In February this year, California’s Mojave Desert beckoned. It was a trip like no other – allowing me to follow my dreams and the footsteps of great astrophysicists.

As the winner of the Virgin Galactic Pioneer Award at the 2015 Google Science Fair, I was invited to Virgin Galactic’s HQ for the unveiling and naming of Virgin Galactic’s newest spaceship, VSS Unity. Virgin Galactic supports the Google Science Fair and the Pioneer Award through its philanthropic arm, Galactic Unite.

At Mojave, I had the honor of meeting Sir Richard Branson. I spent the day touring the spaceport and hearing first-hand from the scientists and engineers who are working to realise his vision of commercial space travel, before witnessing the spectacular unveil of the new spaceship. I count this among my most fulfilling life experiences, along with meeting US President Obama on Astronomy Night at the White House last year.

Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic, VSS Unity, Google Science Fair, Pranav Sivakumar

I caught the ‘bug’ that led me to the Google Science Fair, the White House, and Mojave, around the time that Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic in 2004. Back then, I was a budding young backyard astronomer in complete awe of the night sky. In middle and high school, my inherent curiosity and a growing interest in the scientific method led me to attend lectures in physics and astronomy and eventually to collaborate on joint projects with researchers at Fermilab

Through this time, my love of observational astronomy continued to grow and evolve into an enduring passion for astrophysics, specifically the properties of dark matter and dark energy which make up most of the universe as we understand it.

I caught the ‘bug’ that led me to the Google Science Fair, the White House, and Mojave, around the time that Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic in 2004.

In 2014 and 2015, my Google Science Fair projects aimed to identify gravitationally-lensed quasars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey – using algorithms that process large photometric and spectral datasets. I continue to extend and refine these algorithms today.

Quasars are very bright distant objects in space that resemble stars. When viewed from Earth, light from a gravitationally lensed quasar appears to bend around an intervening galaxy, making one quasar appear to be two or more quasars. Accurately identifying gravitationally lensed quasars can help us better understand dark matter and dark energy and in doing so assess the rate of expansion of the universe. 

I am also pursuing a year-long student inquiry and research project under the mentorship of Dr. Don York of the University of Chicago. The project seeks to identify ‘almost dark galaxies’, dominated by dark matter. In my experience, research is like peeling an onion – every time I make significant progress and answer an important question, I discover many more questions of increased depth and complexity.

Virgin Galactic, VSS Unity, Pranav Sivakumar

I still look up at the night sky in the same way as countless numbers of our ancestors before us have, with a sense of childlike wonder and curiosity. But unlike our ancestors, I now have reams of new information and petabytes of data waiting to be deciphered to further my knowledge of the universe. I seek to use that data to fill in a small, yet significant piece of the puzzle. Together we have what it takes to answer the eternal questions that have mystified mankind: “Who are we? Where do we come from? And where are we going?”

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The Google Science Fair 2016 is back and open for submissions until May 17th. This year, students across the world have been asked to ‘make something better with science’.