As if tuning the antenna ear to detect weak signals from extremely faint celestial objects was any easy task, engineers and astronomers at the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) have to also overcome other challenges — stay guarded from leopards, snakes and other creatures of the wild; ward off the interfering effects from mobile phone signals, high-tension power lines and windmills and now worry about a rail-line cutting through the heart of their research.
Operational since 2002, the GMRT is located near Khodad village in Junnar taluka, which is about 80 km from Pune city. It is the world’s largest radio astronomy setup operating in low metrewave radio frequencies (from about 100 MHz to about 1500 MHz) and has astronomers from across the world in research in this field.
For long, the locals here were completely unaware of the research activities going on inside the GMRT campus, but senior scientists say that their popularity has slowly grown with time. Asked what allows them to perform despite a string of challenges, both technological and otherwise, the dean of GMRT Observatory Yashwant Gupta said, “We have a strong team of dedicated engineers and scientists, and we believe in trying to find the best solutions, including those which allow us to co-exist with the local population and society around us.”
Peacock, fox, scorpion, leopards, snakes are often spotted in the GMRT campus, given the vast expanse of natural vegetation that is available. It is indeed interesting to find inside a scientific institution housing antennas surrounded by shrubs as well as tall trees, the presence of a leopard trap.
Known for being a sugarcane belt, Junnar taluka of late has become infamous for leopard attacks. Since a decade, locals note frequent sighting of leopards in this area.
Some of the GMRT staff shared their experience of sighting leopards on numerous occasions, particularly during late evenings and night time. But they point out that no untoward incident has been reported so far.
Asked if the trap was ever able to capture any leopard, one of the staff members said, “The animals appear to be smart and may have learnt to avoid the cage, which the forest department had placed inside the campus a couple of years ago.”
Though the GMRT has a boundary with a wire fence, the area adjacent to antenna number 14 in the centre square (C14), is said to be a favourite spot inside the campus for a leopard family of five. This is because the location is not only adjacent to nearby sugarcane fields, considered as safe haven for the wild animal, but also has a good supply of water available round the year. As a part of taking precaution, astronomers refrain from venturing outdoors unnecessarily after dusk. “If there is a need to check any system at the antennas after evening, we often postpone it till the next day morning, unless very urgent,” said Gupta.
Mobile phone towers
If mobile towers were thought to be menace just in cities, it is causing no fewer headaches to astronomers here. With rampant urbanisation and growing population in the otherwise secluded locality, mushrooming of mobile towers is yet another problem for the engineers here. The team of scientists is now working on developing systems with improved technology to counter and filter any kind of interference caused by unwanted signals picked-up from these mobile towers in the vicinity.
“At times, we encounter signals from nearby locations in adjacent frequency bands, which affect our data. However, we have managed to convince some mobile companies to operate in frequencies far away from the range in which we operate,” said GMRT’s head of analog receiver systems, Suresh Kumar.
Setting example themselves, scientists diligently stay away from using mobile phones during their work hours at the campus. There is also a special system to track for any mobile phone users on campus and upon detecting; a loudspeaker immediately announces it to be turned off.
The latest dilemma, likely to snowball in the near future, is the recently announced , but long-pending Pune-Nashik rail line, which if constructed, would cut across the heart of the array. According to the plan, the Ministry of Railways aims to connect Pune and Nashik by laying a 265-km rail line which would pass through Chakan, Manchar, Rajgurunagar, Narayangaon, Aalephata and Sinner.
Though the future of this plan is still hazy at the moment, NCRA director S K Ghosh hinted at initiating discussions soon. “We will be approaching our ministry, Department of Atomic Energy, with a request to look into the matter and ensure that the interests of the GMRT are protected so that it can continue to deliver world class results in the future,” he said.
Interference from aviation signals is also posing to be a major challenge to the observatory, be it from overflying aircraft or from the radars at the airports.