Say Hello To The $2.2 Billion ‘SKA’ As Humanity’s Biggest-Ever Telescope Gets The Green Light

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After a 30 year wait and seven years of design and engineering work, construction has finally started in South Africa and Western Australia on what will together be humanity’s biggest-ever telescope.

The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) will cost $2.2 billion and comprise two large and complex radio telescope networks—197 radio dishes in Karoo in South Africa’s Northern Cape and 131,072 antennas in Murchison, deep in the outback of Western Australia. 

Together they will form a total collecting area of one kilometer spanning two continents, which will allows the detection of very faint radio signals. 

“I am ecstatic—this moment has been 30 years in the making,” said Professor Philip Diamond, Director-General of SKAO, during an announcement at its global HQ in the U.K. this week. “Humankind is taking another giant leap by committing to build what will be the largest science facility of its kind on the planet.”

SKAO is designed to unlock some of the secrets of the cosmos using radio astronomy—the study of the night sky in radio frequencies. Radio telescopes detect and amplify radio waves from space—electromagnetic radiation emitted by stars, galaxies and other cosmic objects.

SKAO will help astronomers figure-out:  

  • the formation and evolution of galaxies. 
  • fundamental physics in extreme environments. 
  • the origins of life. 

The SKAO is all about interferometry—many small antennas connected by optical fiber to create a virtual telescope called an array. It will boast far greater sensitivity and finer resolution than from one giant radio dish. 

The names of the two sites—SKA-Mid (South Africa) and SKA-Low (Western Australia)—describe the radio frequency range they each cover. 

At SKA-Mid 197 parabolic radio dishes will be built, each 50 feet/15 meters in diameter. The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) has already built around a third of them.

Meanwhile, SKA-Low will install a total of 131,072 low-frequency aperture array telescopes, each 6.5 feet/2 meters tall. They’re being constructed with support from the Wajarri Yamaji, the traditional indigenous owners of the land on which the SKA-Low telescope will be built. “The SKAO will be a good neighbour and will work with … Indigenous communities, to ensure that they also benefit from the SKA project,” said Diamond. “We certainly intend to play our part in supporting local communities and boosting the local economy.”

It’s estimated that they the two sites will together create 710 petabytes of science data when fully operational.

That’s expected to be 2029 after which astronomers can expect 50 years or more of transformational science, though it will be possible to conduct science within a few years.

The SKA Project’s founding members comprise Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the U.K. while France and Spain are also headed towards membership. Switzerland, Canada, Germany, India, Sweden, Japan and South Korea are also involved. 

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes. 

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