Updated: August 3, 2015 12:32:21 am
The world’s largest and most advanced astronomical observatory, with a telescope that will allow astronomers to study the universe in unprecedented detail, is being set up on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Three Indian institutes are part of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project. PROF NEERAJ GUPTA, astronomer at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, a participating institution, explained to GARIMA MISHRA how the project will be a giant leap for space exploration.
What is the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) project?
The TMT is planned as an optical, near-infrared telescope with a primary mirror with an effective diameter of 30 m. When commissioned around 2023, the TMT will be the largest telescope of its kind in the world. The telescope will be built and operated by a consortium of institutions from the US, Japan, China, India and Canada. The project is a joint initiative of Caltech, the University of California and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy.
Which Indian institutes are part of the project?
There are three lead institutes from India: the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bengaluru, and the Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES), Nainital. The India-TMT Coordination Centre will be located at IIA.
Where will the telescope be located? How was the location chosen?
On Mauna Kea, an extinct volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, the biggest island in the Pacific Ocean archipelago that constitutes the US state of Hawaii. The observatory will be about 4,000 m above sea level, on a site that already has a number of large optical telescopes, including the twin WM Keck telescopes. The site was chosen after careful study — due to its excellent observing conditions, very low humidity and low average temperature, it is ideally suited for astronomical observations at optical and near-infrared wavelengths. Restrictions have been imposed on access to the site following protests by groups claiming to be trying to prevent the desecration of land deemed sacred by many native Hawaiians.
What will be the role of the Indian institutes in the TMT project?
About 30 per cent of the Indian contribution will be in cash, to be spent on vital components of the telescope that will be built in India in partnership with various industries. A facility to polish about 100 mirror segments and provide sophisticated components like actuators, edge sensors and segment support assembly for the active optics which help maintain accurately the shape of the primary mirror, will be set up. India will also contribute towards creating the complex software necessary for the operation of the telescope, including the control systems and components of the observatory software. With this contribution in kind, India will acquire the capability to build large, sophisticated telescopes on its own, and will become a major contributor to international projects in the future.
How much will the project cost? What will be India’s contribution?
The project will cost about US $ 1.4 billion. India will contribute about 10 per cent of the cost of building the telescope and observatory, amounting to about Rs 1,300 crore, over the construction period of 2014-2023. Nearly 70 per cent of the Indian contribution will be “in kind” — i.e., parts of the telescope will be built and supplied by India, or software will be developed within India. The Indian participation will be funded by the Government of India through the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Atomic Energy. The DST will be the coordinating department for the project.
What will be the key features of TMT?
The primary mirror will have an effective diameter of 30 m, and will be built of 492 hexagonal segments, each of which will be 1.44 m across. The shape of the mirror will be maintained through constant electronic monitoring and corrections, using a system known as active optics. The images produced by the telescope will be rendered very sharp, removing the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere by an advanced system of adaptive optics. The TMT will be the first telescope to incorporate these features as its integral parts. The TMT will have more than 10 times the light collection area of the current largest optical telescopes, and diffraction limited spatial resolution three times better than currently available. The TMT will have 144 times the collecting area of the highly successful Hubble Space Telescope, and 10 times better spatial resolution at near-infrared wavelengths. An observing platform around the telescope will have a number of large instruments to record astronomical data.
How will building a telescope like the TMT help?
In the coming decades, TMT will explore the great mysteries of the universe: black holes at the centre of galaxies, assembly of the first galaxies and their evolution, the birth and death of stars, and planets around distant stars. However, the most intriguing answers may be to the questions that we cannot foresee. It is by probing the unknown that TMT will reach its full potential, taking astronomers and the lay public on new journeys of exploration.
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