Dual sites picked for the world’s largest radio telescope

29 May 2012

Artist's impression of how the SKA dishes will look. Image by SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

Sites in South Africa and Australia have been chosen to host the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). When built, the telescope will allow astronomers to search for the formation and evolution of the first stars and galaxies after the Big Bang.

The SKA will apparently have the capacity to generate enough raw data to fill 15m 64GB iPods each day, plus it will use enough optical fibre to wrap twice around the Earth.

Member countries of the SKA Organisation met in Amsterdam last week to agree on a dual-site solution for the telescope, which gets its name as it will have a collecting area that’s equivalent to a dish with an area of about one square kilometre.

Scientists and engineers from around the world are working on the SKA project to drive technology development in antennas, data transport, software and computing and power.

But we will have to wait awhile for the telescope, as construction on it won’t start until 2016.

The aim is for the telescope to give 50 times the sensitivity, and 10,000 times the survey speed, of the best telescopes currently out there.

SKA's depiction of how the telescope will contribute to space science. This image shows the acceleration in the expansion of the universe. Image credit: SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

Depiction of how the telescope will contribute to space science. This image shows the acceleration in the expansion of the universe. Image by SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

Three types of antenna will be used for the SKA project – dishes, mid-frequency aperture arrays and low-frequency aperture arrays.

The first phase of the SKA project will be built in South Africa, combined with MeerKAT. Additional SKA dishes will be added to the ASKAP array in Australia.

The SKA Organisation confirmed all of the dishes and the mid-frequency aperture arrays for the second phase of the SKA will be built in South Africa while the low-frequency aperture array antennas for both the first and second phases will be built in Australia and New Zealand.

Into the cosmos

In a statement, Dr Michiel van Haarlem of the SKA Organisation, spoke about how the telescope will transform our view of the universe, allowing astronomers to see the moments after the Big Bang and offering the scope to discover unexplored parts of the cosmos. Other uses for the telescope will be to discover the nature of gravity and to delve into the possibility of life beyond Earth.

The target construction cost of the telescope is €1,500m, and according to SKA’s timeline, the telescope will be fully operational in all of its phases by 2024.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic