Getting ready for the world’s biggest telescope
The Square Kilometer Array will be capable of answering some of the most fundamental questions about the universe, understanding dark energy, general relativity in extreme conditions, and how the universe came to look the way it does now.
April 4, 2011
Plans for the world’s biggest telescope — the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) — advanced significantly April 2, with a decision to locate the project office at Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester, support from the partners including the United Kingdom for the next phase of the project, and the first steps toward creating the legal entity needed to deliver this ambitious global project.
Artist's impression of the SKA dishes. SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions
The SKA is a $2.1 billion multinational science project to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The SKA will be capable of answering some of the most fundamental questions about the universe, including helping to understand dark energy, general relativity in extreme conditions, and how the universe came to the look the way it does now.
The SKA will be an array of radio antennas with a collection area of a square mile with its core in South Africa or Australia. Signals from individual antennas will be combined to form one giant telescope. In the same way, the famous Lovell Telescope at the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory is used with other United Kingdom telescopes (the e-MERLIN network) and as part of an international network. With an antenna at Chilbolton, the United Kingdom is also part of LOFAR, a low-frequency network centered in the Netherlands. SKA builds on this technique and tradition of collaboration, bringing together all the major groups in radio astronomy.
“Since the 1950s, radio astronomy has provided scientific pioneers with tools to revolutionize our understanding of the universe,” said Jocelyn Bell Burnell from the Institute of Physics. “The power of this new telescope project, however, is going to surpass anything we’ve seen before, enabling us to see many more radio-emitting stars and galaxies and pulling the curtains wide open on parts of the great beyond that radio astronomers like me have only dreamed of exploring. The SKA heralds in a post-Einstein era of physics that will help us take huge strides in our attempt to understand the most bizarre objects and the darkest ages of the universe.”
United Kingdom home to the SKA project office
Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts said: “The Square Kilometer Array is a project of global significance. This is evidence of the high reputation of Britain’s management of international science projects. It is great news for Britain and for Jodrell Bank, and Manchester University in particular.”
“It is great to see such significant progress being made towards building the SKA, one of our highest priorities in astronomy,” said John Womersley from the Science and Technology Facilities Council. “The universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Manchester have a great heritage in astronomy, and they are working together in SKA to ensure the United Kingdom takes a leading role in this exciting global project to better understand the universe we live in.”
“Jodrell Bank is an ideal place for scientists and engineers to work together to plan the world’s largest radio telescope alongside world-leading radio astronomy facilities and the new Discovery Center,” said Stephen Watts from the University of Manchester. “Together, these offer a real opportunity to inspire people of all ages with this ambitious project to answer truly fundamental questions about the nature of the universe.”
“The move to Jodrell Bank comes at a crucial time as the project grows from a concept to an international mega science project,” said Richard Schilizzi from the SKA. “The new location and facilities will support the significant expansion that is planned.”
Agreeing to an international partnership
The SKA has been agreed as a top priority project for astronomy both in the United Kingdom and across Europe. It is a significant step that nine partners have started the process to secure funding and create a legal structure for the SKA. The United Kingdom, through the Science and Technology Facilities Council, is expecting to invest about $24 million in the next phase of the SKA.
In addition to the immense scientific progress that will be made by the SKA, the project is expected to have wider benefits in continuing its already impressive involvement with industrial partners and continuing the inspiration of the public through astronomy.
The SKA project will drive technology development in antennas, signal transport, signal processing, software, and computing. Spin- off innovations in these areas will benefit other systems that process large volumes of data. The design, construction, and operation of the SKA has the potential to impact skills development in science, engineering, and in associated industries not only in the host countries, but also in all project partners.