how radio astronomy can benefit Pakistan
Syed Faisalur Rahman
April 24, 2023
Pakistan has long been recognised for its nuclear and missile capabilities but the country is still lagging in many areas, including space exploration, semiconductors, antenna design, radio-frequency (RF) engineering, high-performance computing and astronomy. However, by investing in radio astronomy research and development, Pakistan has the potential to improve its technical capabilities in telecommunications, defence, medical imaging, and big data sciences.
Radio astronomy is a field that studies the universe through the analysis of radio waves emitted by celestial objects. From pulsars to black holes, radio astronomy has played a critical role in our understanding of the universe. Furthermore, radio astronomy research can also lead to spin-off technologies that can benefit other industries.
One of the best examples of the potential of radio astronomy research is Wi-Fi. Astronomers at Australia’s national space agency CSIRO developed methods to realign scrambled radio signals from black holes, leading to the discovery of this widely used technology. Similarly, the data acquisition mechanisms in radio astronomy and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have similarities that can potentially lead to advances in medical imaging technologies.
Investing in radio astronomy research also has the potential to foster collaboration and innovation across diverse groups. For example, universities in Pakistan can be encouraged and funded to launch amateur radio astronomy projects, by providing students with a platform to learn about radio astronomy, leading to the discovery of new celestial objects and phenomena. On a larger scale, Pakistan’s national space research organisations (SUPARCO, NCGSA, IST, ISPA, etc.) and telecommunications organisations can develop at least one international-level radio astronomy research facility. India’s Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), for example, is a relatively low-cost facility in comparison with other major radio telescope facilities around the world.
Research organisations, like the National Center of Physics (NCP) in Islamabad, HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry in Karachi, can also join the efforts by providing science goals. A lot of interdisciplinary research in areas like astrophysics, astroparticle physics, astrochemistry, astrobiology, exoplanet atmospheres, solar physics can be done by promoting collaborations between various institutes of Pakistan which have their own expertise in specific areas. This will foster a culture of collaboration among various R&D organisations in Pakistan and help pave the way for more research avenues in the future.
Emerging powers like India, with projects like Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), and South Africa, with its involvement in Square Kilometre Array (SKA), are greatly benefitting from their investments in radio astronomy and other big science areas in the form of spin-off technologies, scientific and industrial human resource development, advancement in instrumentation capabilities, which in turn benefit industries and strengthen universities in general. Such investments will not only help these countries in the future, but they have already started reaping benefits today. Their success story is similar to how European countries benefitted from the development of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)’s. CERN transformed Europe which was devastated by the two world wars into a global hub of innovation and scientific cooperation. The development of particle accelerators and other technologies at CERN led to the creation of the World Wide Web and many other technological advances.
The SKA project is expected to create thousands of jobs and stimulate the development of new industries and technologies. Eight other African countries are taking part in SKA by working as distant stations for the African node. This participation will not only help in advancing the science goals but their collective efforts and involvement of their institutions in such an advanced scientific endeavour will greatly benefit future generations and the efforts will likely change the perception of Africa in the world too.
Another benefit for South Africa and other SKA partner African countries is that they will also get a chance to work with scientists and research organizations from United States, China, Australia, Europe and India, which will greatly enhance their own capacity too.
Exploring Radio interferometry in Balochistan
Radio interferometry is a technique used in radio astronomy to combine data from multiple telescopes. Pakistan has a unique opportunity to establish radio quiet zones in its vast and uninhabited regions of Balochistan. By building an array of radio telescopes, Pakistan can create a radio interferometer that would greatly enhance the country’s capabilities in the field of astronomy.
In addition to Balochistan, Pakistan could explore the possibility of setting up radio telescopes in other parts of the country, which can be interconnected to create a larger, more powerful radio interferometer. This could lead to higher-resolution radio images and facilitate the development of advanced astronomical technologies. Such investments could also help to alleviate the grievances of the Baloch people, who often feel neglected.
