Construction of the world’s largest radio astronomy observatory, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), has officially begun in Australia after three decades of development.
A huge intergovernmental effort, the SKA has been hailed as one of the greatest science projects of this century. It will allow scientists to go back to the beginning of the history of the universe when the first stars and galaxies formed. It will also be used to study dark energy and why the universe is expanding, and to potentially search for extraterrestrial life.
The SKA will initially involve two arrays of telescopes – one over Wajarri Country in remote Western Australia, called SKA-Low, comprising 131,072 tree-shaped antennae.
SKA-Low is so named for its sensitivity to low frequency radio signals. It will be eight times more sensitive than existing comparable telescopes and will map the sky 135 times faster.
A second set of 197 traditional dishes, SKA-Mid, will be built in the Karoo region of South Africa.
Australia’s Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic, and the chief executive of the SKA organization, Professor Philip Diamond, are expected to mark the start of construction of SKA-Low at an on-site event in Western Australia. Monday morning.
Dr Sarah Pearce, director of the SKA-Low telescope, said in a statement that the observatory would “define the next fifty years for radio astronomy, charting the birth and death of galaxies, searching for new types of gravitational waves and expanding the limits of what we know about the universe.
“SKA telescopes will be sensitive enough to detect airport radar on a planet circling a star tens of light-years away, and so might even answer the biggest question of all: are we alone in the universe? ?”
The SKA has been described by scientists as a game-changer and a major milestone in astronomy research.
Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, an astronomer at the University of New South Wales, called it ‘a momentous day for world astronomy’, adding: ‘More than a thousand people have worked for 20 years to make it a reality – and everyone will feel proud of this collective achievement today.
Dr Danny Price, senior postdoctoral researcher at the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy, said the SKA’s sensitivity would allow astronomers to go back billions of years to “the cosmic dawn”, when the first stars in the universe were forming.
“To relativize the sensitivity of the SKA, [it] could detect a cell phone in an astronaut’s pocket on Mars, 225 meters away,” Price said in a statement. “More excitingly, if there are smart societies on nearby stars with technology similar to ours, the SKA could detect global ‘leakage’ radiation from their radio and telecommunications networks – the first telescope sensitive enough to achieve this feat.”
Professor Alan Duffy, director of the Institute of Space Technology and Industry at Swinburne University of Technology, said the SKA would probably be the largest telescope ever built, “connecting across continents to create a world-class facility allowing us to essentially see through the entire observable universe”.
“The scientific goals are as broad as the telescope itself, from searching for planets forming and signs of extraterrestrial life to mapping the cosmic web of dark matter and galaxy growth within these vast filaments spanning the globe. ‘universe,” Duffy said in a statement.
“Just like with Hubble, the greatest discoveries from these next-generation telescopes are things completely unknown to science today. Astronomers around the world will celebrate this breakthrough. [development] for what it will mean for scientists in the decades to come.
In Australia, the SKA organization works with CSIRO to build and operate the telescopes.
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