India goes for cutting-edge telescopes
astronomers in India see a large window opening into the sky. In about a decade they would be gazing into farther corners of the universe that current telescopes cannot reach. To get that edge premier Indian research centres are analyzing three collaborative optical telescopes being built around the world, each larger than any existing telescope, each with a huge potential to answer a question that may never lose its appeal. "Astronomy is driven by the question of our origins," said Dipankar Bhattacharya, key researcher and professor at Pune's Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (iucaa).
India will select the best of the three telescopes and buy research time on it.And this it wants to do by the end of this year, which is also the International Year of Astronomy, marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of an astronomical telescope.
The choices are the Giant Magellan Telescope (gmt) to be built in Chile, the Thirty Meter Telescope (tmt) in Hawaii and the European-Extremely Large Telescope (e - elt), the location of which is yet to be determined. These large telescopes can change Indian astronomy. "At present, there's no access to instruments of their size that can do cutting-edge astronomy in optical sphere," said Bhattacharya.
With their massive optics, the three telescopes will look at fainter objects in the sky. They will look at stars that are the first sources of light after the Big Bang. They will look at periods when the first heavy elements formed. This will help scientists understand the "dark ages" of the young universe before stars lit it up. Optical telescopes so far have captured stars only in our galaxy. But the telescopes India is eyeing will help astronomers peer into other galaxies.
iucaa is one of the four research centres in India that has to decide which telescope India should go for. The other three are the Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences in Nainital and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and the Raman Research Institute in Bengaluru . gmt has a head start because its engineers cast the first mirror in 2005. But Bhattacharya points out that gmt also has a long way to go since it differs from the previous constructions of large optical telescopes. It will consist of seven mirrors of 8.4 metre diameter. This is the first time so many large mirrors are being put together to assemble a 25-metre aperture.
How far and how clearly an optical telescope can see depends on its aperture, the size of its light-gathering mirror/lens. Current largest optical telescopes have 10-metre apertures. It is prohibitively expensive to engineer a large single-piece mirror, so big telescopes assemble small mirror segments to get a large aperture. tmt will use hundreds of smaller mirrors to get an aperture of 30 metres. e - elt will have a 42-metre aperture. Their large apertures can help collect information on extrasolar planets and identify distant objects like supernovae, stars shining bright after exploding. Such information will help astronomers understand the expansion of the universe.
These telescopes are set to start experiments between 2018 and 2020.
Ajit Kembhavi, dean and professor at iucaa, likens them to a company with stakeholders to share the cost. "Everybody owns shares," he said. India plans to contribute 10 per cent to one project and get 10 per cent of research time.
A 10 per cent share can cost from US $50 million to US $100 million. India would like to make a majority of its contribution in kind; by developing and delivering a sub-system for the telescope, said Bhattacharya. India does not specialize in the engineering of novel mirrors used in telescopes. It can contribute to other optical elements, mechanical systems and the controls software.
European-Extremely large Telescope
Location Yet to be decided
Aperture 42 metres
Will consist of Segmented five mirrors, the primary mirror will be made of a thousand 1.4-metre wide segments
| Giant Magellan Telescope
Aperture 25 metres
Will consist of one central and six surrounding 8.4- metre diameter mirrors
| Thirty Meter Telescope
Aperture 30 metres
Will consist of 492 1.4-metre diameter mirrors
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