Physicist Moumita Dutta from the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, was part of the team that put a probe into Mars orbit in 2014. In an interview with Elizabeth Gibney, a senior reporter for Nature based in London, she talks about the lure of optics, the challenge of crafting super-light sensors, and the rise in Indian women entering space science.
Tell me about your work with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
In my childhood I dreamed about space, aliens, the Universe, the stars – particularly the aliens! But I didn’t think I would be involved in space science. I became interested in physics when I saw the magnificent colours coming out of a prism in an experiment at school.
I ended up doing a master’s in applied physics, specialising in optics. Then one morning in 2004 I read in the local newspaper that India was preparing for its first lunar mission, and I thought ‘What a phenomenal thing’. From that moment on I wanted to join the ISRO. A year and a half later, I did, ending up working on two sensors that would fly on the Chandrayaan-1 project [India’s first lunar mission, which launched in 2008 and found evidence of water before losing contact with Earth.]
My base is the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad, mainly working on optical sensors for studying Earth and for planetary missions. For India’s 2018 lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, we will use advanced versions of the sensors flown in the last mission, carrying out a very detailed study of the lunar surface and mineralogical mapping. There will be an orbiter, a lander and a rover, with mounted instruments to carry out experiments on the surface.
Mangalyaan launched just 18 months from its conception, costing a relatively low US$75 million. What challenges did you face in building its sensors?
All the sensors were designed in India: a colour camera, an infrared spectrometer generating a thermal map of the Martian surface and a methane sensor. We had 15 months or so to develop them. The main challenge was to make them very compact, lightweight and low-power, because the mission was to be launched with minimum fuel. We fought for every gram. The sensors were all first of a kind, and to develop them quickly we had to use off-the-shelf — rather than space-qualified — components, then test each under extreme conditions. The team of almost 500 engineers working across the centres on the mission worked day and night.
I feel like people worked from their heart and no one cared about the clock. The mindset was that they were working for our country, and the mission had to be successful. When we received the first signal after the spacecraft was captured into Mars orbit, a wave of joy spread across the country. The project team members became the superstars of India, with people even holding their pictures on placards, like film stars. Eagerness about Indian space research has rocketed. Three years on, the orbiter still transmits data from all the sensors, which we are analysing today.
Is space science in India welcoming women?
In the past few years we have seen a significant increase in the number of women joining Indian space science: right now, they constitute 20% or 25% of ISRO. The organisation is always ready to welcome women. As a government body, we get a minimum of six months’ maternity leave, for example, and women are given equal responsibilities. I feel like it’s not about whether someone is a man or woman, it is all about how they can handle the challenges.
Now, whenever I give a talk and a small girl comes up to me and says, “I want to work for ISRO, I want to be an astronaut,” I feel wonderful. Women scientists of ISRO have also featured in the media, including Vogue India; and when our work is recognised, we represent the contributions of all the women involved. That is the best part of it.
[This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. It first appeared in ‘A View from the Bridge‘, Nature’s books and arts blog.]