Keralite astronomer in Nasa team that found rare cloud

Source : TOI/Laxmi Ajai Prasanna

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: This young Indian astronomer has recently identified a curiously dense galactic cloud that defies the existing rules of star formation, along with two others of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. An alumnus of Government Women's College here,Thushara Pillai has set her eyes on the next big challenge of unraveling the mysterious cloud at the centre of Milky Way that holds the key to formation of stars.

Thushara pursues research with her husband JensKauffmann, an equally enthusiastic astronomer and a key team member, at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena that operates Nasa's Jet Propulsion Lab. She had discovered the dense cloud, named G0.253+0.016, with Kauffman and Qizhou Zhang of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The cloud has baffled researchers as it defies the theory that dense clouds give birth to a number of stars. Though G0.253+0.016 is 25 times denser that Orion Nebula, which has resulted in the birth of several stars, its star formation rate is 45 times lower than the latter.

"With the G0.253 study, we have managed to get just a snap shot. But we have been successful in observing half a dozen other clouds in the galactic centre using a collection of several telescopes such as two large sub millimetre array (SMA) and combined array for research in millimetre-wave astronomy (CARMA)," Thushara said in an e-mail interview.

The team is set to continue further research this year in Chile's Atacama desert, using the Atacama large millimetre array (ALMA), the largest and most advanced millimetre telescope in the world.

Thushara is the daughter of P Gopalakrishna Pillai and late K S Shyamala Kumari of Pattom here.

After completing BSc in Physics from Women's College, she had joined IIT Madras to pursue MSc Physics. She had taken her PhD in astronomy from the Max Planck Institute of Radioastronomy in Germany.

On her work, she says, "It's challenging as the work involves long travel to remote parts of the world, working under physically stressful conditions (high altitude, a few 1,000 km, where it is often cold, dry, and not much oxygen, observing the sky through the night for several days), frequently giving talks, writing research grants etc. But I wouldn't want to trade it with any other job In fact, I often joke with my husband that we get to do what we love and get paid for it."

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