I remember the first time I saw Jupiter and its moons through a telescope that could fit in my backpack, I was spellbound! Four tiny off-white bokeh dots around a bigger dot in a jet black background, it wasn’t a sharp image but it felt incredibly amazing looking at a planet in our solar system with its moons which were more than 500 million kilometers away! So when I got the opportunity to visit one of the highest astronomical observatories in the world that too in Ladakh, I was ecstatic and I wondered if we could see planets, stars or distant galaxies through the telescope at the observatory!
Did you know one of the world’s highest sites for optical, infrared and gamma ray telescopes is in India?
At an altitude of 4500 meters the Himalayan Chandra Telescope at Hanle in Ladakh is the 3rd highest in the world! Located less than 20 km from the Line of Actual control (LAC) with China, Hanle in Changthang is a high altitude cold desert in the Himalayas. ( Read about our adventures on the road getting to Hanle)
Getting there: Accessible on road from Mood, Hanle requires a permit to visit that can be obtained from Leh.
Route: Leh – Hemis Monastery – Chang La pass – Tangtse – Chushul – Rezang La – Mood – Hanle (about 320 km on Google Maps)
It’s a collective effort from various telescopes placed in different parts of the world, to see stars or galaxies from the earth, and at Hanle in Ladakh is one such observatory in the northern hemisphere. A cold high altitude desert, Hanle is ideal for astronomy not only in the visible band but also in the infrared and high-energy gamma rays. Riding up to Mount Saraswati, (named after the Hindu Goddess of learning), another telescope the High Altitude Gamma Ray Telescope (HAGAR) that has 7 telescopes, six on the periphery of a 50 meters radius circle and one at the centre, at the base of the mountain came in view.
The dome-shaped observatory, satellite towers and futuristic looking telescopes amidst desolate mountains transported me to a scene from a sci-fi movie!
Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore remotely operates these telescopes. Inside the dome-shaped structure with a slit, there is a small control room with desks & computers and metal stairs leading up to the main parts of the telescope. The metallic sheet of the dome shuddering from the winds outside and technicians oiling the circular rig that slides the slit open, it was like being inside a huge noisy machine! One of the scientists at the observatory gave us a tour explaining the structure and workings of the telescope. Once a particular part or event in the sky is chosen and the telescope positioned in that direction, it takes days before all the data gets analyzed and an image formed. An impressive 2-meter lens sits at the centre of the infrared telescope that is cooled with liquid nitrogen. As he poured the colorless liquid out from the can in a glass, we stared in awe as it vanished into white smoke!
On our visit to the observatory even though I didn’t get to see anything other than the telescope itself and a video of its prominent observations however it was an eventful adventure getting there, crossing Chang La – one of the highest mountain passes, experiencing life in a cold desert, and a science lesson high up in the Himalayas!
More about the observatory here and some images from the Himalayan Chandra Telescope. In News – India’s first robotic telescope at Hanle in Ladakh opens its eyes to the Universe! Read more about India’s newest telescope. This piece is a part of a series on my travels to Ladakh, other posts – Ride of a Lifetime, Ladakh Blues: Enchanting lakes of Ladakh, Smiling Faces of Ladakh, Wild Ladakh, Hidden treasure of Ladakh – prehistoric Rock Art that dates back to 3000 BC, Breathless Himalayas: Crossing Chang La pass and Motorcycle Diaries: Cold desert of Hanle, Ladakh! Watch wild Kiangs cross the road in front of us and mountain dogs run along our bikes in a short video of our road trip to Changthang shot mostly on the motorbike.