Next year, India will formally sign an international agreement to be part of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project. This telescope will be jointly constructed by the US, Canada, China, Japan and India at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, one of the tallest mountains in the world. The endeavour is likely to cost nearly $1.2 billion and—like science projects of this scale—promises to shed new light on the origins and working of the universe. While it’s laudable that India has joined this initiative, it would be a waste of money—as things now stand, India and China are expected to chip in nearly $100 million each—if Indian industry isn’t able to capitalize on the business opportunity this brings.
It is quite easy for a country to get seduced by the reflected glory that accompanies participation in such projects. The thankfully defunct FutureGen project, an initiative of former US president George W. Bush that was to build a zero-emissions, coal-fuelled power plant in the US, would have had India spending a whole lot for very little in return.
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN may be popular for the exotic science it pursues but was, and continues to be, a $9-billion bonanza for several European companies that have won lucrative contracts to design and construct its labyrinthine detectors. Though India contributed nearly $25 million to the project, much of it was in the form of software and personnel and didn’t provide much of a fillip to the Indian industry.
There’s reason for optimism as far as the TMT is concerned because India, it is learnt, will be contributing core components such as 86 of the 492 mirror segments, sensors and struts that make up and control the movement of the telescope’s primary mirror.
Making these mirrors is extremely complex because they require precision right down to the breadth of a human hair and unless Indian companies are able to do a good job, it is unlikely they will be considered for future endeavours. While India could claim legitimate glory for future scientific discoveries that may be made with this telescope, it would be remiss if it doesn’t aggressively move to pitch the wares of Indian industry for the several high-science projects that are scheduled to come up in the coming years.
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