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Govind Swarup: Who pioneered radio astronomy in India

Govind Swarup, the man who pioneered radio astronomy in India has died recently in Pune following a brief illness. He was 91. Swarup is credited with conceptualising and leading the team that set up the Ooty Radio Telescope (ORT) and Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope (GMRT).

Govind Swarup

Who was Govind Swarup?

  • Regarded as the “Father of Indian Radio Astronomy”, Swarup was the founder-director of TIFR – National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) in Pune.
  • Swarup was born in Thakurwada in Uttar Pradesh in 1929. He completed his master’s degree from Allahabad University in 1950 and went on to pursue his doctoral studies at Stanford University in 1961.
  • After completing his doctorate, Swarup contemplated going back to India and discussed these ideas with two colleagues, M R Kundu and T K Menon, who were also working in the US at the time. The idea was to return to India with the aim of developing the field of radio astronomy.
  • Swarup returned to India in 1965, and soon joined the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
  • Setting up the ORT was no easy task but Swarup was aware of the geographical advantage India enjoyed owing to its proximity to the equator. His clear vision helped set up the 500 metre-long, 30 metre-wide set of dishes in a cylindrical parabolic fashion, covering an area of 15,000 square metre in the lowest cost possible, yet the telescope was the largest at that time.
  • The ORT, which was completed in 1970, makes it possible to track celestial objects for 10 hours continuously and is one of the most sensitive telescopes in the world.
  • With the experience of ORT, Swarup decided to set up Pune’s GMRT, an array of 30 dish antennas spread across a distance of 25 km, arranged in a ‘Y’ shape at Khodad in Junnar taluka. Since 2002, GMRT has facilitated some novel discoveries in the field of astronomy. Swarup had also guided the upgradation process that the GMRT underwent in recent years.

What are ‘radio waves’?

Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic radiation, just like the visible light you are used to seeing with your eyes. The difference in radio waves is that they have a longer wavelength and are lower in frequency than visible light. They also carry less energy. Radio waves are far weaker than light so we need electronic amplifiers to help us boost their signal. Any electromagnetic wave with a wavelength greater than 1 mm is a radio wave.

About ‘radio astronomy’ –

  • Radio astronomy is the study of celestial objects that give off radio waves. With radio astronomy, we study astronomical phenomena that are often invisible or hidden in other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum.
  • Astronomers around the world use radio telescopes to observe the naturally occurring radiowaves that come from stars, planets, galaxies, clouds of dust, and molecules of gas. Most of us are familiar with visible-light astronomy and what it reveals about these objects. Visible ”light — also known as optical light — is what we see with our eyes, however, visible light doesn’t tell the whole story about an object. To get a complete understanding of a distant quasar or a planet, for example, astronomers study it in as many wavelengths as possible, including the radio range.