Why the world’s largest telescope will embody two nations, 131,072 antennas and 197 dishes

Composite night image of the SKA combining all the elements in South Africa and Australia. This … [+] image combines photos of real hardware that are already on site at both locations with artistic impressions of the future SKA antennas. From left: The artistic impression of the future SKA dishes fits into the existing forerunner MeerKAT telescopic dishes in South Africa. From right: The artistic impression of the future SKA-Low stations fits into the existing AAVS2.0 prototype station in Western Australia.

SKAO, ICRAR, SARAO Acknowledgments: The GLEAM view of the center of the Milky Way in radio color. Photo credit: Natasha Hurley-Walker (Curtin / ICRAR) and the GLEAM team.

Are you ready for one of the “great scientific adventures of the coming decades”?

The construction of the largest and most complex radio telescope network in the world officially began today at a “historic moment for radio astronomy”.

The Square Kilometer Array Observatory (SKAO) is designed to help astronomers answer some of the most fundamental questions in astronomy. It was approved today at its first council meeting at Jodrell Bank’s headquarters in Cheshire, UK. The Lovell Telescope, the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world, is located in the Jodrell Bank.

SKA will cost $ 2.2 billion – and change astronomy.

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What is radio astronomy?

It is the study of the sky in radio frequencies. Stars, galaxies and other cosmic phenomena emit light waves. Visible light is electromagnetic radiation and consists of radio waves, gamma rays, X-rays and infrared. To get a full picture of what’s out there, astronomers need to use radio telescopes to capture and amplify radio waves from space.

What is the SKA?

The SKA is a real “mega-science” project for the 21st century and amazing in its scope. So big, in fact, that radio receivers will be installed on two continents and will take a decade to build.

The hardware is built far from any man-made electronic device or machine that emits radio waves.

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197 parabolic radio antennas – better known as “dishes” – with a diameter of 15 meters each are being built in Karoo on the South African North Cape. The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) has already built 64 of them.

Meanwhile, deep in the Western Australian outback of Murchison, stunning low frequency aperture array telescopes are being built that are 131,072 6.5 feet / 2 meters high.

This creates a collection area on two continents in which very weak radio signals can be detected.

Why not just a massive dish? This is impractical, so astronomers use what is known as interferometry – many smaller antennas connected by fiber optics to create a “virtual” telescope called an array. The result is higher sensitivity and finer resolution.

Artist’s impression of one of the low frequency array stations in Australia.

SKA organization

How sensitive will SKA be?

The SKA will have a total collecting area of ​​well over a square kilometer – hence the name – and is by far the largest radio telescope arrangement ever built.

The SKA will be so sensitive that, according to SKAO, it can detect an airport radar on a planet ten light years away.

Hopefully the SKA’s sheer size and sensitivity will reveal many more radio galaxies – and revolutionize our understanding of how galaxies evolve.

It is also hoped that the SKA will be able to image dark energy, find every pulsar in our galaxy, and pick up all signals from intelligent life.

Close-up shots by the artist of the SKA Mid dishes and MeerKAT dishes in South Africa. The 15m … [+] Wide-bowl telescopes provide the SKA with some of its high resolution imaging capabilities and work towards the upper range of radio frequencies that the SKA will cover.

SKA organization

How important is SKA?

“This is a historic moment for radio astronomy,” said Dr. Catherine Cesarsky, who was appointed first chair of the SKAO Council. “Behind today’s milestone are countries that had the vision to get deeply involved because they saw the broader benefits of participating in SKAO for building a science and technology ecosystem of basic science, computing, engineering and skills for the next generation. which are indispensable in a digital economy of the 21st century. “

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Many countries finance the SKAO; Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom. France, Germany, Spain and Sweden are emerging members.

“This is one of the mega-scientific institutions of the 21st century,” said Prof. Philip Diamond, who was named SKAO’s first general manager. “It is the culmination of many years of work … this is about participating in one of the great scientific adventures of the coming decades.”

I wish you clear skies and big eyes.

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