Iranian astronomers fear their ambitious observatory could become a “third world telescope” | science

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The Iranian National Observatory enjoys favorable visibility conditions at 3600 meters on Mount Gargash.

Parsa Bigdeli

Richard Stone

For Sepehr Arbabi, the ceremony to inaugurate the Iranian National Observatory (INO) on a mountain top in central Iran last week should have been a proud moment. The astrophysicist spent 13 years overcoming obstacles to put the world-class optical telescope on a solid technical footing, including sourcing the primary mirror from Germany. “I felt like my baby, my child,” says Arbabi, who left the project 5 years ago and is now at the University of Würzburg.

But Arbabi and some colleagues fear that opaque project management and a change in the country’s political leadership pose a threat to the $ 30 million INO – the largest scientific project Iran has undertaken. “It feels like your child is drowning in front of you and you can’t help it,” says Arbabi. Others say Iranian astronomers should be given the opportunity to review changes to the telescope’s design and their impact on scientific goals, and to clarify who has access to the telescope.

Many agree that the inauguration was “premature,” as the Astronomical Society of Iran (ASI) said in a statement. This is because the INO has not yet installed two key elements of the telescope: its 3.4-meter primary mirror and its adapter rotator, a sensor-equipped component that tracks stars and sharpens images. Astronomers cannot begin the month-long process of commissioning and calibrating the telescope until these elements are in place, which means the first light is not likely until 2023 at the earliest.

Iranian astronomers envisioned the INO as their ticket back to a world stage they dominated a millennium ago, when Europe was in the dark ages and Persia was an astronomical powerhouse. For example, Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi wrote in the 10th century a.

In the early 2000s, Reza Mansouri, theoretical astrophysicist at Sharif University of Technology and the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences (IPM) in Tehran, led the construction of the observatory. In 2004 he hired Arbabi as a project engineer, which led him to quit a plum job at Airbus in Germany to take on the position.

The location chosen for the INO, the 3,600 meter high Gargash mountain in central Iran near the city of Kashan, shows minimal atmospheric turbulence and frequent cloudless nights. It’s “extraordinarily cheap” for astronomy, says Arne Ardeberg, an astronomer at Lund University who assessed telescope sites around the world and visited Gargash in the late 2000s. He helped convince Iranian astronomers that the then difficult-to-reach mountain summit was the best place for the INO, says Mansouri.

Reza Mansouri led the construction of the Iranian National Observatory until 2016.

Richard Stein /science

Arbabi meanwhile had the order to procure the 1.95 million euro mirror from Germany, which required a bureaucratic labyrinth of international sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program. But politics at home shortened his tenure at the observatory. Despite his success in overseeing the technical aspects of the INO, says Arbabi, he was “always treated like a stranger”. IPM removed Mansouri from the INO directorate in 2016, and Arbabi’s contract was not renewed a short time later.

Mansouri fears that recent design changes may have hampered the INO. Although he no longer has access to the INO documentation, he claims, based on photos of the facility, “Management drastically changed the original design at the expense of image quality”. For example, he says, the mirror won’t sit high enough off the floor to minimize thermal swings, and the case will lack the ventilation slots necessary to reduce turbulence. He fears that Iran will end up with “a third world telescope instead of a world-class telescope”. The current director of the INO, IPM astrophysicist Habib Khosroshahi, did not respond to requests for comment.

Another concern is how the change of government in Iran will affect the prospects of the INO. The current Iranian Vice President for Science and Technology, Sorena Sattari, supported the INO and spoke at the inauguration. Khosroshahi listed in Natural astronomy in 2018 that the observations of the INO are available to the international community. But President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative lawyer who will take power next month, has not yet articulated his scientific priorities; his inclinations towards foreign cooperation and basic research are unknown.

Some Iranian astronomers remain optimistic. In addition to providing excellent observation conditions, the INO would fill a geographic gap in world-class telescopes – although the long delay in commissioning the INO means it will compete with an optical telescope of similar size being built in Turkey. Nevertheless, “the INO has great potential for a lot of groundbreaking research,” says the astronomer Moein Mosleh, director of the Biruni Observatory in Shiraz, Iran, which is not affiliated with the INO. The plan is to use the telescope to study galaxy formation and look for exoplanets, and train it on transient sources like gamma-ray bursts to try to locate their locations.

Mosleh, who is also president of ASI, says the society intends to team up with the INO team soon to see how a wider cross-section of the Iranian astronomical community can be “more involved in the facility.” In his opinion, the INO is making “very good progress in technical terms”. But: “It is also very important to define the observation projects and the participation of astronomers inside and outside Iran.”



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