India joins 9 nations in building the world’s largest radio telescope

New Delhi

India on Tuesday joined a nine-nation consortium to build the world’s largest radio telescope, an instrument so large that it will span two continents and so sensitive that it could detect a radar signal from an airport on a planet 50 light-years away.

Several academic institutions led by the National Centre for Radio Astronomy (NCRA), Pune, will contribute to the design and operations of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) to be co-located in Australia and South Africa and expected to become operational in the early-2020s.

The SKA, coordinated by the UK-based SKA Organisation, will use several thousands of high-frequency dish antennas and even more medium and low-frequency antennas to scan the universe for radio signals. Two key scientific goals for the SKA would be to look for signals associated with the birth of the first stars in the infant universe and to test Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in regions of extreme gravity never done before.

“We want to understand better the birth of the first stars and to test Einstein’s general relativity in a regime never probed before – near black holes,” said Tirthankar Roy Choudhury, a scientist at the NCRA.

Groups of Indian scientists have already been working on a set of software packages that will form part of the telescope manager. “This will be the brain and nervous system of the SKA observatory,” said Yashwant Gupta, principal investigator for the SKA at NCRA.

The thousands of dishes and radio receivers making up the telescope will be distributed at two sites, one in South Africa, the other in and Australia Astronomers expect that when the telescope is fully functional, it will generate more data flow than the total daily traffic on the entire Internet today.

India’s atomic energy secretary R.K. Sinha today signed documents in Mumbai, formalising India’s entry into the SKA club. The other members of the consortium are Australia, Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, and the UK.

“India has through the NCRA is already playing a significant role in the design phase of the telescope which will continue till 2017,” said Philip Diamond, director general of the SKA in a media statement released today.

Scientists at the NCRA, in collaboration with software industry partners, have been working on the design software since 2013. India expects to spend about Rs 30 crore on the SKA design packages between 2013 and 2017.

A decision on whether India will also contribute to the hardware and construction of the SKA is yet to be taken, Gupta said. “This is something that will be discussed towards the close of the design phase.”

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