Indian team eyes slice of Hawaii telescope

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  • Published 23.01.13
A graphic showing the proposed 30-metre telescope in Hawaii. Credit: TMT Observatory Corporation

New Delhi, Jan. 22: Indian astronomers have asked the Union government for $140 million (Rs 750 crore) to join an international plan to build the world’s most advanced telescope on the top of a volcanic mountain in Hawaii.

India hopes to contribute 10 per cent of the $1.4 billion for the thirty-metre-telescope (TMT) planned by an academic consortium from the US, China, Japan, Canada and India, members of the consortium said today.

Astronomers expect the TMT will allow them to observe the most distant and faintest galaxies at the edge of the known universe, look for planets around distant stars, and understand better the origin of the solar system. Scientists say India’s proposed 10 per cent contribution is the same as China’s and will amount to less than the cost of two modern combat jet fighters.

Indian academic institutions and industries plan to jointly build segments of the telescope’s 30-metre diameter primary mirror, several electro-mechanical components and software for the telescope’s observatory.

“For our contribution, we will get guaranteed observation nights on the telescope,” said Ajit Kembhavi, the director of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, and a member of the board of directors of TMT.

The TMT will be located just below the summit of Mauna Kea on an island of Hawaii at an altitude of about 4,050 metres. India’s 10 per cent contribution would grant Indian astronomers about 36 nights per year which, because observations are unlikely throughout the year, could translate into 20 to 22 nights of actual observations during a year.

“But with such a telescope, a single night could mean excellent data,” Khembavi told The Telegraph after a TMT board meeting here today. “There will also be spinoffs in the form of advanced technology for India’s academic sector and industry,” he said.

“This telescope will open a new window into the universe,” said Gary Sanders, a former physicist at Princeton University, who is now project manager for the TMT. “We expect to begin construction in 2014 and see our first starlight by 2021,” Sanders told reporters after the board meeting called to discuss details of the TNT agreements and workplans of the participating countries.

India had joined the TMT initiative as an “observer” in June 2010. Since then, Indian astronomers have met with sections of domestic industry with capabilities to build the telescope’s components.

“Some prototype components have already been fabricated by local industries and will be tested in the coming months,” said B. Eswar Reddy, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, who is also on the TMT board.

Two of India’s science funding agencies — the departments of science and technology and atomic energy —have signalled their intention to jointly fund the project, but a final government approval has not come through yet.

The proposal comes at a time when the government has indicated to India’s science policy makers that they might need to consider up to 40 per cent cuts in spending on megascience projects planned for the next five years.

But Indian astronomers believe the approval for India’s TMT activities will emerge sometime later this year. “Megascience projects stretch over long periods — eight or nine years, or even longer,” a senior scientist involved in the TMT project said. “So we hope to manage with some adjustments in the pace of activities.”

India plans to build 15 per cent of 492 smaller hexagonal segments that make up the 30-metre primary mirror. India will also build edge sensors that measure the relative displacement, tip and tilt of the segments so that they can be oriented snugly to serve as a single giant mirror. Indian industry will also build the electromechanical devices that control the movement of these segments.

China is contributing through mirror segments, lasers and optical components of the telescope. The US, Canada and Japan are each contributing about 20 per cent of the cost of the project. “Hawaii’s 7.5 per cent contribution comes through the land,” said Henry Yang, chancellor of the University of California, and the chairman of the TMT board. A final approval for the project from Hawaii is expected on February 12.