An Idiot’s Guide To The Square Kilometre Array

Words By: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu

Have you ever dreamed of reaching the stars? Well, look no further, the Square Kilometre Array is in Western Australia and it’s here to help humanity achieve its dreams!

I’m not exaggerating. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little bit. So we’re not exactly reaching for the stars, it’s a turn of phrase and I probably didn’t need to explain that. However, the Square Kilometre Array that is being built in the Murchison region in Western Australia is a testament to man’s continued attempts to study the stars as well as understand the celestial processes of the universe.

So what exactly is the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)?

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is an international project to build the world’s largest radio telescope, consisting of thousands of antennas connected by a high bandwidth optical fibre. It is due to be fifty times as sensitive as the best radio telescopes in existence, and ten thousand times faster. According to the project director Antony Schnickel, the SKA telescopes will have the ability to map vast areas of the sky, amassing in an area equal to two hundred times the size of the moon.

Led by the international SKA Organization, a non-profit company with headquarters in Manchester, UK, the telescope is being implemented across the Murchison region in Western Australia and in South Africa. The precursor instrument, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) is currently underway, which will then lead to the construction of SKA in 2018. There will be a $1.9 billion input in design and funding for this project by eleven countries.

The project has been divided into two phases. The first phase, SKA1, involves a full system testing, using three telescopes. Australia will host the SKA1-LOW and SKA1-Survey components of the first phase, which will then merge into the mid-frequency component of SKA1, to be built in South Africa. Dr Schnickel believes that it will take $10 million a year to keep the project going.

As of late 2014, thirty-six huge antennae dishes had been installed, with six of them active and yielding results beyond expectations. For example, in April 2015, three early scientific results showed that the SKA telescopes had discovered dark clouds of hydrogen gas associated with a galaxy, observed an unusually inactive pulsar and detected a five billion year old radio signal from a distant galaxy. One of the pictures taken by the telescopes has revealed almost two thousand galaxies in it. The entire network of dishes will hopefully be operational by March 2016.

How do the SKA telescopes work?

Radio astronomy has contributed to several discoveries in the past century: discovering the cosmic microwave background, for instance, as well as gaining evidence for phenomena such as the accelerating expansion of the universe.

The difference between a radio telescope and any other telescope is that the former is able to observe things that would normally go unnoticed by the latter, since radio waves can penetrate clouds of dust and gas. The SKA telescopes detect radio waves produced by physical processes in space and translate these into useful and comprehensible data for astronomers.

What makes Murchison the ideal location for SKA?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Murchison’s isolation makes it an ideal location for SKA. Murchison is a four hour drive from Geraldton. According to CSIRO scientist, Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith, the radio telescopes are on the prowl for weak signals, that in turn have to be amplified a millionfold with specialist electronic equipment to be made sense of. Murchison, devoid of distractions, is the perfect place from which to detect these signals.

What is the aim of SKA?

Have you ever wondered what lay beyond the stars or how the universe has changed through the millenia? SKA aims to address the questions that have haunted the human race for many a century: how the universe has evolved, how black holes are formed, the origins of the first stars and the generation of magnetic fields in space.

And just think: we’ve only got a few more years to go until we finally receive some of the answers to those questions.