Transmission of radio waves or optical light is the most plausible mechanism of communication between us and any intelligent civilization, if existent in the Milky Way. Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is largely dependent on tapping the radio signals coming from other worlds which are several light years away from us. International community of scientists involved in SETI research have been employing huge radio telescopes like the Arecibo radio telescope, the National Radio Astronomy 140 foot radio telescope, the Big Ear telescope and others, to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations since 1960s. Indian astrophysicists are now all set to make significant contributions in establishment of the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
The SKA radio telescope project will be built in sparsely populated and remote areas of Australia and South Africa, with a total collecting area of approximately one square kilometre, hence the name. It is predicted that SKA will be 50 times more sensitive, and would be able to survey the sky 10,000 times faster than any imaging radio telescope array previously built. SKA will help in solving mysteries related to the Big Bang, the nature of gravity and the existence of life beyond Earth.
The SKA project is an international initiative with 11 participating countries including India. Several premiere Indian institutions have come together to form the SKA India consortium to perform coordinated research for the project including Tata Institute of Fundamental Research – National Centre for Radio Astronomy (TIFR-NCRA), Pune; Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune; Raman Research Institute (RRI), Bangalore; Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur; Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata; Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER), Mohali; Jamia Millia Islamiya, New Delhi; and Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad.
Dr. Yashwant Gupta, dean of Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) Khodad in a statement to Times of India (Pune edition) said that Indian scientists are involved in three of the 10 design works of phase I. ‘The Telescope Manager’, one of the most crucial elements of SKA, considered to be the brain and nervous system controlling the entire SKA observatory, is being designed by a team led by the NCRA in collaboration with other research organizations and industry partners in India as well as collaborators from six other SKA member nations. The Telescope Manager will be responsible for sending control commands to various subsystems of SKA, ensuring successful astronomical observations, coordinating between various SKA components and the users, monitoring the status of telescopes, and also ensuring safety. “We have had the experience as well as the expertise in building, operating and maintaining radio telescope at GMRT which will benefit in the mega project. SKA is a significantly large project but on the same lines of GMRT which is comparatively on a smaller scale,” said Gupta
Construction of the SKA is scheduled to begin in 2018 and be completed by 2020-21. Few experts like Nick Pope (UK Ministry of Defence, UFO Project leader) claim that SKA, once fully operational by 2024, would be able to give us a confirmed answer to one of our very fundamental questions – is there life elsewhere in the Universe?