Construction on the world’s largest radio astronomy observatory, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), has officially begun in Australia after three decades of development.
A massive intergovernmental effort, the SKA has been hailed as one of the greatest science projects of this century. It will allow scientists to look back to the beginning of the universe’s history, when the first stars and galaxies formed. It will also be used to investigate dark energy and why the universe is expanding, and to potentially search for extraterrestrial life.
Related: The most powerful radio telescope in the world: the Square Kilometer Array
The SKA will initially involve two telescope arrays: one in Wajarri Country in remote Western Australia, called SKA-Low, comprising 131,072 mast-like antennas.
SKA-Low is so named due to 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 series of 197 traditional dishes, SKA-Mid, will be made in the Karoo region of South Africa.
Australian Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic and SKA Organization Director General Prof Philip Diamond are expected to mark the start of construction of SKA-Low at an on-site event in Western Australia on Monday morning .
Dr Sarah Pearce, director of the SKA-Low telescope, said in a statement that the observatory “will define the next fifty years for radio astronomy, tracking the birth and death of galaxies, looking 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 they may also answer the biggest question of all: Are we alone in the universe?”
The SKA has been described by scientists as a game changer and milestone in astronomical research.
University of New South Wales astronomer Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith called it ‘an important day for global astronomy’, adding: ‘More than a thousand people worked over 20 years to make this a reality – and each will be feeling proud of this collective achievement today.
Dr Danny Price, a postdoctoral fellow at the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy, said the sensitivity of the SKA would allow astronomers to look back billions of years to the “cosmic dawn,” when the first stars were forming in the ‘universe.
“To put the sensitivity of SKA into perspective, [it] could detect a cell phone in an astronaut’s pocket on Mars, 225 kilometers away,” Price said in a statement. “Even more exciting, if there are smart societies on nearby stars with similar technology to ours, the SKA could detect aggregate ‘leakage’ radiation from their radio and telecommunication networks: the first telescope sensitive enough to achieve this feat”.
The professor. Alan Duffy, director of the Institute of Space Technology and Industry at Swinburne University of Technology, said the SKA would likely be the largest telescope ever built, ‘connecting across continents to create a world-spanning structure allowing us to essentially see across the entire observable universe”.
“Scientific goals are as vast as the telescope itself, from searching for forming planets and signs of alien life, to mapping the cosmic web of dark matter and the growth of galaxies within those vast filaments that criss-cross the universe,” Duffy said in a statement.
“Just as with Hubble, the biggest discoveries of such next-generation telescopes involve things completely unknown to science today. Astronomers around the world will celebrate this revolutionary [development] for what it will mean for scientists in the decades to come.”
In Australia, the SKA Organization is collaborating with the CSIRO to build and operate the telescopes.