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Slum boy to start-up founder — 19-yr-old to now help govt build astronomy labs in schools

Aryan Mishra, who discovered an asteroid 5 years ago, builds low-cost labs in schools. His efforts recently caught the government's attention.

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New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government is planning to build astronomy laboratories in Kendriya Vidyalayas and Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (JNV) across India with the help of 19-year-old Aryan Mishra, a budding astronomer who has founded Spark Astronomy, a startup that builds affordable astronomy laboratories in schools.

Born to a newspaper vendor in Delhi, Mishra was 14 years old when he discovered a near-Earth asteroid while scanning data at a cyber cafe as he took part in a nationwide asteroid search programme. Four years later, he founded Spark Astronomy in 2018.

Mishra’s efforts recently caught the attention of Principal Scientific Advisor to the government, K. VijayRaghavan, who is now bringing these low-cost labs to schools under the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

While the partnership is yet to be formalised, Shailja Vaidya Gupta, who is the senior adviser to the office of the principal scientific adviser, confirmed to ThePrint that efforts to establish astronomy labs in Kendriya Vidyalayas and JNVs are under way.

In the pilot phase of the government’s partnership with Spark Astronomy, eight labs will be built over the next three months, starting December, in different government-run schools in India. In the next phase, from April 2020, an additional 500 labs will be built across the country.

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‘Only close friends knew I lived in a slum’

A self-taught astronomy enthusiast, Mishra had realised early on how difficult it is for students to learn about the outer space, since most schools in India do not have a separate subject on the cosmos in their curricula. He would spend hours after school at a cyber cafe, learning all about the vast universe.

“I have been interested in astronomy since I was 11 years old, but did not have the opportunity to learn about it. My father is a newspaper vendor. We live in a slum and did not have a smartphone or a laptop,” Mishra told ThePrint.

While his parents never went to school, they understood the importance of quality education and got him admitted to a private school.

“My mother had to sell her jewellery so that I can study in a good school. At that time, the private school did not admit students from the slums. So my uncle, who used to work as a watchman at a senior advocate’s house, decided we use the latter’s address in my school documents. Only my closest friends knew that I lived in a slum,” he said.

Mishra is now pursuing a B.Sc in Physics at Ashoka University in Haryana.

Birth of Spark Astronomy

During one of the outreach programmes conducted by the Astronomical Society of India, which invites citizens to scour through data to look for possible cosmic bodies, Mishra and his friend KeertiVardhan Kukreti discovered an asteroid between Mars and Jupiter.

“It was a big deal for a newspaper vendor’s son to appear in the papers,” Mishra said, adding how it helped him convince his parents to seriously pursue astronomy.

Mishra has since been invited to many schools and universities to give talks on astronomy. But there was always this nagging realisation that these lectures will not be enough to spread knowledge about the outer space or inspire the young generation to follow their passion for the cosmos.

He soon felt that it would be more fruitful to create spaces where discussions on astronomy can take place. This led to the birth of Spark Astronomy. Laboratories built by his start-up today provide four basic telescopes for skywatching. The labs also have working models that Mishra himself builds using recycled materials such as pipes or CDs.

He also provides curricula for different classes, as well as a three-day teacher’s training course. Students who sign up for his classes receive regular newsletters on the latest developments in the field of astronomy.

The start-up charges about Rs 3 lakh for each lab. As of now, it has worked with five private schools — two in New Delhi, and one each in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat.

Mishra hopes to make these astronomy labs as common as ‘smart classes’ in schools. “Of course, these labs won’t make everyone an astronomer. But looking at the skies can inspire one to work towards her or his goals and dreams. That is what I hope will happen in these labs,” he added.

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  1. Astronomy – a fascinating science with a body of knowledge that is capable of bewildering and mesmerising a curious mind. One of the best ways could be to have a National Level astronomy quiz between schools. The other, besides data based astronomy, pursued on sites such as SLOOH, is to identify ‘DARK SKY’ regions and promote them for skywatching. Is there a place in India from where Milky Way can be observed in all its splendour? If not, it is shameful.

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