BANGALORE: When S Murali heard about the $1.2-billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), he immediately saw it as a big opportunity. Murali heads General Optics Asia Ltd (GOAL), a Pondicherry-based niche firm that makes strategic components for space and defence. But he could not make headway on his own as the TMT contracts were being awarded only to countries in a consortium.
Help came his way last week as India signed up as a partner with a 10% stake - worth at least Rs 1,000 crore - in the project. Now, three Indian companies - GOAL, Bangalore-based Avasarala, and Godrej and Boyce - will develop and manufacture Rs 700 crore worth of components for the telescope, government officials said.
The Rs 210-crore Avasarala had earlier worked on the Large Hadron Collider for developing support for the large magnets underground. Both Avasarala and Godrej and Boyce have previously worked on sensitive defence and space projects.
These companies are set to make some critical components for the Hawaii-based telescope, one of the most ambitious projects undertaken so far in astronomy, involving the development of technologies that do not exist yet.
Participating in the project will help Indian companies to get an early start in a highly sophisticated and strategic area. "This will help us develop mirror technologies that will be available to only a few in the world," says Murali.
The other partners are the US, Japan, China and Canada.
The Thirty Meter Telescope is three times as big as any optical telescope built so far, and is the most expensive among a series of extremely large telescopes being planned around the world now. It will be able to picture the edges of the known universe, look closely at objects that cannot be seen now, image planets in other stars, and do several other things not possible so far. It is expected to bring a big shift in our understanding of the universe.
The Indian government will invest the Rs 1,000 crore through the creation of an agency called TMT India. This institution will pay the private companies - in rupees - for their work.
The parts made by them will be shipped to TMT in Pasadena and later make their way to Hawaii, where the telescope is being built.
Building the Thirty Meter Telescope is not an easy job. First of all, making a single mirror with a 30-metre diameter is difficult. So the mirror is broken into components, 492 of them in all, that are assembled to a precision of a few billionths of a metre.
Each piece of mirror has sensors behind it to detect movement and actuators — a machine that can move something automatically — that can shift the mirrors to an accuracy of a few billionth of a metre.