India and the Thirty Meter Telescope

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on February 10, 2011 as per the time stamp. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

Srinivas, Kirk and I went to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) offices in Mumbai for a talk by A N Ramaprakash on India’s Participation in the Thirty Meter Telescope project. At the outset, let me tell you that the talk degraded in the middle on a single point and we walked out of it. But, I still think there were points discussed that are worth putting out in the open.

India’s Decadal Vision Document prepared in the year 2004 called for India’s participation in a very large ground-based telescope in the optical or infra-red spectrum. Work on this recommendation began in 2006. The Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) had been in touch with efforts like the European Extremely Large Telescope project about such possible Indian participation, but also came to the conclusion that a national effort was needed for such an effort based on the work done by Prof. Padmanabhan.

Aryabhata Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES), Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Raman Research Institute (RRI) and IUCAA met on September 16, 2008 for a brainstorming session at IIA, Bengaluru  to finalise that India would participate in either European Extremely Large Telescope(E-ELT), Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) or the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project based on certain criteria. This included a participation of 10-15% in the project; involvement in the construction and operations in India and a national facility setup for purposes related to the telescope.

Members of the E-ELT, GMT and TMT visited India in October, 2008 and made presentations to the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

DST asked for a Detailed Project Report (DPR) from the institutions involved i.e. IUCAA, IIA, RRI and ARIES. An Advisory Committee was formed with renowned scientists like Narlikar, Padmanabhan, Kasturirangan and Swarup. Under it were 5 working groups – Technology, Science, Hardware, Software and Human Resources Development were formed along with a Co-ordinating Committee. After many meetings and brainstorming sessions, visits to industry and exposing Indian industry to the idea of working in the project, the Committee presented the DPR set the criteria for selecting a project based on the 2004 Decadal Document.

The criteria included scientific compatibility and capability, synergy with Indian facilities, risk of realizing technologies needed for the project, the partnership model involved and model of project management, cost of project, guarantees and level of contribution that could be made in-kind, possibility of development of human resources in India and suitability for follow up in India.

Ramaprakash then went on to place on record the reasons for the choice of the TMT over E-ELT and GMT.

Ramaprakash said that at first glance, the E-ELT appeared the most appealing because it was an all-around package and involved access to its various facilities. The drawbacks was that becoming a part of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) which ran the project needed an act of Parliament. Besides that, it involved a hefty joining fee which was to be paid in cash (as against in-kind). This, for Brazil was $130 million. The annual subscription fee was related to GDP – which was growing for India. This would mean that India could end up paying money for which India did not have any need for and end up subsidizing the smaller European countries. ESO also had the E-ELT as a stand alone partner but the cost involved in participating in E-ELT would be as good as joining ESO. ESO also did not provide guaranteed telescope time despite paying a subscription – as time was based on merits of observation. This made E-ELT a non-option for India’s case.

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) was the cheapest and smallest telescope of the bunch. It was a large  (14) with small partners. The technology that would be used to build the GMT was considered riskier. The LBT project was one of the worry of the technology aspect of the project. It also required a large contribution in cash. It was also found that the mirror technology was patented by the Steward Mirror Lab, Arizona and hence a problem for the point about Indian contribution in construction of the telescope. Overall, the approach was also deemed to be not scalable for even bigger telescopes.

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) was a small collaboration (6) of large partners. It was a low technology risk project with many of the technologies demonstrated at the Keck Telescope. The technology was portable and could be made use of in a future Indian large telescope project. The project also guaranteed 70% of the contribution to the project in-kind. It also helped that the observatory was in the northern hemisphere and was hence suitable for follow-up observations, if necessary from India.

The Thirty Meter Telescope Project was hence selected by India for contribution to it.

