Space Talks: Discovering Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) in Undergraduate Years
Interview with the co-discoverer of Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) 2019 PH-2 and 25 others, Kunal Deshmukh. He is currently a third-year undergraduate at IIT Bombay.
Ever looked at the night sky and wondered about numerous dots looking back at you? If the answer is yes, you are interested in astronomy. Many of us are fascinated by this hobby. Some of us watch the night sky only on special events such as Super Moon, while some watch it every night. A few enthusiasts observe the sky using amateur telescopes while tiny number make it a profession. Today, I would like to share the story of a third-year undergraduate student of IIT Bombay, Kunal Deshmukh, who is one of that small group of professional astronomers. He co-discovered his first Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA), 2019 PH-3 in August 2019 while working with GROWTH India and Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), Caltech. Since then he has discovered 25 more NEAs, and the number is ever increasing. Let us read about his journey in his own words for today's Space Talks.
What has been your journey up till joining IIT?
I’ve always been a math enthusiast, since as long as I can remember. No other subject back in school demanded one to think, and that was what stood out about math. My school life was pretty standard - go to school, do homework, play football, watch tv and sleep. It was in 8th grade when, like many of my IIT friends, I joined an IIT foundation class. I had no idea what an IIT was at the time, and the foundation course was particularly famous for advanced mathematics. I was hooked within weeks, and in 9th grade, I cleared RMO and appeared for INMO. Did the same in 10th grade too. That’s when the math fairy tale had to end, and the next two years were all about IIT. I guess olympiad math is one hobby that I lost back then. The JEE years were just as one would expect them to be, although I did stay in touch with football to keep my mind fresh.
How you got interested in Astronomy?
I hail from Pune, the place where the famous astrophysicist Dr Jayant Narlikar founded IUCAA in 1988. Over the years, IUCAA has played an instrumental role in the popularisation of science in general and astronomy in particular in the city of Pune, especially among school students. I happened to attend a week-long summer school at IUCAA after my 7th grade, where I was formally introduced to astronomy as a science for the very first time. I fell in love with it, and there was no going back.
Of course, it was just about the tip of the iceberg back then. I used to attend lectures and stargazing sessions at IUCAA in my school days. Later I bought an amateur telescope to practice my hobby at home, all by myself. The JEE days put an extended break to it. Thanks to Krittika, the astronomy club of IIT Bombay, I was able to revive it. I joined the club formally as a convenor in my 2nd year and became manager in my 3rd year. It was perhaps the best platform for me to stay in touch with my hobby. Late into my 2nd year, I joined Prof. Bhalerao from the Department of Physics to work on the GROWTH India project. That was my first step in pursuing astronomy professionally, and I’ve been taking further steps ever since.
What did discovering an Asteroid entail? Can you describe the process in brief?
The GROWTH collaboration, led by Caltech, has three main objectives, one of which is hunting Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs). GROWTH India did not have an NEA component until June, when Prof. Bhalerao put me in touch with Dr Bolin, a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech, to learn about NEAs and start follow-up observations with our telescope. Dr Bolin uses the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) in his search for NEAs and trained me to scan ZTF data for asteroids.
The process is simple yet thorough. NEAs happen to move faster, as seen in the sky because of being much nearer to the earth as compared to stars in the background. As a result, these asteroids appear as streaks instead of points in typical telescope exposures. However, there are many other sources of streaked features in images. ZTF uses a pipeline to detect all the streaks in a picture, and the scanner is supposed to go through them and find the real ones.
How did it feel to discover the asteroid?
Honestly, I didn’t know how to feel initially. I recall an email thread with Prof. Bhalerao and a few people from Caltech congratulating me for it, and that’s when I knew it was something to be very very happy about. ZTF put up a congratulatory tweet. Prof. Bhalerao even put up a Facebook post about it and made me famous. It was a bunch of firsts for me.
I’ve co-discovered 25 more after that, and I’m still counting. But the first one is the only one that I remember by its name.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve continued my work on NEAs, along with automation of the GROWTH-India telescope. I’m currently learning the higher levels of asteroid discovery, working on becoming a regular Measurer, along with being an Observer. I’m also working towards my ultimate goal of discovering NEAs independently, and aim to get my first one very soon.
A takeaway for other students interested in Astronomy and Astrophysics.
To be completely honest, I feel I have been very lucky so far, getting just the right opportunities at just the right time. Being a student from a non-Physics department, I’ve always had a feeling of a disadvantage compared to my peers from the Physics department. However, I’ve never experienced any of it so far, thanks to the unique project culture of IITB and Prof. Bhalerao.
For students interested in Astronomy and Astrophysics, a decent background in amateur or general astronomy and the willingness to work hard are often enough to start working on a project. The number of telescopes around the world is ever-rising, and so is the amount of data. We have entered the multi-messenger astronomy era, and there’s practically no limit on the number of things available to study. India is also making considerable advancements in the field and has some brilliant astronomers spread over various institutes all over the country.
That being said, there probably hasn’t been a time with more opportunities in astronomy than this, and the best part is you can start working on several things even in your undergraduate years. The observable universe is too damn big, we can watch and watch, but it’s never going to be enough!
A big thanks to Kunal to share his strory with our fellow space nerds.