A joint Mexico-U.S. effort to build a monster telescope atop a dormant volcano southeast of Mexico City largely is funded by a U.S. Defense Department project aimed at developing technology for space defense systems.
While the Large Millimeter Telescope´s primary mission is to use radio waves to probe the origins of the universe, some Mexicans believe its military link teeters on the edge of unacceptable territory for a nation that prides itself on staying non-aggressive on the world stage.
Supporters said links between science and the military are nothing new and emphasized the telescope being assembled on the 15,000-foot Sierra Negra in the state of Puebla won´t be some kind of Star Wars defense outpost.
Philip Coyle, who as U.S. assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration was director of operational testing and evaluation at the Pentagon, said officials wouldn´t fund a project unless it had strong potential military value, in this case against hostile satellites or missiles.
“It is a very high-powered, focused radar beam that could be used to find an enemy object out in space and, having found it, zero in on it,” Coyle said.
The radio telescope, designed to be the largest of its kind in the world, has faced a host of construction challenges.
But it appears closer to completion after an antenna dish as big as a baseball infield was successfully hoisted and welded to the 17-story structure last month.
The telescope´s new profile can be seen for miles and likely will increase the chances the public will wonder about its purpose. Up to now, Mexican media attention has focused solely on the scientific capacity of the telescope.
Rosa María Aviléz Nájera, a federal congresswoman for the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and a native of Puebla state, said the Pentagon funding tie was news to her.
“There is a line, an imaginary line, and we have to be careful not to cross that line,” she said of the proximity of science to military purposes.
Aviléz said she planned to learn more about the funding and any obligations that come with it. She acknowledged that science is expensive, but said the telescope-funding source may itself be too high a price.
“It seems to be violating the traditions we have in this country, that the research we produce is for the good of humanity, not to combat a few groups or sectors of the world population,” she said.
“If we know they are using this to benefit humanity, we have no worries,” Aviléz said. “But due to history, we know that for many U.S. governments, democracy means doing exactly as they say.”
The office of President Vicente Fox, who has been advocating for the telescope, declined to comment.
Fox has called it the most important scientific project in Mexican history.
The cost so far has been US$100 million and is climbing, and Mexico has come up with about 60 percent of it.
The rest has come from the United States, with the bulk from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, an arm of the Pentagon, which kicked in US$33 million.
The agency, known as DARPA, that invented computer networking and built the first version of the internet, had no comment, although congressional documents show long-term military interest.
“The design could greatly improve capabilities for acquisition and recognition of targets in space, as well as demonstrate the feasibility of long-range energy directed devices,” states a document from the Senate Armed Services Committee from 1997, the year construction began.
The telescope is a rare joint U.S.-Mexico scientific effort, spearheaded by the University of Massachusetts and the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics.
It would enable scientists to look about 13 billion years into the past to explore the universe´s birth.
Luis Felipe Rodríguez, director of the Center for Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, emphasized Mexico was a pacifist nation but said he has no problem with the project.
“All of science and technology can be seen as part of a double-edged knife,” he said. “Even infrared is used for weapons.”
George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., said: “I suspect that revelation of the potential use of a telescope in Mexico will cause nationalist politicians to raise pluperfect hell. It will touch an extremely sensitive nationalistic nerve. If there is any link between the telescope and U.S. military power, then it will spark a nationalist outcry in Mexico.”
Peter Schloerb, who oversees part of the project for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said there could be defense applications for the radio-telescope research, but said the Pentagon has had a hand in many types of research.
“I am an astronomer. I am not a weapons scientist,” he said. “Nobody in their right mind would build some kind of a secret weapon in the country of Mexico. That is just not happening. There is a lot of basic research that has been funded by the Department of Defense. How (the research) is ultimately used is a bit out of my control.”
El Universal Online