Brief History of India’s involvement with the SKAO
The radio astronomy group in India led by Prof. Govind Swarup put forward in the early 1990s one of the first concepts for a large radio observatory of the class of the SKA, confirming India’s intent to play an active role in the development of a next generation radio astronomy observatory. Members of the Indian community remained active in the early refinement of the SKA science case as well as early technological developments in the 1990s and 2000s. When the SKA Organisation was formed in 2012, India joined as an Associate Member, and subsequently became a Full Member in October 2015.
Following this, the Government of India was a party to the negotiation of the SKA Observatory Convention between 2015 and 2016, and an active participant in the preparatory activities that led to the creation of the SKAO as an intergovernmental organisation in early 2021.
Early 2022, India took a step closer to becoming a full member of the SKAO by signing a cooperation arrangement.
Indian involvement within the design consortium
India has contributed actively to the pre-construction phase of the SKA telescopes, being involved in three different consortia, including taking a leadership role in the Telescope Manager consortium. Indian scientists from the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) led this consortium involving experts from seven countries for the design of the Telescope Manager system, which will be the controlling nerve centre and brains behind the functioning of the entire SKA observatory. It was the first design consortium to complete and submit the final design, as early as in mid-2018. In the phase leading up to the construction of the SKA telescopes, Indian contributors have continued to build on these activities with early prototyping efforts.
The SKA India Consortium
In order to coordinate all the SKA related activities in India, all interested organisations within the country were brought under a common umbrella and the SKA India Consortium (SKAIC) was formally launched in February 2015 at NCRA, Pune. With more than twenty institutions from all over the country (including colleges, universities and major research organisations) having signed up as members, the SKAIC is playing a major role in enhancing India's ability to participate effectively in the SKA project, both in technical and scientific spheres.
Members of the SKAIC are involved in the organisation and implementation of the Indian activities and also in drawing up future plans. The SKAIC is organised into two sub-committees, one for Science and another for Technical matters. Science Working Groups have been set up to cover every major thrust area identified for the SKAO. One of the Working Groups is fully dedicated to Education and Public Outreach activities.
The Indian astronomy community has built up a strong case for using the SKA telescopes for carrying out cutting edge science, and also contributed to SKA precursor facilities. Several Indian scientists are members of the International Science Working Groups for the SKA, and also carry leadership roles in some of these groups. Furthermore, SKA India Science Working Groups which have been formed in 2014, have been working on developing the SKAO science cases and enhancing the potential user base within the country. Their activities range from carrying out theoretical studies and modelling, to using the existing facilities like the GMRT and other SKA precursors/pathfinders for conducting research and investigations that will prepare the scientific community to make the best use of the SKA when it is ready. Several national level SKA workshops have been held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of India, almost every year from 2014 onward. In addition, India hosted the international SKA Science Meeting in 2016 which was attended by a large number of astrophysicists from all over the world.
The first detailed set of papers describing the science cases built up for the SKA telescopes by the Indian astronomy community was published in a special issue of the Journal of Astrophysics & Astronomy. Some of the Indian working groups have also been making contributions to the international SKAO science use cases, as documented in the SKA Science Books of 2015.
Education, Public Outreach and Training
In addition to building the science cases, the SKA India community has also invested a lot of effort in training future generations of researchers and in public outreach. For example, there have been several training schools to expose senior university and starting Ph.D. students to the SKA-relevant science areas.
To make the public aware of capabilities of the instrument, the SKA-India community participated in the Vigyan Samagam, a multi-venue mega-science exhibition that showcased several collaborative mega-science projects India is involved in.
Building the SKA telescopes
For the construction phase of the SKA telescopes, India is poised to play a lead role in the production of the Observatory Monitor and Control system, which is an expanded version of the Telescope Manager, with additional features and capabilities added to the scope. India is also going to play a significant role in the building of the digital electronics needed for the signal processing at the SKA-Low stations. India will also be contributing to the construction of the radio frequency electronics for one of the bands of the SKA-Mid antennas. Furthermore, India expects to be making useful contributions in some aspects of the scientific data processing, particularly for detection of pulsars and transients. In addition to these direct contributions to the SKA project, India will also be building a SKA regional data centre in the country that can host a significant portion of the data products from the SKA, for easy access of SKA data by the Indian astronomy community
uGMRT: an SKA Pathfinder
The Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) is located at a site about 80 km north of Pune. It consists of 30 fully steerable gigantic parabolic dishes of 45m diameter each spread over distances of up to 25 km and is one of the most challenging experimental programmes in basic sciences undertaken by Indian scientists and engineers.
GMRT was developed and built fully in India. The construction of 30 large dishes at a relatively small cost has been possible due to an important technological breakthrough achieved by Indian scientists and engineers in the design of light-weight, low-cost dishes. The design is based on what is being called the `SMART' concept - for Stretch Mesh Attached to Rope Trusses.
To keep the GMRT competitive in the global arena in the future, a major upgrade of the observatory was completed recently, known as the upgraded GMRT (uGMRT). This helped in increasing its sensitivity by up to three times and made it a more powerful and versatile facility.
uGMRT is one of the SKA pathfinder telescopes and is being used as a testbed to understand and develop new technology, and observational techniques related to the SKA telescopes.
uGMRT was accorded the prestigious IEEE Milestone status in 2020.
The benefits from Indian participation in the SKA project have been, and are expected to continue to be, quite wide ranging. Work done during the pre-construction phase has provided significant experience of working in large international collaborations towards a common goal, and of identifying strong (and weak) points of the Indian community -- both in technology and science areas. It has also provided an opportunity to build up a model for interacting and working with Indian industry on projects and technologies of relevance in astronomy.
Looking to the future, on the technology front, India's participation in the SKAO will provide an excellent opportunity for research organisations and industry in the country to work together to contribute to (and learn from) the highest levels of technological developments. It will drive growth of technologies within the country in several key areas, ranging from antennas and electronics to data and software, including areas like artificial intelligence and machine learning. On the science front, participation in the SKA project will allow Indian astronomers direct access to the best radio astronomy facility in the world in the future.
The SKA project can be used in a big way to spur interest in science, engineering and technology in the country, especially amongst the vast student population in India. Astronomy has an almost universal appeal amongst all strata of society, and a large international research infrastructure like the SKAO is bound to capture the imagination and interest of a large cross-section of people.