Taking an astronomical leap

Sankar Ray
At the end of a marathon session in Hawaii (on Mauna Kea), India signed up the ‘Thirty Meter Telescope’ along with USA, Canada, Japan and China on 25 July. TMT, the next-generation astronomical observatory, will be on stream in 2022 on, Hawaii. A unique and vibrant collaboration among universities in the USA and Canada, China, India and Japan, it will aim at an unprecedented scientific endeavour with global reach. The signatories were Donald E. Brooks, chair of the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy Institutional Council; Jean-Lou Chameau, president of the California Institute of Technology; Masahiko Hayashi, director general of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan; P Sreekumar, director of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics; Jun Yan, director general of the National Astronomical Observatories of China; and, Mark Yudof, president of the University of California.
‘The signing of this Master Agreement marks a major milestone in the official commitment to and formalisation of this global collaboration, ensuring that the TMT project is on schedule and progressing smoothly. We have been working towards this moment for a long time and this is a special day for astronomy’s next-generation observatory,’ said Henry Yang, Chair of the TMT Collaborative Board. The deal is a sequel to the collaboration among the California Institute of Technology, University of California, the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, a consortium of Chinese institutions led by the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and institutions in India supported by the Department of Science and Technology of India. Estimated at several billion US dollars, the major funding is from the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.
‘TMT-India is extremely happy to participate in the joint signing of the TMT Master Agreement. It is an important milestone in our global endeavour to raise astronomical observations to a new level with the promise of exciting science. With a large number of young students and researchers in our growing academic program, the Indian astronomical community sees the complete realisation of the TMT project as an important stimulus to astrophysics research programs in India. We look forward to jointly addressing the next milestone in this program,’ quipped Sreekumar. ACURA executive director, said, ‘TMT will be a vital resource for research in Canadian universities. It will deepen our knowledge of many of the major issues in astronomy & astrophysics in ways that would not be possible without such a new generation telescope,’ while NAOC DG observed, ‘China is excited to be an active partner of such a world-leading facility, which represents a quantum leap for our community. With yet another major step taken, we look forward to many decades of solving the mysteries of the cosmos from Mauna Kea.’
Somak Raychaudhury, head of the department of physics at the Presidency University and an astrophysicist of international chair, who attended the meeting as an observer, expressed his feel in an elated manner, ‘Today, I was privileged to be present at a historic moment- the signing of the Master Agreement of the Thirty Meter Telescope project. This document establishes a formal agreement amongst the international parties defining the project goals, establishing a governance structure and defining member party rights, obligations and benefits. India is committed to contribute Rs 800 crores (US $ 130 million), to be incurred over ten years. ‘Most of this will be spent within India in building hardware and software for this project, thus funding hi-tech industrial and academic research and development. It was a photo finish in the end- the permission for us to sign arrived yesterday, after approvals from various Government departments, including the DST and the ministry of External Affairs,’ Raychaudhury, who devised the camera for the Hubble Telescope, added. After a brilliant academic performance in B.Sc. and MSc, at the erstwhile Presidency College, Calcutta, he got the prestigious Isaac Newton fellowship (Homi J Bhabha, too, had it) at the University of Cambridge. Emotionally surcharged Raychaudhuri wrote on the Facebook, ‘When I was a little kid, I had been awestruck by the unmanned Voyager missions setting out to explore the Solar system. Today, the Board meeting was chaired by a personal hero of mine – Ed Stone, the Project Scientist of the Voyager missions, later Director of NASA Jet Propulsion laboratory when the Mars Pathfinder mission was launched, now a professor at Caltech.’
Needless to say, TMT will help astrophysics, astronomers and scientists belonging to collaborative disciplines of study objects in the own solar system and stars throughout our Milky Way and its neighbouring galaxies, and forming galaxies at the very edge of the observable Universe, near the beginning of time. TMT in size will be nine times bigger than the presently biggest Keck telescope Mauna Kea. (IPA)

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