The Square Kilometre Array Observatory has received international approval. Find out why this megaproject signals an inspiring new era in global astronomy.
Back in 1992, I learned a new Latin phrase from the Queen. She referred to the cluster of setbacks that she and the Royal Family endured that year as an annus horibilus.
This past year, 2020, has been an annus horibilus for us all, with the global pandemic and various other misfortunes. This included the astronomy community, which was devastated by the sudden collapse of the iconic radio telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico.
We’ve covered that accident a couple of times in these pages, but now we can share a good news story instead. A new, long-dreamed-of Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) is now approved, and construction will begin this summer.
Building Square Kilometre Array Begins This Summer
Radio telescopes are sophisticated antennas combined with sensitive radio receivers that astronomers use to detect radio signals from sources in deep space. Scientists have been using them since Bell Laboratories built the first one in 1932.
Scientists resorted to using radio-based technology for astronomy because visible light is only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Stars and galaxies emit many other signals beyond the visible light that telescopes using lenses and mirrors can capture.
Another advantage of radio telescopes is that astronomers can use them at any time of day. They can take us much further into space than their optical counterparts, but they have their limitations like any instrument.
Radio Telescopes Take Us Further into Space
The radio signals from distant objects become very faint when they reach our antennas here on Earth. As those of us who remember TV antennas can attest, we need larger and larger antennas to pick up ever more distant signals.
That’s what led to the proposal thirty years ago to build the Square Kilometre Array Observatory. It will be the largest radio astronomy telescope in the world. What was then seen as wishful thinking is about to become a reality.
The original idea was to build an array of antennas that literally covered one square kilometre of land. Designers have modified that concept to now include two sites on two continents.
Design Will Include Two Sites on Two Continents
One site will be at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia, where SKAO will install 131,072 wire antennas. Meanwhile, in the Karu region of South Africa, they’ll erect 130 new dish antennas to complement the current 64 Dish MeerKAT Array.
Astronomers will use the wire antennas to receive low-frequency signals and the dish antennas for high frequencies. At both sites, the antennas will be laid out close together in the centre of an array, with arms spreading out in multiple directions for hundreds of kilometres.
The array will use the latest digital technology to combine signals from all those widely spaced receivers. This design will deliver excellent resolution and superior sensitivity.
International Project Supported by 16 Countries
The observatory will be an international project and will be supported by as many as 16 countries worldwide. Six countries made it official by ratifying the Convention Establishing the Square Kilometre Array Observatory on January 15, 2021.
The ratification results from ten years of research and development. This involved a team of over 500 engineers, more than 1,000 scientists and scores of policymakers.
The international effort involved people from more than 20 countries. The planning for SKAO, in one form or another, has been ongoing since that initial proposal three decades ago.
Planning Has Been Ongoing for Three Decades
The initial treaty signatories are the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Portugal, the Netherlands and Italy. Ten observer countries plan to join the convention shortly. These are Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and South Korea.
The treaty created the SKAO Council, and they’ve reviewed and approved the detailed design. They’ve now given the go-ahead to issue tenders, hire staff and begin construction later this year.
Dr. Catherine Cesarsky was appointed as the founding Council Chair. She described the ratification of the treaty this way.
“Historic Moment for Radio Astronomy”
“This is a historic moment for radio astronomy. Behind today’s milestone, there are countries that had the vision to get deeply involved because they saw the wider benefits their participation in SKAO could bring to build an ecosystem of science and technology involving fundamental research, computing, engineering, and skills for the next generation, which are essential in a 21st-century digital economy.”
The new Director-General of the observatory was the council’s first hire. He’s Astronomy Professor Philip Diamond. He’ll be based at the new Square Kilometre Array Observatory headquarters at the historic Jodrell Bank Observatory site in the U.K.
Professor Diamond announced, “Today marks the birth of a new Observatory. And not just any observatory – this is one of the mega-science facilities of the 21st century. It is the culmination of many years of work, and I wish to congratulate everyone in the SKAO community.”
Non-Profit Corporation Funded by Member Countries
Professor Diamond is taking charge of a non-profit corporation that is funded by the member countries. The countries will share the €2 billion construction cost of the observatory and its operations based on the number of astronomers in each member state.
This immense new observatory will have unprecedented signal gathering potential. It will be capable of discovering the Universe’s very first stars and galaxies.
It will also shed light on the effects of cosmic magnetism and gravity that cosmologists haven’t observed with the instruments now in use. Who knows? It might even pick up radio signals from civilizations on other planets.
Deeper Understanding of the Story of Our Universe
Regardless of which potential discoveries the SKAO eventually delivers, it’s sure to give us a deeper understanding of the story of our Universe. Every culture tells stories about the origin of the Universe and our place in it.
The Square Kilometre Array Observatory is another tool that can help us work out our new science-based origin story’s details. It’s a story that everyone on Earth will be able to share, with the advantage over our myths of being literally true.
Professor Diamond seemed to agree when he added, “For our community, this is about participating in one of the great scientific adventures of the coming decades. It is about skills, technology, innovation, industrial return, and spin-offs, but fundamentally it is about a wonderful scientific journey that we are now embarking on.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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