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‘We are not alone in the universe’

HT tunes in to radio astronomer Govind Swarup as he competes to design a futuristic telescope for outback Australia or Africa, reports Reshma Patil.

tech reviews Updated: May 16, 2007 11:35 IST
Reshma Patil

In Pune, the father of Indian radio astronomy, Govind Swarup, has not stopped waiting for a feeble signal from a galaxy far far away.

“I am a great believer that we are not alone in the universe,” said Swarup, architect of the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), the world’s largest array of radio telescopes in its wavelength range, near the vineyards of Narayangaon 80 km north of Pune.

This month, Australia’s Grote Reber Foundation awarded Swarup the 2007 Grote Reber Medal for lifetime achievement in radio astronomy. This designer of telescopes credited as decades ahead of his time, calls himself an ‘old-timer’ inspired by the freedom movement.

He is now competing globally to design a next-generation telescope: the International Square Km Array (SKA) to be set up far from habitation in outback Australia or Africa by the next decade. It will pick up faint emissions and signals from the farthest parts of the early universe.

So news of the recent discovery of an Earthlike planet excites Swarup. “There are billions of galaxies in the universe and each has billions of stars,”

Swarup told HT from Pune. “Hundreds of molecules have been discovered in the interstellar matter in our galaxy, such as water molecules, alcohol, ammonia, carbon monoxide etc. Life is bound to grow in many places.”

The GMRT too, with its supercomputer-like digital systems that handle 236,000 products every 1/32 millionth of a second, can search for extraterrestrial life. “GMRT can be used to search for radio waves from distant stars,” said Swarup. “Even though the chance of success is small, one would learn many techniques. But today students shy of joining science. Can India do without science?”

Swarup and a colleague have won a patent from the US and Australia for the design of a pre-loaded parabolic dish antenna imagine a giant 12-m saucer that can withstand 150 kmph wind velocities for SKA.

The sensitivity of a radio telescope is over a million times that of a communication service, as radio waves from very distant celestial sources are extremely faint.

At GMRT, astronomers from India and 20 nations study radio waves from the Sun and objects in distant galaxies created in a young universe by the collapse of massive clouds of cold hydrogen and mysterious dark matter.

The SKA will probe gaseous interiors of the early universe and enable imaging of faint emissions from galaxies and star surfaces. It will view large swathes of the sky simultaneously in multiple directions.

“I hope our innovative Indian design will be adopted by SKA,” said Swarup. “India can also contribute to develop scientific software that would be SKA’s brain and heart.”

With such stiff competition, the GMRT 30 dishes of 45 m size each up to 25 km apart will be upgraded. But there is no surge of students vying to use it. “GMRT time is allocated to the best proposals on a competitive basis,” said Swarup. “Although there are many more researchers from abroad, an equal amount of time is being used by Indians.”

Swarup believes it can remain a frontline facility. “The secret of success is to find a niche.”