VAINU BAPPU OBSERVATORY - KAVALUR

BRIEF HISTORY

     The Vainu Bappu Observatory of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics traces its origin back to the year 1786 when William Petrie set up his private observatory at his garden house at Egmore, Madras, which eventually came to be known as the Madras Observatory. Later it was moved over to Kodaikanal and functioned there as the Kodaikanal Observatory since 1899.

M.K. Vainu Bappu who took over as the Director of the Kodaikanal Observatory in 1960, found a sleepy little hamlet called Kavalur in the Javadu Hills as a suitable site for establishing optical telescopes for observing the celestial objects. This came to be known as Kavalur Observatory.  Later on,  autonomy was obtained and the Head Quarters moved over to Bangalore with the new name as the Indian Institute of Astrophysics.

THE  LOCATION:

     Kavalur observatory is located in Kavalur in the Javadi Hills in Alangayam, Vellore District. The Kavalur Observatory is located in a 100 acre forest land in Tamil Nadu which is strewn with a variety of greenery of tropical region besides a number of medicinal plants with an occasional appearance of some wild life like deer, snakes and scorpions. Several varieties of birds have also been spotted in the campus. The observatory is at an altitude of 725m above mean sea level (longitude 78° 49.6' E ; latitude 12° 34.6' N). Apart from being reasonably away from city lights and industrial areas, the location has been chosen in order to be closer to the earth's equator for covering both northern and southern hemispheres with equal ease. In addition, its longitudinal position is such that it is the only major astronomical facility between Australia and South Africa for observing the southern objects.

THE TELESCOPES :

      The first telescope was of 38 cm (15 inch) aperture, with which astronomical observations were started in 1968 at Kavalur Observatory. The 75 cm (30 inch) telescope has been completely designed and fabricated at the workshops of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. In 1972 a 1 metre (40 inch) telescope made by Carl Zeiss Jena was installed at Kavalur.

2.3 METRE TELESCOPE:

     Vainu Bappu's swansong was the 2.3 metre (93 inch) aperture telescope, designed and built within the country. However it was rather unfortunate that Bappu passed away in 1982 and could not see the completion of this telescope.

     In a befitting tribute, the then Prime Minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi, at a function held at Kavalur on 6th January, 1986, named the observatory as VAINU BAPPU OBSERVATORY and the 2.3 metre telescope as VAINU BAPPU TELESCOPE.

    The telescope is so powerful that it can easily resolve a 25 paise coin kept forty kilometres away. Deep sky observations are carried out with this telescope using a variety of focal plane instruments. The equatorially mounted horse-shoe-yoke structure of the telescope is ideally suited for low latitudes and permits easy observation near the north celestial pole. The telescope has a F/3.25 paraboloid primary of 2.3 m diameter with the prime focus image scale of 27 arcsec/mm and a Cassegrain focus image scale of 6.7 arcsec/mm. This telescope has been operated as a national facility and attracts proposals from all over the country and some times from outside India.

THE FIELD STATIONS:

    While the Vainu Bappu Observatory is one of the field stations of the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Astrophysics, which is primarily devoted to research activities using the optical telescopes, the other field stations at Kodaikanal and at Gauribidanur are equipped for solar observations and radio astronomy programmes respectively.

     A present one of the challenging projects undertaken by the Institute is the installation of a 2 metre remotely operated optical and infrared telescope at Hanle in the Ladakh region of Himalayas. This will be the highest ground-based telescope in the world. A new field station called Centre for Research and Education in Science and Technology (CREST) is also being set up at Hosakote near Bangalore.

SCIENTIFIC ACTIVITIES :

   Front-line research is being carried out with the help of the optical telescopes at Vainu Bappu Observatory using several focal plane instrumentational facilities. The ongoing programmes include observations of stars, star clusters, novae, supernovae, blazars, galaxies, optical imaging of gamma-ray burst fields, stellar populations, solar system objects and many others.

   The telescopes at the observatory had started with relatively modest focal plane instruments and later on graduated to more sophisticated ones. These include cameras for fast photography, photoelectric photometers, a single-channel photoelectric spectrum scanner, a medium resolution spectrograph, a quartz-prism calibration spectrograph, infrared photometer, image tube spectrograph, a Universal Astronomical Grating Spectrograph  (UAGS from Zeiss), high-resolution echelle spectrograph and a polarimeter.   Photographic plates were the principal detectors in the early days. Presently the Charge Coupled Devices (CCD) have replaced the photographic plates. Some micro-processor-controlled photon counting systems were designed and fabricated which have been used in a variety of observational projects. A fibre linked echelle spectrograph is under construction.

    On campus maintenance facilities like aluminising plants for coating the telescope mirrors, mechanical and electrical workshops, electronics labs, along with a liquid nitrogen plant are at hand for the smooth functioning of the observatory. Highly advanced technical facilities like SUN workstations are available at the telescopes for handling the CCD data, along with specialised data reduction packages such as IRAF, STSDAS and DAOPHOT. Communication facilities, like e-mail via VSAT satellite connection, are available for all users for the telescopes.

   A programme of ultralow dispersion spectroscopy was successfully used to survey stars in the Large Megallanic Cloud (LMC). Of the ten supernovae observed so far, SN1987A in LMC was observed in great detail using the 1m and the 75 cm telescopes despite its low elevation in the southern sky, proving the worth of the geographic location of Kavalur. In fact the observations of the supernova were started within 48 hours of the discovery.

   Observational studies of evolved stars, in particular studies related to their evolutionary aspects, carried out at this observatory, have received critical acclaim and international recognition. The observational facilities at this Observatory have yielded many Ph.D theses for the scholars of the Institute as well as of other institutes and universities in the country.

DISCOVERIES :

   The 1 metre telescope is associated with two unique discoveries in the solar system. In the year 1972, atmosphere was detected around Jupiter's satellite Ganymede and in 1977 rings were discovered around Planet Uranus. In 1984 Kavalur reported the discovery of a thin outer ring around Saturn.

    On 17th February, 1988 a new minor planet was discovered using the 45 cm Schmidt telescope. It has been named Ramanujan after the Indian Mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. This is the first such discovery from India in this century.

POPULARISING ASTRONOMY :

   The observatory encourages scientific interactions with the public. Special attention is given to students at various levels. The observatory is open to public on all Saturdays at which time visits to the various telescopes and star watching programmes are organised.

Address of Vainu Bappu Observatory:

Vainu Bappu Observatory
Indian Institute of Astrophysics
Department of Science & Technology
Government of India
Kavalur, Alangayam - 635 701

Vellore District - Tamil Nadu

Phone : 04174 - 65222 , 65255, 65268 Fax : 04174 - 65255
Mail :
gsdbabu @ iiap.ernet.in