Iranian astronomers fear their ambitious observatory could become a ‘Third World telescope’

At 3600 meters on Mount Gargash, the Iranian National Observatory enjoys favorable seeing conditions.

Parsa Bigdeli

For Sepehr Arbabi, the ceremony last week to inaugurate the Iranian National Observatory (INO) on a mountaintop in central Iran should have been a proud moment. The astrophysicist spent 13 years surmounting obstacles to help put the world-class optical telescope on a sound technical footing, including obtaining its primary mirror from Germany. “I felt this was 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 shift in the nation’s political leadership pose threats to the $30 million INO—the biggest science project Iran has undertaken. “It feels like your child is drowning in front of you and you can’t help,” Arbabi says. Others say Iranian astronomers should get a chance to review changes in the telescope’s design and how it may affect scientific objectives, as well as clarify who will have access to the telescope.

Many agree the inauguration was “untimely,” as the Astronomical Society of Iran (ASI) declared in a statement. That’s because the INO has not yet installed two key pieces of the telescope: its 3.4-meter primary mirror and its adaptor-rotator, a sensor-packed component that tracks stars and sharpens images. Astronomers cannot begin the monthslong process of commissioning and calibrating the telescope until those elements are in place, meaning first light is unlikely to happen until 2023 at the earliest.

Iranian astronomers envisioned the INO as their ticket back onto a world stage they dominated 1 millennium ago, when Europe was in its Dark Ages and Persia was an astronomical powerhouse. For example, in the 10th century C.E. Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi first recorded the existence of the Andromeda galaxy in his famous book of constellations, and a short time later the polymath Abu Rayhan al-Biruni devised a novel method for determining Earth’s radius.

In the early 2000s, Reza Mansouri, a theoretical astrophysicist at Sharif University of Technology and the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences (IPM) in Tehran, led the charge to build the observatory. He brought on Arbabi as a project engineer in 2004, enticing him to give up a plum job with Airbus in Germany to take the position.

The site chosen for the INO, 3600-meter Mount Gargash in central Iran near the city of Kashan, has minimal atmospheric turbulence and frequent cloudless nights. It is “exceedingly favorable” for astronomy, says Arne Ardeberg, an astronomer at Lund University who has assessed telescope sites around the world and visited Gargash in the late 2000s. He helped convince Iranian astronomers that the mountaintop, difficult to reach at the time, was the best spot for the INO, Mansouri says.

Iranian astronomers fear their ambitious observatory could become a ‘Third World telescope’

Reza Mansouri led the effort to build the Iranian National Observatory until 2016.

Richard Stone/Science

Arbabi, meanwhile, was tasked with procuring the €1.95 million mirror from Germany, which required navigating a bureaucratic labyrinth of international sanctions placed on Iran because of its nuclear program. But politics at home cut short his tenure at the observatory. Despite his success overseeing the INO’s technical aspects, Arbabi says he was “always treated like a stranger.” IPM relieved Mansouri of the INO’s directorship in 2016, and Arbabi’s contract was not renewed a short time later.

Mansouri worries recent design changes may have hobbled the INO. Although he no longer has access to INO documentation, he contends that based on photos of the facility, “management has changed the original design drastically at the cost of image quality.” For example, he says, the mirror will not sit high enough above the ground to minimize thermal fluctuations, and the enclosure lacks ventilation louvers needed to reduce turbulence. He fears Iran will end up with “a Third World telescope instead of a world class one.” The INO’s current director, IPM astrophysicist Habib Khosroshahi, did not respond to requests for comment.

Another concern is how Iran’s change in government will affect the INO’s prospects. Iran’s current vice president for science and technology, Sorena Sattari, has backed the INO and spoke at the inauguration. Khosroshahi noted in Nature Astronomy in 2018 that observations made by the INO would be available to the international community. But President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative jurist who will take power next month, has not yet articulated his science priorities; his dispositions toward foreign collaboration and fundamental research are unknown.

Some Iranian astronomers remain optimistic. In addition to having exquisite observing conditions, the INO would fill a geographic gap in world-class telescopes—though the long delay in commissioning the INO means it will vie with a similar size optical telescope under construction in Turkey. Still, the “INO has a large potential to do many frontier kinds of research,” says astronomer Moein Mosleh, director of the Biruni Observatory in Shiraz, Iran, who is not affiliated with the INO. Plans call for using the telescope to probe galaxy formation and hunt for exoplanets, and training it on transient sources such as gamma ray bursts to try to pinpoint their locations.

Mosleh, who is also ASI’s president, says the society intends to huddle soon with the INO team to explore how to get a broader cross-section of Iran’s astronomical community “more involved” in the facility. From his vantage, he says, the INO is making “very good progress on the technical aspects.” But, “Defining the observational projects and the involvement of astronomers inside and outside Iran is also very important.”

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