Indian staff from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) celebrate after the Mars Orbiter Spacecraft (MoM) successfully entered the Mars orbit at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore in 2014. (Photo by: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)

by Lauren Codling

A LEADING female scientist at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has said working to solve the everyday problems of the people of her country is what drives her.

Moumita Dutta, 40, is one of India’s top space scientists and was part of the team that worked on the acclaimed Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) which was launched in 2013.

Dutta, who has worked with ISRO for 12 years, was a project manager on the mission and was responsible for the development of the optical system.

“The basic purpose [of working for ISRO] is solving tomorrow’s problem,” Dutta told Eastern Eye.

“Whenever I think what I am doing will benefit people, it is a great motivation for me.”

Dutta was in London recently to discuss her work at the city’s Science Museum as part of its Illuminating India event. The talk, which took place at the end of last month, enlightened audiences on how the space programme sent a probe, also known as Mangalyaan, across the solar system to Mars.

Moumita Dutta speaking with Maggie-Aderin Pocock at the Illuminating India event last month © Science Museum Group

Announced in 2012, the mission made headlines for its total expense of approximately $73 million (£54.54m) – similar missions undertaken by other countries had cost over $500m (£374m).

At the time, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi said it was less expensive than the space-epic film Gravity, which was estimated to cost around $100m (£74.71m).

Mangalyaan was a hugely successful mission and catapulted ISRO into the international spotlight. India is the only nation to have succeeded in its first attempt at reaching Mars.

“The last few years, we have lots of recognition worldwide particularly after the Mars mission,” Dutta said. “So many countries are now coming to launch their satellites from ISRO – it is a big achievement. The great aspect is there are interactions and exchanges of knowledge.”

Dutta continues to work on other various earth observing and interplanetary missions.

“ISRO has many centres all over the country, so in our centre [in Ahmedabad], we are making optical sensors or space cameras, microwave and communication sensors which we call payloads, which are flying in satellites,” she explained. “Also, we are working on scientific applications of the data sent by the payloads.”

These cameras can monitor the weather and the ocean, which can benefit the country in many ways.

Not only can the sensors help detect when a cyclone is about to hit, it can also aid fishermen when they are looking for locations to cast their nets.

“We can monitor the ocean with our cameras, so we can give information to fishermen about weather,” Dutta said. “[This means] we can also tell them about the areas which are rich in fish in the ocean.

“There are many areas in general which [we] are helping develop a solution to the day to day problems of society.”

A father and son look at a scale model of India’s Mars Orbiter spacecraft at the Nehru Planetarium. (Photo by: MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

To a question about her progress as a woman in her career, Dutta said ISRO was a “comfortable” working environment for women.

“We are entrusted with full responsibility, just like the men who work there,” she said. “It has been fantastic working as a woman in ISRO.”

Statistics released by UNESCO this year show that the worldwide average for women working in science is less than 30 per cent.

“All over the world, glass ceilings exist, but there are various reasons for that,” Dutta said. “It is not a question of brains, it is a question of something else which may be taking priority.”

In 2016, it was reported that only 20 per cent of women worked in ISRO.

However, Dutta, whose first job in space science was at ISRO, feels it has increased significantly since she first started.

“It is very encouraging that every day we see women becoming interested in pursuing a career in space sciences” she said.

“I think it is really encouraging to see the way women power within ISRO is increasing.”

She said her parents encouraged her while she was studying applied physics with optics and optoelectronics as specialisation at university, and they inspired her in pursuing her career.

“I have always received support and encouragement from my parents, my better half and my family to pursue my dreams,” she said. “Their support was essential to keep me moving forward. They have always been there in my all ups and downs.”