Australia begins construction of ‘meaningful’ radio telescope

This handout, released by Australia’s Department for Industry, Science and Resources on 5 December 2022, features an artist’s rendering of low-frequency stations that make up the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope to be built in Western Australia. (Photo by Handout / Australian Department for Industry, Science and Resources / AFP)

SYDNEY, Australia (AFP) – Australia on Monday began construction of a massive antenna network in the outback, its section of what plans say will become one of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes.

When completed, the antennas in Australia and a network of dishes in South Africa will form the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a massive instrument that aims to unravel mysteries about the formation of stars, galaxies and extraterrestrial life.

The idea for the telescope was first conceived in the early 1990s, but the project was plagued by delays, funding problems, and diplomatic squabbles.

SKA Observatory Director General Philip Diamond described the start of construction as “meaningful”.

The telescope “will be one of mankind’s greatest scientific endeavors,” he said.

Its name is based on the planners’ original goal, a telescope that could observe an area of ​​one square kilometer, but the current South African and Australian sections will have a combined collection area of ​​just under half that, according to the observatory.

Both countries have vast tracts of land in remote areas with little radio interference – ideal for such telescopes.

In Western Australia, more than 130,000 tree antennas are planned to be built on traditional Wajarri Aboriginal land.

They called the site Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara or Sharing the Sky and Stars.

“We honor their willingness to share their skies and stars with us as we seek to find answers to some of the most fundamental scientific questions we face,” said Diamond.

The South African location will offer nearly 200 dishes in the remote Karoo region, according to the organization.

According to the planners at SKA, it is difficult to compare radio telescopes because they work on different frequencies.

However, they have said that the two sites will give the SKA greater sensitivity to single-dish radio telescopes because its arrays are spread out, forming a much larger “virtual dish”.

The project will help “chart the birth and death of galaxies, search for new types of gravitational waves, and push the frontiers of our knowledge of the Universe,” said telescope director Sarah Pearce.

Danny Price of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy said the telescope is extremely powerful.

“To put the SKA’s sensitivity in perspective, the SKA could detect a mobile phone in an astronaut’s pocket on Mars 225 million kilometers away,” he said.

Headquartered at Jodrell Bank in the UK, the SKA Observatory has announced that the telescope is scheduled to begin scientific observations in the late 2020s.

The organization has 14 members: UK, Australia, South Africa, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

© Agence France-Presse