Square Kilometre Array to be built in South Africa and Australia
South Africa and Australia will share the location for the world's most powerful radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array's scientific consortium announced.
"We have decided on a dual site approach," said SKA board chairman John Womersley at a press conference held at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, following a meeting of the SKA organisation's members in the Dutch capital.
The new Square Kilometre Array science animation
Both South Africa and Australia were competing to win the $2 billion contract for the SKA, an instrument that will be 50 times more sensitive than today's most powerful radio telescopes.
The eagerly awaited decision now means that engineers can connect antennas at Australia's core site at Mileura station, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of Meekathara in western Australia. Other antennae are distributed across Australia and New Zealand.
South Africa's site in the arid Karoo region will now also be connected by a remote link to a network of dishes stretching across southern and eastern Africa and as far away as Ghana.
Its construction is scheduled to start in 2016, becoming fully operational in 2024.
More than a scientific bauble
The SKA is more than just a scientific bauble for the winner. Global tech companies are already earmarking development funds linked to the project, which will rely on computing technology that does not even exist yet to process the flood of data it will collect. Scientists estimate that the SKA will need processing power equivalent to several million of today’s fastest computers.
International Business Machines Corp (IBM.N ) and Astron, the Netherlands institute for radio astronomy, announced in April a 33 million euro ($42 million), five-year deal to develop extremely fast computer systems with low power requirements for the SKA project.
“If you take the current global daily Internet traffic and multiply it by two, you are in the range of the data set that the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope will be collecting every day,” said IBM Researcher Ton Engbersen at the announcement of the deal.
Other companies that have signed partnership agreements with the project include Nokia-Siemens, BAE Systems PLC, Cisco Systems Inc and Selex Galileo, a UK unit of Italian group Finmeccanica SpA.
The engineering and computing challenges are significant, not least the provision of power to run the array and the supercomputers in such a remote location.
It is in overcoming those challenges that the leaders of the project argue could lead to untold spin-offs for industry. They point to Wi-Fi technology as one of the best known commercial applications to come from radio astronomy, for instance.
The first phase of construction is set to start in 2016, and by 2019 about 10% of the array should be built, extending some 100 km from the telescope’s core. Expansion to 3000 km should be complete by 2023 and the project will be fully up and running the following year.
Answers to big questions
In an interview with Reuters, the leaders of the project said they hope the array will help to answer some of the biggest questions about the formation and make-up of the universe.
“For me, one of the most exciting questions is what is the universe made of,” said John Womersley, Chair of the Board of Directors of the SKA organisation. “We know that 5% of universe is made of atoms but what about the dark matter and other stuff that makes up 95% of the universe?
“Connecting to discoveries from the Large Hadron Collider, we will get a consistent picture of what the universe is made of.”
The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator and is testing some of the most basic theories in physics by smashing particle beams together to simulate the conditions in the universe a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.
Michiel van Haarlem, Director General of the group, said the telescope’s capabilities will expand over time.
“In stage one, finding out about the first stars and galaxies that formed in the universe, pulsars and gravitational radiation. Then in the second stage the role of magnetic fields in the formation of galaxies and looking for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) type things.”
The Britain-based consortium behind the telescope includes Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom as well as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.