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India Inaugurates Asia’s Largest Liquid Mirror Telescope

This magnificent Hubble image shows the Veil Nebula, one of the most studied supernova remnants in the universe. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

India has unveiled the International Liquid Mirror Telescope (ILMT), Asia's largest and most advanced four-meter telescope, now operational in Devasthal, Uttarakhand. The cutting-edge observatory will focus on gravitational lensing studies and identifying celestial objects such as asteroids, supernovae, and space debris, significantly advancing India's astronomical research capabilities.

The International Liquid Mirror Telescope (ILMT), the largest of its kind in Asia with a four-meter diameter, has officially become operational in Devasthal, Uttarakhand, India. This cutting-edge telescope is specifically designed to enable advanced astronomical observations and unlock new insights into the cosmos.

Unlocking the cosmos

One of the primary research areas the ILMT will focus on is gravitational lensing studies. This phenomenon occurs when a massive object, such as a galaxy cluster, bends light from a more distant object, acting as a lens and magnifying the background object. Gravitational lensing studies can provide valuable information about the distribution of mass in the universe, including the elusive dark matter, and contribute to our understanding of fundamental concepts in cosmology.

In addition to gravitational lensing, the ILMT will play a crucial role in identifying various celestial objects, including asteroids, supernovae, and space debris. Detecting and tracking asteroids can help astronomers assess the risk of potential impacts with Earth while studying supernovae can shed light on the lifecycle of stars and the expansion of the universe. Furthermore, monitoring space debris is vital for maintaining the safety of satellites and the International Space Station, as well as for devising strategies to manage the growing amount of debris orbiting our planet. As a state-of-the-art observatory, the ILMT is poised to significantly advance India’s capabilities in astronomical research and contribute to global efforts to explore the mysteries of the universe.

At an altitude of 2,450 meters

Operated by the Aryabhata Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES) at an elevation of 2,450 meters, the ILMT stands as India’s inaugural liquid mirror telescope. Its launch signifies a crucial scientific achievement for the nation. Housing both the ILMT and the Devasthal Optical Telescope (DOT), the Devasthal Observatory now boasts two four-meter class telescopes, representing the largest aperture telescopes in India.

Using AI

The ILMT utilizes a rotating mirror composed of a thin layer of liquid mercury to gather and focus light. Nightly, the telescope will scan the sky overhead, producing 10-15 gigabytes of data for AI analysis to categorize celestial objects. With its heightened sensitivity to faint and diffuse objects, the telescope serves as an invaluable instrument for cosmic exploration.

Constructed by the Advanced Mechanical and Optical Systems (AMOS) Corporation and Belgium’s Centre Spatial de Liège, the ILMT is the result of a joint effort among numerous scientific institutions. Collaborators include Poland’s Poznan Observatory and Canadian universities such as the University of British Columbia, Laval University, the University of Montreal, the University of Toronto, York University, and the University of Victoria.

What is a liquid mirror telescope?

A liquid mirror telescope is a type of optical telescope that uses a reflective liquid, usually mercury, as its primary mirror. Instead of using a solid glass or metal mirror, the telescope features a rotating dish containing liquid metal. As the dish spins at a constant speed, the liquid forms a smooth, parabolic surface due to the centrifugal force. This parabolic shape is ideal for focusing incoming light from celestial objects.

Liquid mirror telescopes have several advantages over traditional solid mirror telescopes. They are generally less expensive to build and maintain, as the liquid mirrors are easier to create and do not require the same level of polishing and precision as solid mirrors. Additionally, liquid mirror telescopes are particularly sensitive to faint and diffuse objects, making them well-suited for specific astronomical observations.

However, liquid mirror telescopes have some limitations. They can only observe objects directly overhead (at the zenith) because the mirror’s parabolic shape cannot be adjusted to point in different directions. Also, the use of mercury, a toxic heavy metal, raises environmental and safety concerns. Despite these limitations, liquid mirror telescopes offer a cost-effective and innovative approach to certain types of astronomical research.

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