G: Grey Tan, Co-founder of tinyMOS
B: Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya, former NASA rocket scientist
G: Here we have Dr. Bidushi who has worked at NASA as a rocket scientist. She worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as well as the Hubble telescope. The Hubble telescope just turned 25 two days ago, so congratulations on your project.
B: Thank you, makes me feel old.
G: Anyway, Dr. Bidushi, could you tell us about what you used to do in NASA as well as what you are doing right now?
B: In NASA I did a variety of things, mostly on software. I did confirming and testing imaging software packages. I did observer support where people actually subscribed to using instruments like the Hubble telescope. You would put in a proposal and a team decides whether you can observe your object or not. And people like that would get trained in how to actually analyse their observations. And I’ve also written software to model the dust rings around the earth. I’ve written software that looks at asteroids, just a whole bunch of stuff over the years.
G: Wow, I didn’t even know that there were dust rings around the earth.
B: You know how comets fly by? They leave debris. Each time they come by, they’re leaving a trail, right? And some of them is gravitationally captured so you have a ring, then you sort of have this cloud. And all of that affects infrared observations.
G: Let’s talk a little bit more about you. I think you worked in NASA for quite a long time, right?
B: I did. Let’s see, I started working on the Hubble in 1989 before it launched. And there I did a grounds systems testing. And the Hubble as you know was mothballed for a couple of years. It was supposed to launch in the ‘86, ‘87 timeframe and the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded. So NASA mothballed everything for a few years to try and figure out exactly what happened with the Challenger. And so basically, the Hubble sat in a clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Centre for a while. And so we had ground systems data we were using to test and make sure the instruments were working properly. And then it launched in 1990, April 24th.
G: That was before I was born.
B: I figured as much. Yeah, so that was my first job after college. And they launched. And a few months after launch, in the verification phase, there was an anomaly found in the mirror. The mirror basically had what we call an aspherical aberration. It’s like astigmatism for a person, so the light was not focusing into a point; it was more of a blur. And for us, that meant job security, because we had to recharacterize all the instruments. And after we characterized the instruments, they were able to do limited science with the system that they had. A few years later, NASA sent up a space shuttle with a bunch of astronauts to put in corrective optics.
G: Like spectacles.
B: Basically spectacles. It’s called a COSTAR (Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement). The instrument was put in front of the actual cameras. It limited the field of view a little bit, but it made a correction. And the Hubble has been returning spectacular images since then. And my job there was to look at the calibration – I was a calibration engineer. Just to make sure when data came down from the instrument, I worked on the spectrograph, it looked like basically what we thought it should look like. All instruments were calibrated on the ground using a known light source and you want to compare that from actually what you’re getting – to get your truth in calibration data. So I did that, and I worked there for three years. The Hubble launched, and a couple of years after that I went up to JPL, and I worked at in cardiographic applications – looking at maps of the earth and putting them together. And there are various projects for the Department of Defense. So, can’t tell you and will have to shoot you if I tell you.
After that I worked in this area called Multi-Image Processing. That was really cool because we verified software imaging processing software for every mission from the old Voyager missions to Cassini to Galileo to the Mars Rovers. And I think one of the most exciting things I did at JPL was that I was on the team that verified the first set of images that came down from the first Mars pathfinder rover. That was in the mid ‘90s. There were these images that we were looking at – the deployed parachute that it was in, and we could see the wheel of the rover, the deflated parachute on the side and the Martian landscape. And I was one of the first people on earth to be actually able to look at that. That was amazing. It’s just a real privilege to be paid to do something like that.
After that I worked on the Galileo spacecraft. Galileo had an antenna on it that never actually opened; it stayed closed. So there was a low-gain antenna for low-data rate and a high gain antenna for high-data rate. And it never opened so we had to upload algorithms to compress the data so the problem with the technology drove the software development. We had to verify all that software.
Those were some of the major missions I worked on. I worked on the Spitzer Space Telescope – which is an infrared telescope and one of the things that I think is really amazing about NASA and astronomy is you’ve got Spitzer, you’ve got the Hubble, you’ve got Chandra, lots of different wavelengths so they look at different objects at different wavelengths that put together composites that are just amazing. It’s kinda like what TinyMOS is going to do, but in multiple wavelengths. You guys are going to take images and stack them, right? And that way you get a much higher quality, better detailed image. NASA has been doing that with different wavelengths, different telescopes for a long time, so you’re following in its footsteps. It’s pretty cool.
G: Well, I don’t think we are anywhere as close as NASA. We just hope people on earth can get a better glimpse of the Milky Way and other celestial objects.
B: See, I think that’s really cool because you’re providing access, like direct access to people. Somebody could look at an object in the sky and they can actually capture their experience with somebody else. And it’s gonna be a much better system than using your smartphone camera. So I think it’s really exciting.
G: Thank you. I think you mentioned a lot of exciting things. If we could just narrow it down to one, what is the one most interesting thing that happened to you when you were at NASA?
B: There are so many interesting things. Let me give you a personal insight of what the life of a rocket scientist is like. In 2003, the Spitzer Space Telescope launched. And I was on the calibration team for one of the cameras. And what we did was to write observing sequences and send those off to be radiated to the spacecraft from one of the deep space antennas where one of the sequences would be performed and we would get the data back. And I was on the team that was writing those sequences and one day this guy emailed me at one o’clock in the morning saying, “Hey, we are about to go look at Uranus in a couple of hours and Uranus isn’t up in the sky right now.” So I don’t know what happened because we checked each other’s work and another team had checked but somehow this command had slipped through. And so there I was, one o’clock in the morning trying to figure out what we can actually observe. So it happens that Neptune was up and we would be able to observe it. But we’ve done that all the time, staying up and observing, but there were wildfires happening at California at the time when we were observing and we were evacuated from our homes because of the wildfires. And we were staying in my sister’s condo – her tiny two-bedroom condo in Santa Monica, where she had an infant babe son, and so my husband, daughters, and I were crammed into this room, and I’m using her WiFi to try to figure out what object can I radiate up to the spacecraft..
G: While the other side was burning..
B: While the other side was burning. “Gosh I hope my house is still okay.” “I wonder if Neptune’s up right now.” It’s just very exciting and people give it their all, because you really are privileged. You are one of the first people on earth to be able to look at something, to learn about something that no one has ever seen before. You know, astronomy is very accessible to the public, and I think that there are a few areas that really excite children when it comes to science. One is astronomy, the other is paleontology. Kids love dinosaurs and they love outer space. And you can’t give people dinosaurs but you can give them your camera so they can access space and I think that’s really cool.
G: It is safe to say that you are very interested in astronomy and science. So maybe if we go back in time somewhat, what inspired you to do all of this?
B: When I was a kid, there were two experiences that really did it for me. I was in 5th grade, 10 years old and we had to write a book report. And I chose to write on Jupiter. And I realize that this thing in the sky was actually a place. And I realize Mars is a place where they think they can land someday. And it was just mindblowing to me that you could actually think of these objects as locations, not just spots in the sky and that got me really excited. I loved Jupiter so much I did my PhD on Jupiter.
“And I realize that this thing in the sky was actually a place”
The other thing was watching us land on Mars in 1976 on TV. So back then you couldn’t record anything, so everyone sat around the TV waiting for that magical moment. On the evening news they showed pictures of Mars. And we got these images down where the sky was blue. And the next day we got the images corrected, saying that the sky is pink on Mars because of the atmosphere composition. And at that moment I realize, “Oh my gosh so people are actually doing stuff to make these images.” I was 10 years old, I hadn’t really thought about the whole process. But the fact was that people were actually involved in making these images for the public and that just got me really excited. So I was hooked on astronomy from grade school.
G: Yeah that’s pretty cool. That realization that these things are actually real, and that it is in space there. When I was in NUS, I went to Malaysia with the Physics department, where we went up to look at stars. I was supposed to do an assignment; I was supposed to do a sky map drawing of the stars of Orion. At the same time we were supposed to image Orion’s Nebula and I was thinking how hard could it be to find these three stars in a line?
B: It’s pretty bright here in Singapore..
G: Yeah, it’s pretty bright here in Singapore, and it is one of the few star constellations that you can recognize easily. So when I went over to Malaysia I was astonished by the amount of stars that we have that we can see with our naked eyes. After my professor helped us find the three stars, we finally managed to image M42, the great Orion Nebula for the first time. That was then when I realize that even though we see these images all the time and think, “Oh this is very advanced stuff and some rocket scientist have to be behind the camera to do it”. And when I removed the camera and looked into the eyepiece, I was astonished that our eyes are so sensitive to light and that we can see these things floating in space through the telescope. That was the moment of discovery for me as well.
B: So it’s accessibility – just thinking that it is out there and you actually can look at it, and have access to that knowledge. It’s just cool stuff, and I get so excited when i talk about it.
G: So at TinyMOS I hope we can give people these experiences, simply by having a small camera that can do all these things and teach you how to do it rather than having learn through universities.
B: Yeah, I think it’ll provide a great service. I think Singapore is in a really good position right now to move into space science. The knowledge is there, the people like you are learning about systems and cameras in college and universities, and as the workforce builds up here, I think there will be more and more people capable of doing these stuff so all you have to do is to get people excited about it. Have them go out and look at the sky themselves. I think that’s all it’s gonna take.
G: We hope we get there. When you were younger and inspired by that Martian landing, what did you wish your camera could do back then?
B: So I knew a little bit about spectroscopy back then. Basically, I knew that we could tell what elements are present by looking at a spectrum. So it would be really cool if I had a camera that could give me a spectral breakdown, like ‘this rock has a lot of iron in it’ and ‘that rock over there has a lot of silicates’. If there was some sort of camera that could go across the point of view and point out different constituents on the Martian landscape, that would have been very cool.
G: Moving on today, what do you hope that your camera can do today? Yours was pretty advanced.
B: The spectroscopy would be cool. And I think that the public doesn’t know much about spectroscopy, but it tells a much richer story than simple images do. Images are inspirational and fantastic and you can learn a lot, but if you can simultaneously get a spectrum of the same area and use that to back up basic information like the star that you are looking at right now has heavy metal in it. Or that there’s a dust cloud near a particular galaxy that you’re looking at, and you can find out what’s in the dust cloud, so that would be really cool.
G: I think we probably can do that with a later iteration with specialized filters. But before we wrap up this interview, could you share with us your secret stargazing spot? On Earth of course.
B: Every year, for the past 20, 25 years since I’ve been married. We would go up to the Sierra mountains in Nevada. And up there you can stay at cabins up to 10,000 feet altitude or over 3,000m. And when you look up in the sky there, you feel like you can touch the stars. The air there is so clean and crisp and the stars are so bright, and it’s just like what you were saying about Orion, you can’t find the Big Dipper. There are just so many stars that you have to point them out. And if it is a moonless night, you can actually be guided and walk by the light of the Milky Way. And I hope everybody, at least once in their lifetimes get a chance to go somewhere like that. When you look at the vastness of the universe, you look at stars, you look at the Milky Way, you realize how minuscule and puny we are on earth; our lifetimes are so short yet we are able to look up and see light from stars that are hitting our eyes that has been travelling for hundred and millions of years, and in some cases from galaxies. It’s just really inspirational. I’m glad you asked that, because I hope everybody gets to find a spot like that.
G: Alright, we have come to the end of the interview. We would really like to thank you for taking the time to share with us your experience.