This ambitious long-term project will require significant investment, but the potential benefits are immense. It can facilitate international collaborations while also enabling universities, institutions, and individuals from different areas of Pakistan with diverse backgrounds and expertise to work together towards common goals. This can lead to the development of new techniques and technologies that can be applied across multiple fields, promoting innovation and scientific advancements.
To ensure the success of this project, it is crucial to involve local institutions, researchers, and technicians from Balochistan, as well as institutions and personnel from other parts of the country. This will promote constructive collaboration for common goals, which unfortunately has been lacking in Pakistan. Such collaboration could lead to advancements in science and technology that would benefit not only Pakistan but the wider global community.
The potential impact of this project could be similar to that of CERN which brought together scientists from across the continent to collaborate on groundbreaking research that has transformed our understanding of the universe. CERN helped Europe in realising the potential of joining hands for common big goals which will benefit future generations. Similarly, the establishment of radio telescopes in Pakistan could lead to a similar spirit of cooperation and innovative technologies.
Pakistan should strive to develop telescopes that are compatible with international standards such as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) or the international Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) which captures images of black holes using a virtual Earth-sized telescope. By doing so, Pakistani institutions and researchers could participate in major astronomy research collaborations, including projects like the capture of the first-ever direct image of a black hole, which was achieved by the international EHT collaboration in 2019.
By participating in these projects and developing telescopes locally, Pakistan can significantly improve its instrumentation design and development capacity, signal processing capabilities, and high-performance computing infrastructure. Additionally, the development of advanced technologies and quality human resources capable of conducting advanced scientific research would be a tremendous benefit to the country.
The development of new antennas and RF engineering techniques can benefit multiple industries, including telecommunications, defence, and medical imaging. Radio telescopes require sophisticated antennas and RF engineering to detect and process radio signals from celestial objects. Developing these technologies for radio astronomy can lead to advances in antenna design and RF engineering that can be applied in other industries.
Radio astronomy research can also provide economic and human resource development benefits. Radio astronomy facilities require highly skilled personnel to operate and maintain, which can lead to the development of a highly skilled workforce. These skilled individuals can then contribute to other industries and help to strengthen the country’s economy.
Moreover, radio astronomy research can attract investment and funding from international organisations and institutions, leading to economic growth and development. The construction and operation of a radio telescope facility can also lead to the development of supporting industries, such as the production of specialised components and materials.
To move forward, Pakistan needs to not only think about its socioeconomic development but also about progress in science and technology. The country needs to pursue big scientific goals which can help forward our civilisation as explorers, as Muslims did during the Golden Age. Unfortunately, we have abandoned this pursuit, and as a result, we are paying the price of lagging behind in many areas, including basic socioeconomic economic development.
Taking steps towards scientific progress
The question of whether Pakistan should participate in large science projects is a complex one that definitely involves financial considerations too. However, there are several measures that Pakistan can take to make room for such projects. Pakistan must take decisive steps to create the necessary financial resources for large science projects. By selling off failing state-owned enterprises such as Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM), reducing the size of government departments, and incentivizing private sector investment, the country can create a brighter future for itself and its people.
To encourage Pakistan’s private sector to invest in such projects, the government can incentivise them by providing tax benefits, similar to the practice of donating to registered charities in many parts of the world. This would encourage businesses to take an active role in building a better future for Pakistan by investing in science and technology.
Investing in radio astronomy should be treated as a strategic national investment. Pakistan has the potential to unlock the power of radio astronomy and take its place among the stars, contributing to the global knowledge economy and positioning itself as a leader in science and technology.
Syed Faisalur Rahman is a member of two major international Radio Astronomy collaborations (EMU-ASKAP and WALLABY-ASKAP), and holds a PhD in space sciences. He currently serves as CTO of My Impact Meter and also mentors startups as part of Newchip Accelerator, an Austin, Texas-based global accelerator. All facts and information are the sole responsibility of the writer