India, Uranus and its rings

There are several Indian publications that claim that India discovered the rings of Uranus (Vigyan Prasar, the principal science populariser in India, the Vellore District website, the Indian National Science Academy in its publication and even the Wikipedia page on the Vainu Bappu Observatory). So, when you visit the page on Uranus on Wikipedia, you’re quite surprised to see the credit for the credit has been stolen by the Americans! Being a Wikipedian and from the spirit of reading the Sceptical Patriot, I began researching.

Rings of Uranus
Image: A 1998 false-colour near-infrared image of Uranus showing cloud bands, rings and moons obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope’s NICMOS Camera. Image credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope. Image Source

The year is 1977. Astronomers have predicted that a star was going to be occulted by Uranus. Basically, this meant that Uranus would pass in front of a star. The best visibility was to be had from South Asia, East Africa and parts of South East Asia. Two observatories from India participated in this observation, the Vainu Bappu Observatory at Kavallur and the Uttar Pradesh State Observatory at Nainital. Since the US did not get to be part of the action, NASA flew an airborne observatory called the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO). On it flew Eliot, Dunham and Mink who are today credited with the discovery of the rings of Uranus. Having read the above publications whilst growing up, I thought that Wikipedia was showing it’s Global North bias while claiming this fact.

I first went looking for the publication where the results from the observation of the Vainu Bappu Observatory would have been published. I came up with this piece published in the Bulletins of the Astronomical Society of India’s March 1977 edition by J C Bhattacharya and K Kuppuswamy. It claims of a discovery of a new satellite of Uranus.

The astronomers at Kavalur were out to observe the occultation was of the star called SAO 158687 by Uranus. Uranus was to pass in front of the star, as per predictions by astronomers. When astronomers watched the star they expected a dip in the brightness of the star as Uranus passed in front of it. They did observe this but in addition, they observed several other dips before the event. This dip was suspected to be caused by a satellite of Uranus. However, none of the known satellites of Uranus were in the position where the dip was observed. Thus, Bhattacharya and Kuppuswamy deduced that this was a new satellite of Uranus, which prompted the above publication in the Bulletins of March 1977.

About the same time as Kavalur was observing the occultation, an airborne telescope over the Indian Ocean was also observing the same phenomenon and saw similar dips in the brightness of the star before and after the event. It was Eliot who saw the symmetry of the dips before and after the event and concluded that what they had discovered were the rings of Uranus. He published this in a paper in Nature magazine in May 1977.

While both groups made the observations of the rings (among many others including the French, the English and the Chinese), it was the American group that made the correct deduction from the data, the fact that the dip in brightness of the star before the planet were caused by its rings.

I do not know where the attribution of the discovery in Indian publications came to India and why nobody has bothered fixing it even in the information age. Bhattacharya in a paper he wrote for the Bulletins in 1979 also gives credit to the American KAO team. It seems to follow the rule that a myth oft repeated becomes reality.

One Reply to “India, Uranus and its rings”

  1. This is a great piece of work on your part; especially for a person who treats this as a hobby; but goes on to say tonnes of words of praise for your dedication and hard work. I would just like to add that since the Indian team had published their data in Bull. of Astr. Soc. of India in March as compared to the KAO team of May; the Indian team appears to be taking a claim. Of course, I fully agree with the fact that the Indian team claimed it to be a satellite as against the rings.


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