Scientific Reminiscences

Journey through the birth, growth and maturity of X-ray astronomy

Prahlad Chandra Agrawal


Abstract In this biographical account, I recall my scientific journey that began in 1961 when I joined as a Physics Trainee in the BARC Training School and after one year course was admitted in TIFR as a Research Associate. During 1962–1967, I worked on determination of the He3 /He4 ratio in cosmic rays using a gas Cerenkov counter and also used a scintillation + solid Cerenkov detector to measure flux of protons and helium nuclei in primary cosmic rays. I also developed a large area scintillation-Cerenkov detector with a spark chamber between them for measuring charge composition of primary cosmic rays. I joined the X-ray astronomy programme in 1967 initiated by Prof. B. V. Sreekantan and played a leading role in developing a balloon borne hard X-ray instrument for studying time variability and energy spectra of cosmic X-ray sources. We carried out a series of balloon experiments and studied temporal intensity variation and energy spectra of X-ray objects like Sco X-1, Cyg X-1, etc. Results on rapid intensity changes and spectra appeared in a series of publications based on which I obtained a Ph.D. degree in 1972. Immediately afterwards, I joined Prof. Gordon Garmire at Caltech as a Research Fellow (a post-doctoral position) to work with him on the low energy component of HEAO A-2 experiment. The instrument was developed and successfully realised. Working on this satellite experiment was a thrilling experience which exposed me to the technical complexities of space instruments. The HEAO-1 satellite was launched in 1978. During 1978–1979, Guenter Riegler and I, working at JPL, reported detection of intense soft X-rays from several classes of extragalactic and Galactic objects like new BL Lacs, a new AM Her binary, coronal X-rays from active stars, etc. After returning to TIFR, I developed a rocket experiment with K. P. Singh to map the spatial and spectral distribution of the Soft Diffuse X-ray Background. At the same time, I also designed 15 cm deep Xenon filled Proportional Counters (XPCs) of ∼ 2500 cm2 area for balloon experiments which were done during 1983–1990 and produced new results on several X-ray binaries. During this period I also developed a proportional counter (PC) based satellite instrument and submitted a proposal jointly with the astronomy group at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) for an Indian X-ray Astronomy Experiment (IXAE). After success of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the IXAE instrument was included on the top deck of the IRS-P3 satellite that was launched in March 1996. Despite the severe limitation of a polar orbit, the IXAE observed a good number of X-ray binaries and produced interesting results, with the most notable being quasi-regular bursts from a new transient, GRS 1915+105, which turned out to be an enigmatic black hole source. Following success of the IXAE, a proposal for an ambitious multiwavelength astronomy satellite, named ASTROSAT, with broad spectral coverage in the optical, NUV, FUV, soft X-ray and hard X-ray by a suite of instruments, was submitted to ISRO and finally approved by the Govt. of India in 2004. Over the next 10 years, the development and fabrication of the five ASTROSAT instruments were accomplished and a PSLV launch on Sept. 28, 2015 placed ASTROSAT in a 650 km circular orbit with 6 degree inclination. The ASTROSAT instruments have been performing well for ∼4 years and have observed more than 500 cosmic sources. Results from ASTROSAT have appeared in a large number of journal publications. Successful realization and performance of ASTROSAT marks culmination of my research career. I formally retired as a Senior Professor from TIFR on 2006 April 30 on attaining the age of superannuation. However by agreement with TIFR, ISRO designated me ‘ISRO Chair Professor’, which was later renamed as ISRO Satish Dhawan Professor, and asked me to continue to lead ASTROSAT as PI. At the end of my tenure as ISRO Professor on 2011 April 30, I relinquished the PI position. I am at present affiliated with the MU-DAE Centre of Excellence for Basic Sciences, Mumbai University Campus at Mumbai as an Emeritus Professor.


Keywords TIFR — X-ray Astronomy by balloons — rockets and satellites — Indian Astronomy Satellite ASTROSAT

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