[Humans of FDL] Indhu Varatharajan

Meet EO Researcher Indhu Varatharajan

Indhu kindly made time for a quick conversation with us about spectroscopy, humanitarian remote sensors, and one incredible woman from a small village in India.


FDL: Hi Indhu, thanks for breaking away. What’s the background you bring the FDL Europe team?

IV: My pleasure. Most of my work has been focused on trying to understand what the nearest planets in our solar system look like, and what they are made of.

I have always been interested in planetary sciences. And after finishing my bachelors, I worked for three years in India in the Planetary Sciences and Exploration Division (PLANEX) at Physical Research Laboratory in my home country, India. There I started working on spectroscopy (the study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation). My focus was on studying hyperspectral images of the moon from the Chandrayaan 1 lunar orbiter. During this experience, I fell in love with moon spectroscopy tools and was fortunate to get exposed to the datasets of mars spectroscopy as well.

My current work focuses on studying the conditions in Mercury. The BepiColombo mission will be launched at the end of this year and will reach mercury in 2025. In the meantime, we are working in the laboratory to recreate the surface conditions in this planet. We take different elements and compounds, and put them in very hot “Mercurian” conditions, and analyse how they change and how spectroscopy is affected. At my lab, we are building a spectral library to understand better the data that will come from Mercury in 2026.


FDL: What has inspired you from the FDL experience so far?

IV: First, has been the opportunity to work with data in new ways. I can see many ways in which artificial intelligence will enable researchers to spend less time analyzing raw data in order to make decisions. I really see AI being used to increase the speed of discovery. Very exciting.

In addition, before FDL I didn’t have a great appreciation of earth-based remote sensing! The talks from the partners and guests made me think about how space technology and AI could be used for a humanitarian purpose here on Earth. I was inspired by how UNICEF is addressing issues like hunger and education by using satellite data and by how Catapult is using satellite data to detect slavery.

FDL: Throughout your life, have you had any role models you’ve looked up to?

IV: Right away I think of my Mom and Kalpana Chawla. These women are independent and have a bold character, and I admire how personally strong they are.

But if I had to pick one, it would be my mom. She grew up in a small village in India, and it’s often hard for her to understand my life today and what I’m working on.

For instance, one year I gave her an amazing gift. I named a crater on Mars after her! When she looked at the certificate I gave her, she didn’t really know what to do with it. [big smiles] I can’t blame her at all. But I still think that was a cool present.

But even though she doesn’t always understand my world, she worked very hard to make it possible. She was never given the opportunity for and education. Yet, it was very important to her that both of her girls to be able to go to school and pursue their dreams. Throughout her life, she made many sacrifices for us to be able to study. She is a very bold, courageous and intelligent woman. Without her, I would never be here.

About Indhu Varatharajan

Indhu is from southern state of India called Tamil Nadu where she did her bachelors in Geoinformatics Engineering at College of Engineering Guindy (CEG) in the capital city called  Chennai. She travelled to London for her Masters in Planetary Science at University College London (UCL) funded by Commonwealth fellowship. Her background in Geoinformatics and major in Planetary Science paved the way to work with a DLR/DAAD funded project which focuses on evaluating new spectral analysis techniques to study the hot surface of Mercury with MERTIS (MErcury Radiometer and Thermal infrared Imaging Spectrometer) payload onboard  ESA/JAXA BepiColombo. MERTIS will be the first instrument to image the emissivity of Mercury surface in a hyperspectral mode at mid-infrared (MIR) spectral range. MERTIS will map Mercury at the spatial resolution of 500m/pixel and spectral resolution of 200nm. Indhu is currently pursuing her second year PhD at German Aerospace Center (DLR), Berlin.