Science Ministry team visits Hawaii to take stock of international telescope project

The project has faced opposition from local residents; India had earlier been in favour of shifting to an alternate site; India to provide the project with hardware, instruments, software worth ₹200 million

January 12, 2024 08:36 pm | Updated 08:52 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Visitors take photos near an observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Over the last 50 years, astronomers have mounted 13 giant telescopes on Mauna Kea’s summit.

Visitors take photos near an observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Over the last 50 years, astronomers have mounted 13 giant telescopes on Mauna Kea’s summit. | Photo Credit: AP

In a signal of renewed enthusiasm for a global scientific project, an official delegation from the Department of Science and Technology visited Mauna Kea, an inactive volcano on the island of Hawai’i in the United States, to discuss “challenges” to the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project, a press release said.

The TMT has been conceived as a 30-metre diameter primary-mirror optical and infrared telescope that will enable observations into deep space. It is proposed as a joint collaboration involving institutions in the U.S., Japan, China, Canada, and India. Indian participation in the project was approved by the Union Cabinet in 2014.

The project has faced considerable challenges. Mauna Kea, an inactive volcano, and by some measures the tallest mountain in the world, hosts multiple telescopes. However, upcoming projects have invited local opposition on the grounds that building telescopes violates religious and cultural customs, with many of these projects having been imposed upon the region without addressing the concerns of local inhabitants.

Though permits for constructing the TMT were availed, the Supreme Court of Hawaii invalidated them in 2015. Permissions were restored in 2018, though construction is yet to begin because of continued local opposition.

Alternate site

There are plans to construct the TMT at an alternate site, with the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos (ORM) on La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands seen as the next best choice.

In 2020, Ashutosh Sharma, the then-Secretary of the DST told The Hindu: “India’s position has been clear. We would like the project to move to an alternate site if all the procedures and permits there are in place. The difficulty is that even if construction [in Mauna Kea] were to go ahead, there could be future agitations.”

Also Read: India, co-builder of Hawaii telescope, wants it shifted out of proposed site

However, it is not clear whether India’s views have changed. The Hindu was unable to reach the current DST Secretary Abhay Karandikar for comment.

Indian contribution

India expects to be a major contributor to the project and will provide hardware (segment support assemblies, actuators, edge sensors, segment polishing, and segment coating), instrumentation (first light instruments), and software (observatory software and telescope control systems) worth $200 million. Of the 492 precisely polished mirrors that the telescope needs, India will contribute 83.

“The Mauna Kea site is the world’s best for astronomy. Discussions are on to see how best the project can go forward with consensus and support of the local people. While construction at the site hasn’t begun, we have made a lot of progress in developing a lot of the necessary components. Hopefully, a decision on the site should be firm in the next two years,” Annapurni Subramaniam, director of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIAP), told The Hindu. The IIAP is leading the consortium of Indian institutions that are involved with the TMT project.

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