India is poised to take on a significant role in international efforts to establish the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
The facility is to be constructed in two phases and currently scheduled for completion in 2024. When finished, it will use around 3,000 dish antennas as well as aperture arrays made up of a large number of dipole antennas. The project is estimated to cost about 1.5 billion Euros.
“With an unprecedented large radio wave collecting area, the SKA will be 50 times more sensitive, and be able to survey the sky 10,000 times faster, than any imaging radio telescope array previously built,” according to a brochure about the telescope. By picking up faint radio signals emanating from the far corners of the cosmos, it will help answer fundamental questions about the universe. Last year, after an acrimonious tussle over where the telescope should be located, the SKA Organisation decided to split the project and build it in South Africa as well as in Australia.
India has been actively involved in the SKA planning process from the very beginning. The National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) in Pune and the Raman Research Institute (RRI) in Bangalore were, for instance, among the eight institutions from six countries that signed an agreement in 1997 to work on a technology study for a very large radio telescope.
India, has, however, remained an associate member while Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the U.K. became full members of the SKA Organisation with voting rights. The NCRA and RRI have jointly submitted a proposal to the Government for increasing the level of Indian participation.
“We are hoping that we will be able to become full members soon,” said Yashwant Gupta of the NCRA during a talk at a three-day meeting of the Astronomical Society of India in Thiruvananthapuram last week. The long-term goal should be to participate by contributing about 10 per cent of the SKA project cost.
The SKA project would drive developments in many technology areas, including antennas, signal transport, signal processing, computing, software and data archiving, Dr. Gupta pointed out. By participating fully in the project, Indian research organisations and industries would be able to work in these frontier technologies, thereby gaining invaluable experience.
The NCRA has been operating the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), involving a cluster of 30 dishes located about 80 km from Pune. The planned upgradation of this telescope had “lot of features which have direct synergy with the next-generation techniques that are being looked at in [the] SKA,” he said.
Besides, the Indian team had taken the lead to conceptualise the automated monitoring and control system needed to operate the telescope during the SKA’s first phase. This work, which had been carried out with the involvement of software research groups and companies, had been immensely successful. India was now heading an international consortium of countries that would make a bid to develop the detailed design for the automated system, added Dr. Gupta.