Optical Astronomy in India

India has made several notable contributions to the world of astronomy right through ancient and modern eras. Indian contributions, especially in theoretical astronomy have a truly international standing and have been long lasting. During the latter half of the last century, India had put in great efforts to set up world class observing facilities, which culminated in the indigenous building of the 2.3m Vainu Bappu Telescope (VBT) in 1986, by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA). The most recent astronomy facilities which have been set up in the country are, IIA’s 2m Himalayan Chandra Telescope (2001) at Hanle, Ladakh and the 2m Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA)'s Girawali telescope (2006) at Girawali, near Pune. There are two upcoming 4m class optical/IR astronomical facilities led by the Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES), Nainital: the 3.6m optical/IR facility which is expected to be commissioned in 2012/13, and the proposed 4m international liquid mirror telescope, both being set-up at Devasthal. In spite of the modest observational optical and IR astronomers in the country have made significant contributions in the areas of

  • Formation and evolution of stars and planets
  • Formation and evolution of galaxies
  • The chemical evolution and composition of the Universe
  • Stellar explosions and extreme physics
  • The Early Universe

It has now become essential to progress beyond the limitations of the existing optical facilities through a national level initiative which will make cutting edge facilities, across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, available to the Indian astronomy community and help the community move forward and maintain the level of excellence achieved in research in astronomy and astrophysics.

The way forward: Participation in Large International Projects

Participation in international projects was envisaged in the Astronomy and Astrophysics “Decadal Vision Document 2004” sponsored by the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Astronomical Society of India. Three large ground based telescopes - Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and European-Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) - are planned to be built by different groups around the world. By 2020, more than two third of the world’s astronomy community will have access to the most powerful telescopes to unravel the many mysteries of the universe we live in. All the three projects expressed serious interest in an Indian participation, which would allow India to (i) work along with the consortium during the construction phase of the telescope and (ii) exploit the telescope's unparalleled scientific capabilities once it is functional.

The astronomical community in the country, after several deliberations over the last 3 years, reached a consensus that the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project is the best suited for Indian participation. A consortium, consisting of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences submitted a detailed project report, in February 2010, to the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Govt. of India. The report contained the need for India’s participation in such international projects, evaluation of different options available and the strategy to develop the required human resources.

On 24th June 2010, Mr. Prithivraj Chavan, the Hon’ble Minister for Science and Technology of the Government of India, and Dr. T. Ramasami, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India announced India’s decision to join the TMT project as an observer with a strong intention of becoming a full partner in due course of time. “The government and people of India recognize the importance of embarking on world-class, international science collaborations. We believe the Thirty Meter Telescope will enable us to continue and expand our role as an international leader in technology development and fundamental research”, said Dr. T. Ramasami, during a meeting of the Indo-US Joint Commission on Science and Technology Cooperation in Washington, D. C.