Construction begins on world's largest radio telescopes

Tuesday, 13 December, 2022

Construction begins on world's largest radio telescopes

Construction on the world’s largest radio astronomy observatory, the SKA Observatory (SKAO), officially launched last week with groundbreaking ceremonies held at future telescope sites in Australia and South Africa. An international collaboration of 16 countries, the SKAO will be one of the biggest science facilities on Earth.

The SKA telescopes will initially comprise 131,072 antennas in Australia (SKA-Low), which will be built at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory on Wajarri Country in Western Australia; and 197 dishes in South Africa (SKA-Mid), to be built in the Karoo in South Africa. Together these telescopes are set to provide an unparalleled view of the universe, in what Australian Minister for Industry and Science Ed Husic described as an extraordinary feat of astronomy, scientific infrastructure and international cooperation.

“This first-of-its-kind technology will allow astronomers to tackle fundamental scientific questions, ranging from the birth of the universe to the origins of life,” Husic said.

Among its many science goals, SKA-Low will explore the first billion years after the so-called ‘dark ages’ of the universe, when the first ever stars and galaxies were forming. It will map the structure of the infant universe for the first time, enabling scientists to watch the births and deaths of the first stars, and help us to understand how the earliest galaxies formed.

“Over the past 50 years we’ve seen our understanding of the universe revolutionised,” said Dr Sarah Pearce, SKA-Low Telescope Director and head of telescope operations in Australia.

“The SKA Observatory will define the next 50 years for radio astronomy, charting the birth and death of galaxies, searching for new types of gravitational waves and expanding the boundaries of what we know about the universe.

“The SKA telescopes will be sensitive enough to detect an airport radar on a planet circling a star tens of light-years away, so may even answer the biggest question of all: are we alone in the universe?”

The SKA telescopes’ sheer size and number of antennas means they will provide a significant leap in sensitivity, resolution and survey speed. The telescopes will also be able to see the sky more clearly, reveal fainter details and see more of the sky at once than other state-of-the-art telescopes. SKA-Low will be eight times as sensitive and will map the sky 135 times faster than comparable current telescopes.

SKAO Director-General Professor Philip Diamond said SKAO would build and operate the telescopes on behalf of the international community, describing them as “one of humanity’s biggest ever scientific endeavours”.

“I have been involved with the SKA project for the past 30 years, so to finally see the start of onsite construction is a momentous occasion,” he said.

“We are thrilled to be working with the Australian Government, a founding member of the Observatory; CSIRO, our operations partner in Australia; and our Australian collaborators on a shared journey of discovery, innovation and progress.”

CSIRO’s Executive Director of Digital, National Facilities and Collections, Professor Elanor Huntington, said the benefits of the SKAO are not limited to astronomy, noting, “Much of the technology and engineering required for the telescope to work need to be developed for the first time.

“These advances in engineering, signal processing and computing will not only benefit the astronomy community, but Australian industry as we move further into our data-driven future. The SKAO’s telescopes are providing an opportunity for Australians to innovate and share with the global community. We’re all coming together to not only learn more about the universe but drive advances in data handling and signal processing.”

Western Australia’s Deputy Premier and Minister for Science, Roger Cook, added that he was proud to support the SKA project and welcomed its global impact.

“SKA-Low will be the world’s largest and most capable low-frequency radio telescope. Data collected right here in Western Australia will expand our very understanding of the universe and drive technological developments across the globe,” Cook said.

“Beyond the scientific benefits, the SKA project will provide jobs for large numbers of engineers, scientists and technicians around the world, including in Western Australia.”

Husic concluded that Australians should be proud of their country’s involvement in this project.

“The cutting-edge technology for the SKA telescopes will expose Australian businesses to new skills and capabilities,” Husic said. “We will see these changes flow on to benefit the community, the businesses involved in the project and Australia, more broadly, for generations to come.”

Images show an artist’s impression of the SKA-Low telescope antenna stations at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. Images ©DISR

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