India is located immediately to the south of the highest plateau in the world, the Himalayan Plateau, where the average elevation exceeds 4.5 kilometres above sea level. The high altitude, minimum precipitation, clear skies, and low atmospheric and light pollution make the plateau, which spans the area between Ladakh, Aksai Chin, and Tibet, ideal for astronomy.
India and China operate numerous telescopes in this unique region. The Indian Astronomical Observatory at Hanle in Ladakh and the National Astronomical Observatory of China at Shiquanhe in Tibet are merely 100 kilometres away from each other. But while the Indian observatory focuses exclusively on scientific and technological objectives, the Chinese use their observatories not only for research but to advance more earthly objectives as well—including collaboration and better relations with other nations. For the moment, at least, India is losing at new-age astro-diplomacy.
Modern astronomy originated around the 19th century in Europe and North America. Owing to geography, astronomy in its early decades was largely pursued through observation of skies over the northern hemisphere. But in the 1960s, a group of European astronomers recognised the need to observe celestial objects and constellations that can only be viewed from the southern hemisphere. Thus was born the European Southern Observatory—actually a group of astronomical observatories—in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest, high-altitude place in the world. Today, Chile houses not only European, but American and Japanese observatories. These observatories cumulatively study the early universe, far away galaxies, black holes, nebulae and extrasolar planets and their potential to host alien life. The Chilean government has its unique geography to enhance its native scientific infrastructure and its diplomatic relations with major nations. Now known as the ‘astronomy capital of the world,’ Chile is able to attract scientists and technologists from all over the world.
The Himalayan Plateau has all the attributes, some superior to those in the Atacama Desert, to become a global hub of astronomy too. But while both India and China already have observatories on the ‘Roof of the World,’ only Beijing has demonstrated the diplomatic and strategic intent to lead.
Rather than undertaking projects alone, China has formed collaborations with different countries to work in Tibet. In 2013, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Huawei and Chile’s National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research formed the China-Chile Joint Center for Astronomy.
The University of Cologne in Germany has provided the KOSMA submillimeter telescope to the Yangbajingzhen Astronomical Observatory near Lhasa. Given its location in Tibet and at an altitude of approximately 4.3 kilometres, KOSMA can analyse the chemical composition of large swaths of the Milky Way galaxy, including sections of its centre. It is a win-win situation for German and other European astronomical institutions, whose submillimeter space observatory, HERSCHEL, already has made pathbreaking discoveries, including the discovery of water vapour on the dwarf planet Ceres, the confirmation of molecular oxygen in the universe, and clues to the origin of oceanic water on Earth from a certain class of comets.
The Japanese Ministry of Science and Technology (MEXT), working through the University of Tokyo, collaborates with the Chinese Academy of Sciences on the Tibet AS-gamma Experiment which also is located near Yangbajingzhen. This Sino-Japanese collaboration has led to discoveries of gamma rays emitting from highly destructive celestial events, such as supernovae, pulsars and blazars. Tokyo already operates telescopes in Chile, so having one in Tibet keeps it in the forefront of astronomical advancement.
The Chinese Five hundred metre Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), the largest telescope in the world, was built with an advanced L-band receiver from the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. This receiver equips the FAST telescope to look for fainter and farther celestial objects and events in the universe. Canberra benefits by participating in a significant international project in addition to leading another major astronomy endeavour, the Square Kilometer Array.
More collaborations are in the works. Scientific teams from Japanese, Canadian, American and Chinese institutions have surveyed sites as high as 6000 metres near Shiquanhe, which will probably house the highest astronomical observatory in the world.
Beijing’s interests are not only in science. It gives immense techno-political significance to astronomy. It is exploiting astronomical collaborations to consolidate its relations with Belt and Road Initiative partners. It is helping the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and Government of Uzbekistan to install a four-metre-wide telescope at the Maidanak Observatory, 120 kilometres away from the city of Samarkand.
The FAST has been a game-changer for China’s global image as the new science superpower. The project is making Guizhou, a comparatively underdeveloped Chinese province, a global leader in the emerging ‘big data’ sector. The FAST catalysed the establishment of the ‘Sky Eye 1’ supercomputing centre, which is anticipated to store and compute massive amounts of data. Owing to FAST, the provincial government of Guizhou has begun organising the first world’s first international big data industry expo.
A few city-blocks away from the picturesque East Lake in Wuhan, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping recently met, is the Wuhan Optics Valley. This research and development (R&D) cluster is constructed on the same lines as the Optics Valley in Arizona in the western United States. Arizona’s prominent astronomical observatories have spawned a large R&D industrial sector that now serves not only the astronomical and allied sectors but also spin-off manufacturing technology activities. The Wuhan Optics Valley is home to companies undertaking R&D on geospatial information systems, new-age semiconductors, lasers, robotics, photonics, optoelectronics, and other precision instruments and components vital to astronomy.
India is a major contributor to modern astronomy. Along with the numerous astronomical telescopes in Ladakh, Udaipur, Vellore, Pune, Bengaluru, Nainital, and Panchmarhi, a consortium of Indian astronomical institutions are also beginning to construct an advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory in Maharashtra. The Indian institutions are also part of numerous multinational astronomy projects like the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, Sloan Digital Sky Survey in New Mexico, and Square Kilometre Array in Australia and South Africa.
Despite these steps, New Delhi needs to do much more. Even though Ladakh lies in the same climatic and geographical precincts as China’s Shiquanhe, New Delhi has not construed an alternative to the Atacama Desert in its territory. Moreover, Delhi has not yet followed up its astronomy programme by establishing R&D clusters that cater to emerging technologies; tools like Big Data, Robotics, and the Internet of Things are often discussed in government-led fora, but innovative steps have not yet been taken to utilise them to enhance scientific and technological advances beyond astronomy. And unlike Beijing, Washington and Santiago, New Delhi is yet to fully utilise astronomy as a tool of multilateral diplomacy. Policy lapses, absence of far-sighted science-driven diplomacy, and isolated scientific pursuits will solely keep New Delhi behind Beijing and other capitals in Asia.
India’s ground-based observatories are smaller (less than 10 metres in diameter) than most upcoming and state-of-the-art space-based telescopes – the James Webb Space Telescope, the LUVOIR, or the Origins Space Telescope, all built under NASA’s Strategic Science Missions programme. Space-based telescopes of the same sizes and made of ultramodern components stand a better chance of obtaining clearer imagery because of lack of atmospheric and surface-based obstructions that ground-based telescopes encounter.
To compete and outrun the productivity of upcoming space-based telescopes, ground-based telescopes will need to grow bigger in diameter and much superior in the quality of observations. Policy changes can help too. To begin with, there must be concerted efforts to designate Ladakh as a dark sky preserve, a restricted area that is free from artificial light pollution. New Delhi must lead an international consortium to build a more sophisticated and extremely massive optical telescope in Ladakh. It should be greater than 100 metres – the largest in its class – so that it could be used to identify extra-solar planets that could potentially host life, observe the ancient universe, and detect astronomical chemistry connected with origin of life on Earth.
Apart from enabling such path-breaking scientific discoveries, cutting-edge astronomy will stimulate technological, economic and human resource development. All these are high priorities for New Delhi. It must capitalise on its proximity to the Himalayas. High-end astronomical pursuits will immensely contribute to India’s growth and make it an indispensable global power.
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