Going to the far side to explore the universe

12/14/2021 Debra Levey Larson

Written by Debra Levey Larson

Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay
Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay

Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay’s fascination with astronomy came long before he could even pronounce the names of the stars. He likes to point to the fact that his first name in Sanskrit means “seven saints,” which is one of the names for the Big Dipper constellation. Bandyopadhyay earned his Ph.D. in dynamics and control at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2016 and says aerospace engineering brings together his “passion for astronomy and love of building stuff.” 

What sort of “stuff?”

“I created the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope project from scratch and brought the team together for it,” he said. Bandyopadhyay is leading phase two of the NASA mission concept he developed.

Conceptual art of Lunar Crater Radio Telescope on the far side of the moon. Artist credit: Vladimir Vustyansky
Conceptual art of Lunar Crater Radio Telescope on the far side of the moon. Artist credit: Vladimir Vustyansky

A wire mesh will be deployed on the far side of the moon using wall-climbing robots in a 1- to 3-mile wide (3 to 5 km) crater to form about a half-mile wide (1 km) parabolic reflector – making the LCRT the largest filled-aperture radio telescope in the solar system.

According to Bandyopadhyay, being positioned on the far side of the moon will open a new window for humanity’s exploration of the universe.

“While getting my undergraduate degree at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, I was able to do research at the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope,” he said. “One problem in astronomy that immediately comes up is that we can’t see the universe at 10 meters or longer because the ionosphere blocks those wavelengths. That puts a hard limit on what we can see into the universe.”

He said he locked the problem away in his brain and left it there while finishing his Ph.D. in aerospace. Then, while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a robotic technologist, he got the idea to build a telescope on the moon.

“I would use the robots I’d been working with and open up that region of the universe that no one has been able to see to date,” he said.

When the lunar telescope will be built is at least a decade away. Recently, NASA released its survey for astrophysics saying in the 2030s there will be a $1.5 billion mission to study the science he and his team are trying to answer. The news gave Bandyopadhyay hope and a firm date to work toward.

“I now know how long I have to get all of the technology to build that kilometer-scale telescope so we can compete for that next decade mission funding,” he said.

Bandyopadhyay said he loves the combination of math, science, and engineering. His specialization is multi-agent guidance, navigation, and control.

“You know, UIUC is the Mecca of controls,” he said. “Everyone related to controls has either studied here, taught here, or had some other association with UIUC. So, what I learned in controls in the aerospace department, combined with the Coordinated Science Laboratory gave me the best experience—the rigor and the theory. I credit my success to UIUC. The education I got here is mind-blowing.”

He first became aware of UIUC when a friend of his, who was a few years ahead of him at IIT Bombay, went to Illinois to study with Professor Soon-Jo Chung—who Bandyopadhyay would also go on to study under.

As a young student, Bandyopadhyay said he excelled in math because it was about solving problems, rather than reciting facts and dates from a textbook.

Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay hiking at Crater Lake National Park
Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay hiking at Crater Lake National Park

“The education system in India emphasizes rote learning, which I am terrible at,” he said. “I have always lived in the world of ideas—deriving things from first principles, but I’m terrible at remembering something that was written in a textbook. I would just say, why memorize it? It’s there. I can just look it up.”

“Consequently, I was always within the top 10 percent, but I could never get the perfect grade, except in math and sciences where no one wants you to reproduce anything.”

Bandyopadhyay won a Gold Medal in the International Competition for Schools in mathematics by the University of New South Wales in Australia in 2000 when he was 13 years old. In 2004, he won the gold medal for India at the 9th International Astronomy Olympiad held in Ukraine—where he met his wife, who was also a participant.

“We both worked on the satellite Pratham when we were at IIT Bombay,” he said. “She did her Ph.D. in bioengineering at Stanford. I didn’t have a lot of money in grad school, so to go and see her at Stanford, I would take a bus to Chicago, take the train to the airport, take the cheapest possible flight to San Francisco, and then take the train down to Stanford. And she would do it all in the other direction, about once a month.

“Life can't take a backseat. You have to find a way, even while you’re in grad school.”

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This story was published December 14, 2021.