February 8, 2023 6:20 am

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Unravelling the Mysteries of Space; 50 years of Sampurnanand Telescope

Asia’s oldest and first telescope, the 104-cm Sampurnanand telescope is one of ARIES main observing facilities that has made some significant contributions to space science.

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Unravelling the mysteries of space has often been an astonishing field for humankind. Among the other leading nations, India has been at the forefront of bestowing the world with some phenomenal discoveries in astrophysics. 

One such leading research institute of India, ARIES(Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences) has been a harbinger of astronomy for a long time. Situated adjacent to the hill town of Nainital, the institute specializes in observational astronomy, astrophysics, and atmospheric pressure. Yesterday marked 50 years of the establishment of one of its main observing facilities in the optical domain i.e., Sampurnanand Telescope. 

Legacy of the Research Institute

The legacy of ARIES goes back around six decades when in 1954 it started functioning on the premises of the Govt. Sanskrit College(presently known as Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya) in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. It was started with the initiative of  Dr. Sampurnanand, the Education Minister, who later became the Chief Minister of UP, and Dr. A N Singh, a professor of mathematics at Lucknow University. 

Owing to the poor observing astronomical conditions in Varanasi, the observatory was shifted for a clear night sky view to its present site at Manora Peak in Nainital. It was the vision of Professor M K Vainu Bappu, a highly respected astronomer in optical astronomy to establish a 4-meter class telescope in India. ARIES started its operational research with modest facilities until a 1-meter optical telescope(called Sampurnanad telescope) was established at Manora peak by Carl Zeiss, Germany in 1972. 

The institute then started flourishing after coming under the aegis and funding of the Department of Science and Technology(DST), Government of India in 2004. 

Location Uniqueness

The unique location of ARIES(79 degrees east) is in the middle of a 180° wide longitude band, between the Canary Island and Eastern Australia. It, therefore, complements observations, which might not be possible from the mentioned two places. The site also enjoys 200 days of clear sky viewing in a calendar year. 

The main thrust areas of research for its astronomy and astrophysics division are solar, planetary, stellar, galactic, and extra-galactic astronomy including, X-ray binaries, star clusters, nearby galaxies, quasars, and inherently transient events like supernovae and highly energetic gamma-ray bursts. 

These observations have been carried out by the spectacular instruments that are housed in two observational facilities of ARIES, one at Manora peak and another one at Devasthal in Nainital. Telescopes are the key instruments of modern observational astronomy that serve the dual purpose of gathering light and magnifying the image. The important ones are the 104-cm ST, 3.6-M Devasthal Optical telescope, 1.3-M Devasthal fast optical telescope, 4-M International Liquid Mirror telescope, 15-cm Solar tower telescope, and 50-cm Baker-Nunn Schmidt telescope. 

Mysteries Unravelled by Sampurnanand Telescope

Asia’s oldest and first telescope, the 104-cm Sampurnanand telescope is one of ARIES main observing facilities that has made some significant contributions to space science. It has been credited with the first successful photoelectric observations of stars from Indian soil. 

In the 1980s, it contributed to the important discovery of two rings around Saturn, one of which was detected for the very first time. The discovery further helped in the detection of rings around Uranus and Neptune. 

Rings of Saturn

A large number of comets including the only known short-period comet i.e.. Halley Comet has also been observed. The first optical observation of the afterglows of Gamma-ray Bursts has been detected from the country for the first time. 

Afterglow of a Gamma-ray burst

The telescope also participated in the Nainital-Cape Sky survey, one of the longest and most unique ground-based sky surveys to discover quakes in about six stars. 

At the present date, the telescope generates about 50 to 100 Gigabytes of data per night of observations. Being half a century old, the officials are planning to upgrade and phase out all the existing manual telescope functions by switching to new software.   

“The facility will need a new spectrograph, which will open avenues to observing stars in multiple spectra and help identify their elements,” said another ARIES scientist.

Collaborations For Joint Research

ARIES has collaborated with various international institutions to carry out observations in the frontier areas of astronomy. This year in June, it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Institute of Environmental Studies, Japan for joint research on air quality and climate change. 

The Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO) had also entered into an agreement with ARIES for cooperation in the field of Space Situational Awareness(SSA) and Astrophysics. Space object orbital tracking and its analysis is an important aspect to safeguard Indian space assets from the threat of space debris.

Way Forward

The establishment of a premier space research institute in Uttarakhand has given the state worldwide recognition for exploring the vast cosmos in space. In the future ARIES aims to establish a strong synergy between its national and international ground-based facilities and space programmes to probe and understand celestial phenomena in astrophysical terms. 

Shreya Arora
Shreya Arora

Researcher | Content-Writer
~"Learn continually - there's always 'one more thing' to learn!"

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