India Unveils World's Highest Observatory

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American, Japanese, and French scientists are lining up to make use of India's state-of-the-art facility. In addition to astronomers, atmospheric scientists, Earth scientists, and even wildlife biologists want to take advantage of the remote high-altitude observatory.

If the dreams of Indian astronomers come to fruition, the facility could house a giant six- to eight-meter (20- to 26-foot) binocular telescope by 2010. A U.S. $100 million project is also under consideration by the Indian government.

Despite a raft of pesky issues—delays in obtaining visas to visit Jammu and Kashmir, and a 37-mile (60-kilometer) stretch of unpaved road on the final approach to the observatory—the Indian astronomy community has been able to facilitate site visits by more than two dozen overseas astronomers, opening the floodgates to international collaboration.

Japan has installed $250,000 worth of equipment as part of a preliminary effort to build a multimillion-dollar radio telescope array close to the Hanle facility. U.S. astronomers are financing a twin half-meter telescope; one will be housed at Hanle and the other at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

These twin scopes will operate in tandem so that once a star sets over Indian skies, scientists in the U.S. can begin to track it as it rises in the Western Hemisphere, thanks to the 12-hour time difference. This unique pair of telescopes will enable astronomers to study stars called "blazers," which change their appearance literally by the hour.

The Hanle telescope can also be operated by off-site astronomers using a dedicated satellite hotline.

"The telescope can be fully operated remotely from Hoskote and all observational data can be transmitted online to astronomers sitting more than 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) away," said B.C. Bhatt, Hanle Observatory's lead astronomer.

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