India Unveils World's Highest Observatory

Pallava Bagla
for National Geographic News
January 7, 2002
The latest hot spot for international astronomers is perched on a lonely peak in the western Himalayas. The Indian Astronomical Observatory, sitting 14,800 feet (4,517 meters) above sea level in the village of Hanle, India, is the world's highest astronomy observatory.

The Hanle telescope is located 660 feet (200 meters) higher than the Meyer-Womble Observatory, operated by the University of Denver deep in the Rocky Mountains, which until now held the distinction of being the world's highest observatory.

The U.S. $8 million observatory, which became operational in the summer of 2001, is the most advanced astronomy facility in Asia. Managed by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore, the observatory is expected to become an international gathering point for astronomers.

"Great infrastructure has been created at a vastly remote location, and now our plan is to develop the site into a high altitude experimental park which would house multi-disciplinary research teams," said V.S. Ramamurthy, secretary of the Department of Science Technology in New Delhi.

Eye in the Sky

Astronomers always try to locate their telescopes in areas with low population densities to reduce the visibility problems caused by light pollution. Hanle Observatory on Mount Saraswati is in the cold, barren desert of Ladakh, where few people venture.

It takes a good ten hours of steady driving from Leh, the district capital of Ladakh, to reach the facility in the vast Nilamkhul Plain of Changthang Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir State, very close to the Chinese border.

The cloudless skies and low water vapor levels of the dry, cold desert make it an excellent site for optical, infrared, sub-millimeter, and millimeter wavelength astronomy.

"The site appears to have great potential, as it is extremely dark and has excellent seeing conditions," Peter Wehinger, an astronomer at the Steward Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, told Science magazine.

The observatory's telescope was christened the "Chandra" in honor of the India-born astrophysicist and Nobel laureate S. Chandrashekhar.

The Chandra telescope has a mirror a little over two meters (6.5 feet) large. The larger the mirror the better, as it allows a telescope to view more distant stars and galaxies.

Officials at IAO say the Chandra is the most sophisticated telescope in the eastern hemisphere and will provide the best coverage for half the globe, from the Canary Islands to Eastern Australia.

International Collaboration

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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