Citizen science: Lessons from the Vikram episode

Chandrayaan-2, Isro, moon mission, Vikram lander
All major milestones of the Chandrayaan-2 mission such as the launch, orbit raising manoeuvres, lunar orbit injection and orbiter-lander separation among others were telecast live and attracted millions of viewers across the country. Photo: PTI

The recent discovery of the site where Vikram Lander – a key segment of the Chandrayan-2 mission of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – had hard-landed, by a Chennai-based software engineer has brought into focus an emerging trend of ‘citizen science’.

The availability of high-speed communication, digital tools and specialised software and growing interest for science among enthusiasts is giving rise to this trend globally and in India as well. Given the fact that ISRO did not even acknowledge the contribution of the Chennai engineer, it is important to explore if Indian scientific institutions are ready for citizen science.

A euphoric build-up

The lunar orbiter-cum-lander mission evoked a great deal of interest among Indian public. All major milestones of the Chandrayaan-2 mission such as the launch, orbit raising manoeuvres, lunar orbit injection and orbiter-lander separation among others were telecast live and attracted millions of viewers across the country. The space agency too engaged with people via social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.


For the first time, a launch viewing gallery was opened for public viewing of rocket launches from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota. Television discussions focused on every minute detail of the mission including the calling off of the mission at the end of the countdown, its rescheduling and the final launch.

Also read: India may attempt soft landing on Moon next Nov with Chandrayaan-3

The finale of this lunar euphoria was the planned soft landing of Vikram with rover Pragyan in its belly on the lunar surface on the night of September 7. The soft landing, however, could not happen and Vikram crash-landed on the lunar surface, though ISRO claimed success of the orbiter and fulfilment of several other goals of the landing mission. Initially, it also maintained that communication contact with Vikram had been lost, fuelling speculation that contact could be re-established but no images of the crash-landing site were released. There was a lot of anxiety among space enthusiasts as to what exactly might have happened to Vikram.

Only in the last week of November, the government informed the Parliament, in reply to a question, that Vikram had hard-landed about 500 meters away from the designated landing site. On December 2, NASA announced that it had found Vikram, based on a tip off given by an Indian citizen, Shanmuga Subramanian, who had contacted the team that operates three high resolution cameras on its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

Prospects of citizen science

NASA had released on September 26 a mosaic of images of the planned landing area of Vikram. Subramanian downloaded these images and compared them to sequences of images released earlier. He then contacted the LRO office with an identification of debris. He also contacted ISRO with the same information. After receiving the tip, the LRO team confirmed the identification by comparing before and after images. This makes Subramanian a citizen scientist. He used publicly available data (images from LRO) and digital tools to analyse the image and made a discovery which was confirmed by NASA.

“I think citizen-scientist Shanmuga Subramanian’s discovery can serve as an eye opener for Indian institutions. We have a lot of untapped potential of science and engineering trained manpower which is desperately waiting for opportunity. Free access to NASA data gave him the opportunity to make a discovery. Others can do similar wonders if ISRO and other Indian astronomy institutions begin promoting Citizen Science Research (CSR),” said Dr Ananda Hota, a Mumbai-based astronomer who leads the #RADatHomeIndia, which is the only Indian citizen science research project in astronomy.

Also read: Those terrifying few minutes at ISRO during Chandrayaan-2 descent

‘RAD at Home’ is a nationwide inter-university citizen science collaboratory, which any current or past university students can join. The group currently has students as well as professional engineers, teachers, journalists and even railway clerks as members. “Any university degree holder from any part of India is welcome, as long as he or she has passion for astronomy,” explained Hota while speaking to The Federal.

“We are actually involving any Indian with any background to explore multi-wavelength (ultraviolet, optical and infrared radio) sky beyond constellations, as large as clusters of galaxies and as small as possible into the radio jet launching out of accretion discs around black holes, using data from GMRT radio telescope in Pune and other freely accessible databases of astrophysics,” Hota said. “Our achievements include discovering many episodic radio galaxies with old relativistic magnetised plasma,” he added

Citizen scientists from the group attend scientific conferences of the Astronomical Society of India and share their findings. Some citizen scientists have gone on to pursue fulltime careers in astronomy, indicating that this citizen science project is also developing professional scientific talent.

Catching on across fields

The trend is also picking up in other areas of science such as ecology and environment where citizens across the country are contributing data using smartphones and simple software. This data is then used by scientists to come up with new findings and trends. This format is particularly useful in projects like bird count, tracking monsoon, monitoring shorelines, and analysing human-animal conflicts. About 30 such citizen science projects are currently operational in India, involving thousands of citizen scientists.

It is significant that most of these projects have been initiated by scientists or scientific institutions and citizen scientists are contributing to collection of ecological data via digital and other tools. In the environment sector, citizen science is also perhaps responding to greater need for scientific and accountable environmental regulatory regime. Citizens also want to participate environmental monitoring.

Also read: Excitement, jitters and frenzy as Chandrayaan-2 readies for touch down

“What is needed is more conceptual engagement and structuring of projects to ensure additional benefits,” pointed out a study on citizen science conducted by the DST Centre for Policy Research at Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.

Besides analysing publicly available scientific data – as Shanmugam did – or contributing data for projects as being done under the ecology-related projects, citizen science can go a long way in contributing to science education and public understanding of science. It is time ISRO and other scientific agencies realise this.

(The author is a Delhi-based journalist and author.)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)