Work underway on huge telescope
China Daily

An artist's impression shows how low-frequency stations forming the Square Kilometer Array radio telescope will look after they are built in Australia. (Photo: AFP)

Scientists from eight countries gathered at sites in South Africa and Australia on Monday to mark the start of construction on the world's biggest radio telescope that it is hoped will offer a first ever view of the formation of the universe.

The Square Kilometre Array, or SKA project, is an international effort to build the world's biggest astronomy observatory, which, when completed in 2028, could give detailed insight into the history of the cosmos, according to the experts involved.

The $2.1 billion international project will gather radio waves from an arrangement of 197 dishes in South Africa and more than 131,000 antennae in the Australian outback, and the entire venture will be managed from the SKA Observatory headquarters in Manchester, England.

It will create data collecting areas measuring hundreds of thousands of square meters, enabling astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and faster than any system currently in existence, according to the SKA Observatory website.

Ceremonies were held on Monday in the remote Murchison area of Western Australia and in the Karoo region of South Africa. The sites were chosen for scientific and technical reasons, including radio quietness, which comes from being some of the most remote locations on Earth.

"This is the moment it becomes real," said Phil Diamond, director general of the SKA Organisation.

"It's been a 30-year journey. The first 10 years were about developing the concepts and ideas. The second 10 was spent doing the technology development.

"And then the last decade was about detailed design, securing the sites, getting governments to agree to set up a treaty organisation (SKAO) and provide the funds to start," he told BBC News.

Current members of SKA include South Africa, Australia, China, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland and the United Kingdom, and many more countries have expressed intention to join the eff ort, meaning the collection area could be expanded further.

"The SKA is going to contribute to so many areas of astronomy," said Shari Breen, the observatory's head of science operations.

"One would be these 'fast radio bursts' that have been detected. These things output the equivalent of an entire year's worth of energy from our sun in just a fraction of a second. And we have no idea what they are. How is that possible? Hopefully the SKA will have an answer."

The scientists said the massive telescope will be able to gather very low-frequency radio waves that date back nearly 14 billion years to the birth of the universe.

"We will be able to observe this incredibly weak signal all the way back to just after the Big Bang," Diamond was quoted by the Times newspaper as saying last year.

"We'll be able to watch the first stars form, the first galaxies form. We'll be able to watch the evolution of these galaxies through cosmic time, to see right up to the present," he said.