highly qualified astronomers are taking to teaching in private engineering colleges or jobs in data mining and machine learning.
Take for instance the case of 30-year old Srivatsan Sridhar from Chennai. He is a talented young man, who represented Loyola College, Chennai, in football. He is a keyboard player and a mimicry artist. Astronomy fascinated him and he wanted to take up astronomy as his calling. He, therefore, studied B.Sc. (Physics) at Loyola College from 2008 to 2011. He earned his Masters (2011-2012) in astronomy from the University of Sussex, England. He worked hard from 2013 to 2017 to earn his PhD in astrophysics from the Observatory of Nice, the University of Nice - Sophia Antipolis, France. Then, Srivatsan did his post-doctoral contract at Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI) at Yuseong, Daejeon, South Korea, from 2017 to 2020. He specialised in cosmology in all these places. He returned to India in 2020. With jobs hard to come by in his chosen field, he switched over to data science. He is now with a financial company called PayU in India, where he is doing data mining and machine learning. The advantage of working in astronomy is that it entails a lot of computer programming and statistics. Using data, astronomers do programming and a lot of analysis. This enables astronomers to get jobs in other fields.
For those who specialize in the field of astronomy or astrophysics, there are only three options to choose a career: (1) to stay in the field; (2) to teach physics or computer science; or (3) switch over to data science or data mining and machine-learning.
Dr Srivatsan said: “From 2008 to 2020, I was in the field but I did not get a permanent position. So I had to leave the field because my family circumstances demanded it. I got married in 2017 and I had a child.” Others have exited the field as well. For instance, a friend of his did his PhD in physics from the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCCA), Pune. His doctoral thesis took him seven years and a half. He then completed his post-doctoral contract in computational astrophysics from KASI in South Korea. The friend got married and a daughter was born. He did not get a permanent job as an astronomer. According to Srivatsan, his friend is now teaching computer science in a private engineering college in Visakhapatnam.
While obtaining a PhD in astronomy takes about seven years in India, it can be done in three years to four years abroad. If a person is not able to finish his PhD within four years abroad, he will be given more time. But his stipend will be cut off.
Another friend of Dr Srivatsan, who (friend) is from Italy, is doing his fourth post-doctoral contract now. He has also done about 20 post-doctoral papers. But he is yet to get a permanent job in the field.
“Most people, who continue in the field, are single. Raising a family has limited options because you have to roam around for your post-doctoral contracts. So many leave the field”, Dr Srivatsan said.
This was not the situation that prevailed 20 years ago because a lot of permanent jobs were available then, those familiar with the field said. It is not so now. Earlier, the intake for PhDs equalled the jobs available. The intake for PhDs now is five to six times more than the jobs available. As the number of jobs available in astronomy is the same as it was 20 years ago, the concept of doing post-doctoral contracts came in to provide temporary jobs, Dr Srivatsan said. But it made aspiring astronomers wander from country to country.
While the stipend offered in India during a post-doctoral contract is about Rs.50,000 a month, it was more substantial abroad.
In India, three centres noted for their work in astronomy are situated in Bengaluru. They are the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), which is an autonomous research centre, coming under the Department of Science and Technology; Raman Research Institute, and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). They offer PhDs Other notable centres are IUCCA, Pune, and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai. Some Universities have their Departments of Astrophysics.
Exo-planets, solar astrophysics, stars (The Milky Way) etc.. come under astrophysics. Cosmology is studying everything that lies outside the Milky Way. Cosmology is also called extra-galactic astronomy. The latest focus of research is gravitational waves. When the binary stars collide with each other, they send out ripples in space-time. Extremely sophisticated instruments are needed to detect these cosmic gravitational waves. So two Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO), with detectors, have been set up in the US. They are located at Hanford site, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana. They were funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the US. In 2017, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry C. Barish for their “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.”
LIGO-India will be part of the international network of gravitational-wave observatories. LIGO-India project will be built by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Department of Science and Technology and the LIGO Laboratory in the US, along with its international partners. LIGO-India detector will come up at Hingoli, Maharashtra. The NSF, USA, will play an important role in this. According to the LIGO-India website, the detector will be “intrinsically a multi-disciplinary mega-science project that requires expertise from a variety of fields (e.g., lasers, vacuum, optics, computers etc., and of course, physics) and provides cutting-edge research opportunities.”
In Europe, the Virgo interferometer for detecting gravitational waves has been built near Pisa, Italy. There are different kinds of telescopes but they mainly come under two categories called ground-based telescopes and space telescopes. It is launch vehicles that put space telescopes in orbit. Besides, there are radio telescopes, optical telescopes, and those in X-ray, ultra-violet and near infra-red wavelengths. “The reason for this is that in these different wavelengths, you can detect various objects such as stars, planets and galaxies”, said Dr Srivatsan.
The advantage that lies with space telescopes that since they are installed above the atmosphere, there is no pollution there. Celestial objects at great distances can be observed with them but they are expensive to install. These telescopes revolve around the Earth. Hubble telescope is a space telescope. The advantage that lies with ground-based telescopes is that the diameter of their mirrors can be 20 times to 30 times larger than their counterparts in space.