2021 Oct 8
The inky blackness of space. What’s out there? Planets, stars, black holes and perhaps intergalactic alien civilisations? Well, maybe not the last one, but you get the idea. There’s much we don’t know yet, but we have also discovered multiple planets, nebulas and even galaxies. That’s all thanks to science and the scientists who push these boundaries daily. Among this army of scientists, there are a few lions and lionesses that prowl the desolate and beautiful frontier known as space. So let’s take a look at these pioneers who carry the name of our nation up into the stars.
Now, brace yourself for a torrent of science! Infrared photonics is the practical application of electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength between 2 and approximately 20 micrometres. You did not understand that? Well frankly, neither did I. However when it comes to the field of astronomy and space exploration in general, infrared photonics is indeed an important subject. This is because various space telescopes use this technology in order to probe distant worlds and their properties. And as such, is vital in looking for life in the universe outside the earth.
Pioneering this field of study is Sri Lanka’s own Dr. Sarath Gunapala. Hailing from Yatiyantota, Dr. Sarath is by far Sri Lanka’s most popular scientific personality, with him being featured in various television programmes for quite some time. Dr. Sarath is currently a Fellow at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, an institution renowned for its work in most of Earth’s space exploration projects like the first Mecury mission (1974) and more recently, the first mission into the atmosphere of Saturn (2017). Dr. Sarath has quite an illustrious career with the organisation and has 22 patents to his name, including his very own infrared technology. He has been recognised with a number of awards and has over 300 publications.
Ever heard of the Mars Perseverance Rover? Well, our next scientific mind had to persevere through a lot to get to where she is now. Melony Mahaarachchi’s story is nothing but inspiring. After missing out on medical school, Melony settled down for a little while and raised a family. But then, realising that she did not want to raise her children in a stigmatised society, she moved to America where she started an Aerospace Engineering degree. This led her to SpaceX, and after a few years, she found herself at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where she worked on the Mars Rover’s internal electrical circuit. Melony mentions that the aerospace industry was dominated by men during her time and that she had to overcome various obstacles as a woman, which is quite important since her story is about overcoming her obstacles and reaching for the stars – in this case quite literally!
The Perseverance Rover, also known as Percy, was launched in 2020 with the goal of seeking out ancient life on Mars and collecting rock samples. It landed on February 2021 and has been roaming the red planet ever since. Melony’s work with the Rover has been essential for its operation and keeps it running for us here on Earth to learn more about Mars and its history.
Back in 2016, Albert Einstein was proven right. A team working on the LIGO telescope discovered the long theorised but not yet proven gravitational waves. This discovery is extremely important in the context of the larger universe. These gravitational waves will help scientists learn more about black holes, pulsars and the universe as a whole. And among that team, Dr. Nipuni Palliyaguru stands out.
Dr. Nipuni credits the teachers of her university and school for inspiring her to follow her dreams. After going through the local education system, Dr. Nipuni went to the University of West Virginia for her PHD where she found her love for Pulsar Timing Arrays (PTAs). This led her to LIGO where she’d work and eventually prove Einstein’s theory right. Dr. Nipuni is extremely passionate about gravitational waves and was involved with the Arecibo Observatory which was sadly decommissioned last year. Dr. Nipuni states that perseverance and grit play a massive role in one’s attitude and that it matters to move on and overcome one’s obstacles.
These Lankan lions and lionesses have reached beyond the stars and gone into unknown territory. They are pioneers and front runners of an astronomical revolution that lies on Sri Lanka’s doorstep. There is a massive community of Sri Lankan astronomy enthusiasts, and we even managed to send our very own satellite into space! Sri Lanka has begun its foray into astronomy. The question is, how far will we go?