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University of North Dakota graduate student Vishnu Reddy recently received an official okay from the International Astronomical Union to name an asteroid he discovered "North Dakota." Asteroids are small rocky celestial bodies found especially between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter.

Reddy, who has discovered 18 main belt asteroids, several binary asteroids (twin asteroids), and a supernova, “has built an international reputation for his ongoing research and discoveries,” according to a UND press release.

Just how the 31-year-old graduate student braved skepticism, lack of funds, Indian bureaucratic red tape, and an Arizona monsoon and reached his goal with help from unexpected quarters is in itself quite a story.

“My background is kind of crazy,” Reddy told India-West. “I actually have a bachelor’s in visual communication. I used to make movies. I have a master’s in journalism.”

Perhaps it was the town he grew up in, Sriharikota, from where India launches its satellites, that triggered his imagination. Reddy had a passion for astronomy since childhood, which stayed with him even when he was a journalist with Asian Age daily in New Delhi.

“I always wanted to do discovery kind of work,” he said.

Around 2000, when Reddy was working in Delhi, University of Arizona astronomy expert Tom Gehrels came to give a talk at the local planetarium.

After the talk, Reddy pressed Gehrels for an interview.

During the conversation, Gehrels said that while hundreds and thousands of asteroids had been discovered, no Indians were part of it.

“I said, ‘Tom, I am going to do this,’” Reddy recalled.

Gehrels said, “You know Vishnu, a lot of Indians said they would study asteroids and they never did. I don’t trust you at all.”

Reddy got upset. “How can this guy just dismiss like a billion people?” he recalls thinking.

He was determined to discover an asteroid. “I looked on the Internet, educated myself,” Reddy told India-West. “I worked with all these people in the U.S., and learned how to do it, but I didn’t have the equipment to do it. I took their images and I was working with them.”

His first hurdle was getting a proper telescope. The right telescope cost at least Rs. 1 million. He didn’t have that kind of money.

“So what do you do? You go to the rich relatives,” he said. “Everybody in my family except me is a medical doctor.” Reddy’s two sisters and parents were doctors.

Not that it helped.

“My dad obviously didn’t like it. He thought that I was just wasting my time,” Reddy remembered. He said the way his father looked at it was this: “While I am sitting here making money he is just looking at stars.”

Fortunately for Reddy, a sympathetic colleague at the Asian Age’s features department, Pratibha Kumar, was also interested in astronomy, and her father, a retired government official, offered financial support.

“And then, all these random people in the U.S. helped me. There was a person from Southern California, he was a retired air force pilot, he bought the telescope for me, and then I managed to pay him back,” Reddy recalled.

However, there was a catch. Indian customs slapped hefty import duties, and it was three years before Reddy could lay his hands on the telescope.

“What happened was all the asteroids that could be discovered with this telescope were discovered,” he told India-West. “By the time I could get the telescope, all the asteroids I could find with that size of telescope were gone.”

Reddy was ready to throw in the towel. “I spent four years of my life doing this stuff, I can’t do it anymore. This is like crazy,” he recalls thinking.

Fortunately, his Internet friends from the U.S. came to his rescue.

A friend in Arizona told him that he didn’t use his observatory in July, so Reddy was welcome to use it then.

“This was a golden opportunity,” Reddy said. “The problem is, I didn’t have any money.”

No matter. He landed up in front of the U.S. embassy for a visa. It was 2001. “The visa officer really grilled the hell out of us,” he recalled.

Reddy was asked detailed questions about font size, paper quality, comets and asteroids.

Reddy said he had asked the officer in awe: “Dude, how the hell do you know all this?”

“I used to be a journalist, and I am an amateur astronomer,” replied the visa officer. (That officer still works for the State Department, and is currently stationed in British Guiana – and has become a close friend of Reddy.)

Reddy finally arrived in the U.S., and was again overwhelmed by the support he got from people he met on the Internet.

“This random guy in Michigan, he wanted to help me discover this asteroid,” Reddy recalled. The man delivered pizza and was an amateur astronomer. “He put me and the other friend of ours in his house for three months. Can you beat that? I never met this guy ever in my life!”

However, the observatory was in Arizona, quite some distance.

But Reddy didn’t have any money. “What do I do?” Reddy remembered thinking. “I take the stupid Greyhound bus and it goes through every freaking state, it’s like the Borat plane. . . When I get to Arizona in July, guess what? It’s monsoon and raining like crazy.”

How is he to search for an asteroid without clear skies?

“I think I spent about 10 days. It was really, really hard. On July 4, 2002, I discovered my first asteroid.” Reddy named the first asteroid Bharat. The second asteroid he named North Dakota. He went on to discover 22 asteroids.

After Reddy discovered his first asteroid, he went on to meet Tom Gehrels, the professor who had been dismissive of Indians ever discovering an asteroid.

“The guy fell off out of his office chair,” Reddy recalled to India-West with a laugh.

For Reddy, the long arduous journey towards discovering asteroids had a happy ending in more ways than one.

Remember Pratibha Kumar, his colleague at the Asian Age who shared his interest in astronomy? Well, today she is his wife.

Reddy is now training to be a professional astronomer.

“I wanted to do something about asteroids that others were not doing,” he said. “For example, a lot of people discover asteroids. It’s no big deal for professionals.

“One of the things that very few people were doing — and is very difficult to do — was studying the composition of asteroids, what are they made of.

“Right now I study asteroids that threaten the earth. If something is going to come and hit the earth, I tell what they are made of.”

indiawest.com

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