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

The $2 billion project , a joint venture involving five countries, has been marred by protests for over a decade; proposed site is considered sacred to the island’s indigenous people.

Updated - November 28, 2021 11:44 am IST

Published - January 21, 2020 10:45 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Sky high: An illustration shows the proposed telescope.

Sky high: An illustration shows the proposed telescope.

India, a partner in the construction of one of the largest telescopes in the world, has said it wants the project to be moved out of the proposed site at Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano in Hawaii.

The TMT or Thirty Metre Telescope, as it is called, is a joint venture (JV) involving five countries, but the $2 billion project has been marred by protests for over a decade. The proposed site is considered sacred to indigenous Hawaiians, and also has too many observatories for one more such massive establishment to come up, say groups that have contested the site.

Also read: Explained | Why are native Hawaiians against the construction of a telescope?

“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,” Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, told The Hindu . “The difficulty is that even if construction [in Mauna Kea] were to go ahead, there could be future agitations,” he added.

Protests at the site last year saw scientists unable to access other telescope facilities in Mauna Kea. The project has been delayed by nearly five years and should have begun operations by 2025. India has committed $200 million, which is about a tenth of the proposed cost. The telescope needs 492 precisely polished mirrors and India is to contribute 83 of them. The project delay has meant that these manufacturing contracts have also been delayed.

Next best

The next best site to locate the telescope is the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos (ORM) on La Palma in the Canary Islands, Spain.

Hanle, in Ladakh, was also in the running to host the TMT, but lost out to Mauna Kea, which is considered a superior site due to the imaging possibilities it offers, its stable weather, and also because it has the necessary infrastructure to manage telescopes, already being host to several telescopes.

“The TMT will enable scientists to study fainter objects far away from us in the universe, which gives information about early stages of evolution of the universe. Also, it will give us finer details of not-so-far-away objects like undiscovered planets and other objects in the Solar System and planets around other stars,” said a note from the Press Information Bureau in April 2018.

Litigious site

The TMT has been a litigious site since 2014. In 2018, the Supreme Court of Hawaii gave permission for construction to proceed but the project’s proponents have not made progress because they were obstructed twice, in 2015 and 2019, respectively, from construction.

Canada, the United States, China and Japan are the other — and more significant — partners in terms of the monetary and infrastructural aspects of the TMT. The level of contribution determines the amount of viewing time, or slots, that the member-countries’ scientists get on the machine. Thus India, in a given year, stands to get 10% of the available slots; any downtime could potentially eat into those.

Representatives from member countries are expected to convene in Los Angeles in February to decide on project modalities. “By this year, we have to take a firm call on where the project has to be located,” said Eswar Reddy, Programme Director, India-TMT.

India too has its problems with hosting ambitious science projects. The Indian Neutrino Observatory, proposed to come up in Theni, Tamil Nadu, has also been stalled due to protests against the project in the State.

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