The DPR was submitted to the DST in January 2010 and revised subsequently as per DST requirements by February 2010. At this point, the RRI opted out of the project on April 14, 2010. It did not state any reason in writing but stated it had other priority projects. Despite this, the DST gave approval for the project and gave the green signal to join the Thirty Meter Telescope with Observer Status. This was done by India on June 24, 2010. From below, when I mention countries, it refers to the institutions involved in TMT from that country.

Ramaprakash then explained the three steps by which an institution/country could partner with the TMT. These were Observer, Participant and Full Partner stages. The Observer status is something that India shares with China in the TMT. It includes participation in non-executive meetings, participation in science advisory roles, access to internal documentation and had no commitment (in-cash or in-kind) to the project but was to show strong intent in joining the project. The second was the Participant stage at which one signed a Memorandum of Understanding. Canada and Japan were at this stage of involvement. The third was the Full Partner stage involved construction and about 20 years of operations.

The load sharing is currently expected among the 6 participants is roughly 30% US contribution, 25% each from Japan and Canada and 10% each from India and China. The National Science Foundation in the US has been asked to provide 25% funding after choosing either TMT or GMT. It has been directed to make this choice as soon as possible. But despite the choice, the actual fund flow would begin only in 2015. Both TMT and GMT are wooing for this money but have claimed to have strategies if this money does not come through. Various organisations in the US are committed to paying the 30% US share. Canada is in some terms sitting on the fence. It has stated that if work does not begin on the TMT by 2014, it would join the E-ELT project. Japan has gone through a government change whilst this project was on and it has led its scientists to present the case again to the current government. As a result of this, the project does not seem to have the support of the Japanese government yet. Chinese institutions have claimed that they will get full funding for the project by the end of the year.

The TMT partners are currently developing the proposal jointly to be presented to the National Science Foundation and using that as the basis for requesting funding in the respective countries’ agencies.

Before going into the status of this project in India, Ramaprakash outlined some of the areas where India could contribute in-kind. This involves polishing of the primary mirror. The primary mirror is made out of 574 segments. The technological challenge is in developing a mass production model for these mirrors to deliver them in time for the project completion. These mirrors have to be delivered at the rate of nearly a segment every two days for them to work within project timelines. He clarified that each segment might need as long as it does to get polished (weeks, months, years) but the challenge was to line them so that a segment is delivered every 2 days. India is competing in this with USA, China and Japan. To provide risk mitigation, TMT will give the work to 2 countries. India is also interested in the segment support assembly, the primary mirror actuators, edge sensors, observation control software, remote observation capabilities and science and data archival capabilities.

This proposal was submitted to DST by the groups in India in November 2010. It includes request for seed funding in prototype development, travel support, human resource development by getting access to observation time in large telescopes. India is in some trouble since we have to convince the TMT project members that it can deliver the 70% in-kind contribution by late 2011.

The DST requirement is that this create the possibility of nearly 300 optical or infra-red astronomers in the country by 2020, increase PhD intake, enhance faculty numbers and participation in TMT instrument construction and use. A slide showing the current number of astronomers in India raised a cry from the audience. It was at this point, that the talk simply spiralled into a slugfest on the possibility on delivering the targets. The audience (mostly astronomers) felt that there would be no way to reach the number of 300. A person even targetted IUCAA (the institution that Ramaprakash was from) saying that the institute could not raise the numbers for which it was developed. As some tempers were lost, Ramaprakash tried to control the talk.

I think rather than taking the project as a challenge, the audience got involved in something un-related. Ramaprakash could have avoided the table which evoked the response that it did from the audience. Also, he tried replying in jest to some serious audience question. Under these circumstances, where the old guard seemed more obsessed with pessimistic views simply showed that astronomy in India had not moved on as thought of and there also seemed to be some friction between older organisations like TIFR and newer ones like IUCAA. All in all, this is bad for Indian astronomy and maybe the reason why young Indians do not turn to this science. The budding and interested amateur astronomy community in India speaks a totally different story! The professional astronomy organisations in the country seem to be in the past century!

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