Amateur Astronomers are a rare breed in India. This might be due to a variety of reasons. The primary reason is probably the reasonable financial commitment involved in this hobby. Ofcourse, small pockets of enthusiastic amateurs exist. But when compared with countries like the US, the numbers here are much lesser. There aren’t many telescope makers either.
Given this, the first Indian amateur astronomer to discover an Asteroid must be quite a special guy! Vishnu Vardhan Reddy is the one who accomplished this feat and he now has 24 asteroid discoveries to him name! I first met Vishnu on a mailing list. Since then, I had been paining him to give a lecture at our Astro Club. Finally, he was in India for a month and gave a lecture at our Astro Club on Jan 3rd.
Vishnu’s path to these discoveries is pretty fascinating. After getting his masters in Communcations, he worked as a Science journalist for the Asian Age (based in Delhi). He was into amateur astronomy since his school days, thanks to Prof.Devdas in Chennai. Infact, most amateurs in Chennai owe their initiation to this dedicated man who is now 80+ and is still making telescopes! Do read Vishnu’s recollections about his childhood. After learning from Prof.Tom Gehrals that even amateur astronomers could make significant contributions to asteroid hunting, Vishnu took serious interest in finding asteroids. An asteroid is detected by observing its motion wrt background stars. One needs to take periodic photographs of the sky to make out an asteroid. Ofcourse, the larger a telescope you have at your disposal, the better equipped you are. Quality photography equipment is also necessary. Vishnu got a 12″ Meade scope thanks to an unexpected loan from a friend whom he had never met!!
Gregg quickly asked me if I could come up with the money later. I said I don’t have anyone but I can try for sure. He took out his Credit Card and ordered the telescope right away. I was shocked at first. Here was a guy who spent $3,000 on a telescope without even seeing my face!
Mind you, these are atrociously costly toys. Today, the cost of this Meade scope would be ~2 lakhs . But, to his dismay, Vishnu found that a 12″ Meade is not sufficient to make asteroid discoveries on a regular basis! The very purpose of collecting $3000 from various sources seemed lost. However, things fell into place during a visit to the US. He met experienced asteroid hunters and finally found his first asteroid! Do read his rather elaborate account of this discovery.
With $200 in pocket, I took a 3-day bus journey from Michigan to Arizona in the last week of June. The bus went through 7 states arriving in Tucson 10 hours late!
Curious, I asked what they were and he replied, “Dude, you have found 2 asteroids.” Not sure if that’s true, I went and checked the MPchecker again so that they got the numbers right. Yes, they were new and I found them.At last after 3 years of chasing all kinds of things, I finally got not one but 2 asteroids. Too tired to enjoy the new discoveries, I crashed on the bed at 5.30 pm.
The whole thing must have been quite an ordeal!
After this, he switched fields and is now into Professional Astronomy. But, he still tweaks around with amateur scopes, sets up remote observatories and makes quite a lot of asteroid discoveries with them. His latest one was a binary asteroid near the Earth. He told me that this is the first such discovery using amateur equipment. Congrats and BOL to Vishnu for future discoveries!