The rector of Moscow State University, Viktor Sadovnichy, has unveiled plans for a massive 60 m optical telescope on the Canary Islands. If built, the telescope would be the world’s largest and would hunt for Earth-like planets around other stars, says Sadovnichy. But the plans have divided researchers, with some Russian astronomers saying the country should not build its own facility but join the European Southern Observatory (ESO) instead.
According to Vladimir Lipunov, director of the Space Monitoring Laboratory at Moscow State University, the telescope would be built by Russia, Spain and possibly Switzerland and Germany, with Russia getting a quarter of the observing time at the facility. The so-far-unnamed telescope would dwarf all existing – and currently planned – facilities, including the 39 m European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and 25 m Giant Magellan Telescope, both to be based in Chile, as well as the Thirty Meter Telescope to be built in Hawaii.
“Astronomers are always happy to have a new instrument and will always find a use for it – as there are lots of objects out there to look at,” says Sergei Popov of the Sternberg Astronomical Institute in Moscow. However, Popov questions whether it is the best option for Russian astronomy because the country has been debating whether to join ESO since 2006. As a member state, its astronomers would gain access to the ESO’s various telescopes, including the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and the next-generation E-ELT.
All about the money
Membership, however, costs money – and Russia was told it would have to fork out €130m to join ESO, plus an annual subscription of €13m. While the Russian government is deciding whether to allocate the necessary funds, some researchers argue that the money should instead be spent on a facility partly owned by Russia. “The idea is to leave the money at home and use it to build [the 60 m telescope] on the Canary Islands in one of Russia’s factories,” says Lipunov.
Yuri Balega, director of the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences, questions the timing of the proposal to build a 60 m telescope. “Such an instrument will cost at least €2–3bn to build and today we do not have the necessary technologies, engineering power and money to start such a project,” says Balega. “Even if we had all that in Russia, such a fantastic telescope would only be built 20–25 years from now.” He feels that Russian astronomers, who currently lag behind the rest of the world, would do best by gaining access to ESO’s world-class instruments.