Construction begins on the world's largest radio observatory
A highly sensitive, next-generation radio observatory has started to come to life, with construction now officially underway on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in Australia and South Africa. The dual-site science facility is set to become one of the largest on Earth, and will offers astronomers a new means to explore some of the most fundamental questions about the cosmos when operations begin later this decade.
The SKA Observatory is around three decades in the making and is the brainchild of astronomers from around the world, who came together in the 1980s to explore how radio waves can tell stories about the history of the universe. In 2012, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Organisation settled on two sites in South Africa and Australia to co-host the facility, taking advantage of the lack of human-generated radio waves in remote regions for clear observations of the cosmos.
Doing so will involve more than 100,000 antennas at the Australian site, in Wajarri Country in Western Australia, and 197 dishes in Karoo in South Africa, where the precursor MeerKAT telescope is already up and running. This will make the SKA Observatory the largest radio astronomy observatory in the world, with ceremonies taking place in both locations on Monday to mark the beginning of construction.
“The SKA Observatory’s telescopes will be one of humanity’s biggest-ever scientific endeavors,” said SKA Organization Director-General Professor Philip Diamond. “I have been involved with the SKA project for the past 30 years, so to finally see the start of on-site construction is a momentous occasion.”
Once it is up and running, the SKA Observatory will use its unparalleled sensitivity to detect radio signals emitted by cosmic sources billions of light years away. This will take the field of radio astronomy into new terrain, allowing scientists to probe the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, and study the early chapters of the universe by documenting the births and deaths of early stars to understand how galaxies formed.
"To put the sensitivity of the SKA into perspective, the SKA could detect a mobile phone in the pocket of an astronaut on Mars, 225 million kilometers away,” said Senior Postdoctoral Fellow at Australia’s Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy, Dr Danny Price. “More excitingly, if there are intelligent societies on nearby stars with technology similar to ours, the SKA could detect the aggregate 'leakage' radiation from their radio and telecommunication networks – the first telescope sensitive enough to achieve this feat.”