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Points of view: Pedro Álvarez - Director of GRANTECAN

09/02/2009

In astrophysics, as in many other branches of science, it is important to be number one. Number two means nothing. Technology is one of the things that can help us reach first place.

The GTC is going to be the largest telescope the world has ever seen. However we have been very careful to avoid making it excessively complicated. We are newcomers to the business of making large telescopes. Spain has never built one. The telescope's innovations come from our use of the most up to date technology. The large diameter of its primary mirror is rivalled only by similar telescopes like the Keck and other 8 metre telescopes. Compared to the Keck, the GTC represents a leap in technology of almost 15 years. Our mirrors are more highly polished than its mirrors, our mechanical structure is much stronger, we have the best motors that can be made using current technology, our decoders are the best that can be developed.... all of which means, of course, that our telescope will be the best.

It remains to be seen what the telescope can deliver for science. It has yet to be commissioned and, obviously, because it is going to be the largest and because it will have new instruments, we hope that it will push the boundaries of science by making discoveries that could not be made with other telescopes. The first instruments, OSIRIS for example, are the first with tunable filters to be fitted to a large telescope. This means that the GTC will be able to go farther than other telescopes: It will be able to see galaxies at a range of distances from our own and create a kind of map of all the galaxies. It will look at phenomena related to the evolution of galaxies and the Universe itself. Canaricam, for example, will be the first infrared instrument, working in the thermal infrared, to be able to carry out polarimetry and coronography. It will be able, for the first time, to do things like thermal infrared observation in the areas around stars which means, basically, that it will look for planet forming zones around stars. Polarimetry will give it the capacity to look at areas where stars and planets are actually forming and to analyse the physical properties of the dust and gas they are being made of.

Other much more fundamental aims of the project were partnership with Spanish industry, technology transfer and industrial development. We wanted to resource 70 per cent of the project from Spanish companies and research centres and we have achieved that. We have been able to teach Spanish industry to produce the things we need. We have worked with them directly. We have helped solve the problems. Industry has the means to do things better than we do, but in Spain it does not know how to refine and deliver to the very demanding requirements of a telescope like this one. Important parts of the telescope like the basic elements of the primary mirror, the segments and the segment sensors, have been made here, by companies from here; and companies from La Palma have helped assemble and build the telescope too. If anyone says that this is not possible for the tiny industrial base of La Palma, well it obviously is, and it has been achieved simply by working with them directly and teaching them exactly what they need to do.

How did we galvanise them? It's not easy to galvanise industry, especially in Spain where industry is not used to delivering innovation and development. Industry, like any other enterprise, is generally interested in making money, not in creating technology for its own sake. If the demand is not there, no industrialist is going to start developing challenging technology, especially if no-one else is doing it. It is demand that you have to create. When the demand is not there it is down to government or to the people running cutting-edge projects to create it. The problem for Spain, and for Europe as a whole compared to the United States, is that funding comes from the state. Industries do not invest in innovation and development. Innovation and development in industry needs to be encouraged. Our main success is perhaps that this project shows how to drive industrial development. It is a funded project, which had to be the case, and it has generated a demand for high technology in a country where that demand does not generally exist. The investment in industry means that it is learning to make these kinds of products and it is benefitting from the stable employment being created. The industries involved are becoming more competitive as they develop technological advantages over others. There are all kinds of benefits. For example, if you have the choice of investing 100 in something with your own industry or spending 100 on something from industry abroad, nothing of the 100 you spend abroad will come back to you. Of the 100 you invest here, within just a few years, 70% will come back to the state in the form of taxes, personal spending.... It comes back in lots of different ways. Investing heavily in your own industry, given the short-term returns that it delivers, is a pure and simple investment.

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