One of the grand scientific projects of the 21st Century is finally commencing construction. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be the largest radio telescope in the world when completed in 2028.
Split across South Africa and Australia, with a headquarters in the UK, the facility will enable scientists to address the biggest questions in astrophysics.
"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," said Prof Phil Diamond, director general of SKA.
The aim is to construct an effective collecting area measuring hundreds of thousands of square metres. This will give the SKA unparalleled sensitivity and resolution as it probes targets on the sky, and should enable the telescope to detect very faint radio signals coming from cosmic sources billions of light-years from Earth, including those signals emitted in the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang.
One of the SKA's great quests will be to trace the full history of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the Universe.
The first major milestone of the $2 billion project should come in 2024, when four dishes in Australia and six antenna stations in South Africa are made to work seamlessly together as a basic telescope. This proof-of-principle moment will then trigger the array's full roll-out to more than 100,000 antennas at the Australian site, in Wajarri Country in Western Australia, and 197 dishes in Karoo in South Africa.
By 2028, the SKA will have an effective collecting area of just under 500,000 square metres. But the set-up is such that it can continue growing, perhaps up to the much desired one million square metres, or one square kilometre. One way this could happen is if more and more countries join the organisation and provide the necessary funds. The current members are South Africa, Australia, the UK, China, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland.
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