Professor Ajit Kembhavi, a founding member of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune, took charge as its Director on September 1. The astrophysicist has, among other achievements, the Virtual Observatory-India and UGC-Infonet projects to his credit. In an interview in Kochi to The Hindu , he speaks on issues related to astronomy research and development in India.
What are the major projects IUCAA has undertaken to foster astronomy research and development in the country?
On the observational side, we’ve become partners in a project called SALT, the Southern African Large Telescope. That’s an 11-metre telescope, which makes it the world’s biggest optical telescope. This is a joint venture involving about a dozen partners, mostly from America and Britain. South Africa is a major shareholder. IUCAA has taken 6 per cent share in the telescope. All the development hereafter will take place with our participation. That’s one of the big programmes. But this is only a process. It’s not active research. We’ll be carrying out a great deal of research using that telescope. Secondly, there is the Astrosat satellite, the first Indian satellite dedicated to astronomy. It has instruments that’ll observe at the X-ray wavelength and the ultraviolet wavelength. IUCAA is a major player in this project. Once the satellite is launched, there will be an overwhelming amount of data. Third, on the planning board, there are three extremely large optical telescopes. Two are from the U.S. and one from the Europe — GMT, TMT and ELT. The Indian astronomy community would like to acquire 10 per cent share in it. Four organisations including IUCAA, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore; the Raman Research Institute, Bangalore and ARIES in Nainital are involved. We four are about to submit a proposal to the government to get funding to become 10 per cent partners in the project. If we get funding for it, that will be a very major effort. The government insists that our partnership should not consist of simply paying 10 per cent money, but most of the money should be spent on providing goods and services from India. We could even participate in building infrastructure for the observatory, as Indian companies are very good at developing infrastructure. The development of software for every aspect of the project will be a major activity. So this is a partnership between these research institutes, the universities and industry. Ten per cent acquisition will cost around Rs. 500 crore.
Do you agree with the view that such major acquisitions will adversely affect the development of Indian capabilities for planning and building big installations indigenously?
No, it will not. These big telescopes are completely new-technology telescopes. What we’re delighted to find is that Indian companies can actually participate in both the development of technology and the implementation of telescopes. For example, we do not have any experience in building large mirrors. Two of these telescopes (TMT and ELT) are going to be built out of hundreds of segments, each 1.5 m in diameter. The other project, GMT, will have very large mirrors. It will be impossible to build such mirrors in India at the present time. But, on the other hand, there’s a lot of secondary optics. Then [there are] the optics that go into the instruments. We could do all this here. If we do that, it’ll become extremely simple for us later to build an intermediate class telescope. The process of participating in large telescopes gives you a lot of confidence on the technology side, and software development also. We all know that Indian software companies are regarded highly as they’re able to provide high-technology solutions. This would be a partnership with research institutes and software companies. But the partnership with very large telescopes will be a much larger one. When you want to attract the sharpest minds that are going to drive not only astronomy but science into the new millennium, those people will be satisfied only with absolutely the best. It’s always true [that] without the aid of any sophisticated instruments major discoveries will continue to be made. But, on the other hand, on the edge of the universe you require the biggest instrument. It’ll be a very important impression to make on the young mind when you have access to the biggest instrument.
The virtual observatory India project, which you established, was successful in developing products that are now used worldwide. How do you rate its progress?
The virtual observatory project was started all over the world with great fanfare six years ago. It involves basically combining a very large quantity of data with computing powers in a second location and tools and the user in a third location. All this requires the establishment of standards, development of programmes and in some cases adoption of proper languages. But our project works on certain specific aspects, which typically involve the development of tools. Now the projects have all come to a very specific stage where astronomers say people who work on the virtual observatory should not spent all their time developing software but they should make everything easily accessible for the end-user — who is the astronomer. Our project has been largely counted as successful because we’ve developed tools that can be accessed by everybody. But a lot of progress needs to be made. The first phase of our project will end in October. This has been funded by the Union Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, which has taken a progressive view of the work. We do quite a lot of work in resonance with the international virtual observatory project.
Despite various measures being initiated to step up astronomy research, the number of astronomers continues to remain minimal in the country.
That’s because of the inactivity in the university sector. The research institutions cannot really grow either in number or in size beyond a point. It’ll be very easy to set up three more IUCAAs, it’s not such an expensive thing. But the point is: where do we get these world class astronomers from? The only way you can get them is from universities. Suppose we get lot of bright young students and they do their PhDs with us, then what would happen with them afterwards? Would we put them all in a plane and fly to California, or will we want to put them back in the Indian system? If we want to put them back in the Indian system, these bright people, who are world-beaters, should be able to find a dignified job in the universities. The universities should be competing with the world’s best companies to hire the best talent. But we all know that’s not happening. And that’s why we’re trying to involve universities in various programmes.
The country might be doing pretty well in astronomy research. But do we have access to state-of-the-art facilities?
The one great facility is the giant metre wave radio telescope run by the TIFR’s National Centre for Radio Astrophysics. That’s one of the great radio telescopes currently operating. And people from all over the world come to use it. But we don’t have a comparable facility in the optical domain. What it means is that either we can do theoretical work from India, or if we want to go beyond the domain of radio astronomy or even at high frequencies in radio astronomy, we would necessarily have to use telescopes abroad. If those installations were present in India, Indian astronomy would become much more dynamic. Problems also exist in the university sector. There is a vast pool of youngsters in universities, which has not been effectively used. And that is one of the problems with Indian astronomy.