Explainer: India’s first robotic telescope is now gazing into space from Ladakh

By Prarthana Mitra

The Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) in Ladakh’s Hanle village, now houses the country’s first robotic space telescope designed to observe dynamic or transient events in the universe.

Located at 4500 metres above the sea level, the 0.7 mm robotic telescope cost Rs 3.5 crores to build and saw first light earlier this month. As a part of a multinational collaborative network, dubbed as Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen (GROWTH), the powerful telescope began to observe events starting June 12.

Here’s what happened

Located near the site where the Chandra telescope was set up, the robotic telescope was operationalised by the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Astrophysics and is situated at one of the 18 GROWTH observatories around the world.

Varun Bhalerao from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, a principal investigator in the project, spoke to Swarajya Magazine at length, about what sets the telescope apart from its non-robotic peers. It will automatically “open up the dome, do the calibration, carry out the observation, shut the dome in the morning and do the preliminary data analysis. Scientist’s job is to interpret the data,” he said.

Researchers involved in the installation also commented on the first order of business that the telescope attended to. “For the first light, targets were chosen from the Messier catalog – a catalog of nearby, bright astronomical sources accessible from the northern hemisphere. These chosen regions are not only rich in stars, thereby allowing for various image quality tests but are also visually stunning,” Atharva Patil told Indian Science Wire.

How will GROWTH benefit astronomers?

The primary objective of the project is to explore transient events in outer space to facilitate in-depth research on the matter of time-domain astronomy. These cosmic events, occurring in timescales much shorter than light years, will be captured by means of the telescope’s fully robotic optical research lens.

The findings could, in turn, shed crucial light on the existence of explosive bodies in the universe. Since its commencement, the telescope has been engaged in studying various phenomena like supernovae, neutron stars (black hole mergers), and near-earth asteroids. This will essentially give us conclusive information about how heavy elements are combined to form a star and about the final fate of such stars.

Universities and research institutes from the US, the UK, Japan, India, Germany, Taiwan and Israel are part of the initiative.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius