The world’s largest radio telescope takes a major step towards construction

Primer Subtitulo: 
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the largest research infrastructure ever developed, has already a final design for the first phase of the project
Resumen: 
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the largest research infrastructure ever developed, has already a final design for the first phase of the project

At their meeting last week at the SKA Organisation Headquarters near Manchester, UK, the SKA Board of Directors unanimously agreed to move the world’s largest radio telescope forward to its final pre-construction phase. The design of the €650M first phase of the SKA (SKA1) is now defined, consisting of two complementary world-class instruments – one in Australia and one in South Africa – both expecting to deliver exciting and transformational science.

“I was impressed by the strong support from the Board and the momentum to take the project forward”, said Professor Philip Diamond, Director General of the SKA Organisation. “The SKA will fundamentally change our understanding of the Universe. We are talking about a facility that will be many times better than anything else out there.”

Presently in its design phase, the international project, currently consisting of 11 nations, has been engaged over the last 20 months in a rigorous and extremely challenging science-driven, engineering process with teams from around the world working to refine the design of SKA1.

The SKA instruments will be located in two countries – South Africa and Australia. In the first phase of the project, South Africa will host about 200 parabolic antennas or dishes – similar to, but much larger than a standard domestic satellite dish – and Australia more than 100,000 ‘dipole’ antennas, which resemble domestic TV aerials.


 

“Thanks to these two complementary instruments, we will address a broad range of exciting science, such as observing pulsars and black holes to detect the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein, testing gravity, and looking for signatures of life in the galaxy”, said Professor Robert Braun, Science Director of the SKA Organisation. “We will also observe one of the last unexplored periods in the history of our Universe – the epoch of re-ionisation – looking back to the first billion years of the Universe at a time when the first stars and galaxies are forming.”

The Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope, a precursor telescope already operating as a first-class instrument in its own right in Western Australia, will continue to provide world-leading survey capability which will complement the overall SKA programme. The SKA will incorporate a programme for the development of next-generation Phased Array Feeds (PAFs), a technology that greatly enhances the field of view of radio telescopes, allowing for observations of a larger portion of the sky in any given time. In South Africa, the MeerKAT telescope, another precursor to the SKA, will be integrated into the dish array.

“The next step is to work with the SKA partner countries to develop an international Organisation before the start of the construction in 2018”, said Professor John Womersley, Chair of the SKA Board of Directors. “This incredible telescope has a design, it is within budget, construction is around the corner, it will drive technology development in the era of Big Data, and it is going to deliver Nobel prize-winning science. In short, it will have an invaluable impact on society like very few enterprises before it.”

Spanish participation

Many Spanish scientists and engineers have been involved in different working groups of the SKA since 2012. Currently nine Spanish research centers and eleven companies are contributing to the efforts of the SKA design in six work packages, with an estimated share of two million euros recognized by the Board of SKA. Since October 2013 a representative of the Spanish government is being regularly invited to attend meetings of the board.

"Spain has been positioning for a maximum scientific return of the SKA, as well as to contribute to the SKA work packages of technological relevance and high potential for innovation. We´ll make the most of this effort if our country becomes a full member of the largest scientific infrastructure on Earth", said Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro, scientist at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC) and coordinator of the technological participation of Spain in the SKA.

"This progress towards building the SKA is good news for Spain, since now we have all the details to define our level of participation in this megascience project", concludes the researcher.

Notes for editors:

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, led by the SKA Organisation from Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK. The SKA will conduct transformational science to improve our understanding of the Universe and the laws of fundamental physics, monitoring the sky in unprecedented detail and mapping it hundreds of times faster than any current facility.

The SKA is not a single telescope, but a collection of telescopes or instruments, called an array, to be spread over long distances. The SKA is to be constructed in two phases: Phase 1 (called SKA1) in South Africa and Australia; Phase 2 (called SKA2) expanding into other African countries, with the Australian component also being expanded.

Already supported by 11 member countries – Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom – the Organisation has brought together some of world’s finest scientists, engineers and policy makers and more than 100 companies and research institutions across 20 countries in the design and development of the telescope. Construction of the SKA is set to start in 2018, with early science observations in 2020.

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