Early teen Nikhil Jha (14) is the latest to join the country’s exclusive club of asteroid hunters. This class X student of Mount Abu Public School, Delhi was among 17 of 1,000 participants countrywide to spot an asteroid in the online All India Asteroid Search Campaign (AIASC) held in July-August 2019, the results of which were declared last month (May).
Started in 2010 by Space Technology & Education Pvt. Ltd (aka Space India) — an NGO committed to popularising astronomy and space sciences in association with the International Astronomical Search Collaboration led by Dr. Patrick Miller of Hardin Simmons University, USA — the All India Asteroid Search Campaign is a unique real-time competitive research experience for school students and amateur astronomers in India.
In AIASC 2019, participants were given access to real-time data from the Pan Starrs Telescope, sited in Hawaii, USA, and were required to search for asteroids in the solar system’s Main Belt Asteroid — between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars — over a span of four weeks using advanced data analysis and specially designed software. At the end of the prescribed four-week time period, Nikhil’s claim of having discovered a new asteroid was verified as one of 13 asteroid discovered by 17 participants.
The only child of software engineer Anil Kumar Jha and homemaker Runa, Nikhil acknowledges institutional support. “I attribute this achievement to my school’s astronomy club mentor Aryan Mishra. I have requested AIASC to name the asteroid MAPNIK using the MAP acronym to represent my school followed by the first three letters of my name,” he says.
Nikhil’s interest in astronomy was ignited by his science teacher K.S. Devina when he was in class v. “Stargazing became a habit since I started attending the first few classes on science and space. But my formal introduction to astronomy took place three years later when I enrolled in my school’s astronomy club,” he says.
Inspired by the Golden Globe award-winning English film The Martian, Nikhil aspires to qualify as an astronaut after completing his Plus Two. “I am waiting for India to become Covid-free so that I can teach astronomy to underprivileged children,” says this asteroids hunter with sky-high ambitions.
Akhila Damodaran (Bangalore)