MADRID – After four and a half years of work, an international consortium of scientists said on Monday it had completed revolutionary software that will control, monitor and operate a giant earth-based radio telescope.
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, led by scientists at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Manchester, the United Kingdom, with software provided by another international consortium called Telescope Manager.
“SKA is going to be a very Earthly project and can boast of being a truly planetary project,” said Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro, coordinator of the Spanish team participating in the SKA project and researcher at Spain’s Andalusian Institute of Astrophysics, in an exclusive interview with EFE.
SKA is not a single telescope, but a collection of telescopes called an array, spread over large distances, she said.
SKA will be built in Australia and South Africa, later expanding further in both nations and to other African countries.
Once complete, SKA will provide over a million square meters of collecting area, with thousands of dishes, and up to a million low-frequency antennas connected using the highest speed data communications network ever envisaged in astronomy, feeding data at rates well above current internet data transmission capacity.
Such increase in scale demands a revolutionary break from traditional radio telescope design and radical developments in processing, computer speeds, and technological infrastructure, Verdes-Montenegro said.
SKA will improve our understanding of the universe and the laws of physics, monitoring the sky in unprecedented detail and mapping it hundreds of times faster than any current facility.
Scientists will witness the formation of the very first galaxies, confirm Einstein’s General Relativity theory, study the formation of other solar systems, investigate pulsars, neutron stars and seek planetary habitability biomarkers, she said.
Spain has been involved for years in this project and has just become the 11th member of the SKA consortium, followed by France.
Other members include Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, New Zealand, SA, Sweden, Holland and the UK, she said.
SKA’s Phase 1 (SKA1-low) will begin in 2021 and its 125,000 low-frequency dipole antennas, resembling TV antennas, will spread across 65 kilometers (40 miles) in Australia while in South Africa another 200 parabolic dishes (SKA1-mid) will extend 150 kilometers, both amounting to a 10th of the final radiotelescope array.
Dipole antennas will register very low frequencies, analyzing data gleaned from the birth of the first stars and galaxies, Verdes-Montenegro said.
Parabolic antennas will capture higher frequencies to observe pulsars, black holes, and possibly elusive gravitational waves.
SKA phase 2, due to be completed by 2026, will extend geographically across another eight African nations and “down-under” arrays will extend from Australia’s western outback over to New Zealand.
SKA will harvest immense amounts of “big data,” while cutting-edge technology companies are working on solutions to handle such data volume through cloud computing, she said.
The current design stage is now complete at a cost of 150 million euros ($173 million) while the SKA1 building costs have been estimated at 674 million euros ($779 million).