After 30 years of planning and negotiations, the construction of the world’s largest telescope, dubbed Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Observatory, has begun. When operational, the telescope will offer a sharper, wider view of the universe, expanding our understanding of it like never before.
The science and other stuff to know
The SKA Observatory is about three decades in the making. It’s the brainchild of more than 500 engineers and 1,000 scientists from around the globe, who came together in the ’80s to explore how radio waves can tell stories about the history of the universe. Back in 2012, scientists settled on two sites in South Africa and Australia to co-host the telescope, and the groundwork at the site has just begun.
This telescope will initially comprise 131,072 antennas in Australia and 197 dishes in South Africa. It will, however, be headquartered in the U.K. According to the SKA organization, this low-frequency radio telescope will be able to see the universe more clearly and reveal more faint details than any other current state-of-the-art telescope. In fact, it’ll be able to survey the universe up to 135 times faster than existing radio telescopes.
The telescope will be able to pick up waves of extremely low frequency, with wavelengths up to meters in length and which have traveled over billions of light-years.
By listening and looking deep into space, scientists hope the SKA can help answer some fundamental questions boggling astronomers. For instance, are we alone in the universe? How did the first stars come to shine? And what exactly is “dark energy” — the mysterious phenomenon that appears to be pulling the cosmos apart?
Sarah Pearce, the head of telescope operations in Australia, said in a statement: “The SKA telescopes will be sensitive enough to detect an airport radar on a planet circling a star tens of light years away. So, it may even answer the biggest question of all: are we alone in the Universe?
“Over the past fifty years, we’ve seen our understanding of the Universe revolutionized. The SKA Observatory will define the next fifty years for radio astronomy, charting the birth and death of galaxies, searching for new types of gravitational waves, and expanding the boundaries of what we know about the Universe,” Pearce added.
SKA will also explore the first billion years after the ‘dark ages’ of the universe when the first-ever stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang. It’ll also map the structure of the infant universe for the first time, enabling scientists to watch the births and deaths of the first stars.
Other goals of SKA include searching for gravitational waves emitted from dead stars, understanding cosmic magnetism, and detecting the mysterious millisecond bursts of radio waves known as fast radio bursts.
SKA Observatory will join a number of other next-generation telescopes of the decade, including the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s expected to be completed by 2028, with the telescopes anticipated to operate for more than 50 years.