Countries Battle It Out For The Square Kilometer Array Project
September 15, 2011

Countries Battle It Out For The Square Kilometer Array Project


The world´s biggest telescope, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), is set to be built in one of two locations depending on the outcome of bidding, which starts today.

The $2 billion project will consist of thousands of dishes stretching out 1,900 miles, with a total surface area of one square kilometer. The system will generate enough raw data to fill 15 million 64Gb iPods every day, and will require a supercomputer 1,000 times faster -- equivalent to a billion PCs -- than what currently exists.

The array of radio telescopes will peer back to a time before the first stars and galaxies formed, offering our best chance yet of detecting alien intelligence. Scientists are predicting that it will provide so much data that it will completely change our view of the universe.

Bids will be submitted today to host the SKA. The bidding pits South Africa (along with 8 other African countries) against Australia and New Zealand. Both contenders are in the southern hemisphere and both boast huge areas of vastly unpopulated land, which provides quiet radio spectrum, clear skies and high altitude.

Lindsay Magnus, commissioning scientist at the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7), a prototype of the SKA, is hoping Africa wins the bidding round, saying that if it did, it would transform the continent´s scientific image.

KAT-7 includes seven 50-foot-tall dishes undergoing tests in the Karoo desert. Staff have to charter weekly flights from Cape Town to the Northern Cape village of Carnarvon, then drive an hour into the wilderness, where mobile phone reception soon disappears, and only the hardiest of farmers venture. It´s just the place researchers like to be.

“I work in a world class field and now I can do it at home, I don't have to go overseas,” Magnus told the Guardian. “If you were to think about the way to impact people here with science, there's no better way. Children already know there's something big going on, it's broadening their horizons. It's very different from the daily toll of war, famine and poverty.”

If Africa wins the bidding, it will have about 3,000 antenna dishes dotted across the landscape, stretching out as far away as Ghana.

Dr. Deborah Shepherd, project scientist and commissioning manager of SKA, moved from America to join the African team. “You have a fresh outlook on things in South Africa. The innovation that's coming out is incredible. They're not limited by the way things have been done in the past,” she said, according to several media reports.

SKA project director Dr. Bernie Fanaroff said: “It's changing the way South Africa is seen, not just as yet another African country which is a basket case but actually as a science and technology leader.”

“A lot of African countries are now recognizing the importance of science and technology in development. Africa has not been perceived up to now as a place where you do science and technology, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be in the future.”

Construction on SKA is scheduled to begin in 2016 and take eight years to complete. It is funded by a UK-based consortium made up of 16 countries which will make its final decision next year. Africa and Australia are the last two candidates, narrowed down from five by an international steering committee.

In South Africa, where economic and educational disparities persist between the white minority and black majority, diversity is a hypersensitive issue.

“If you look at astronomy around the world, it's heavily dominated by middle aged white men. We've tried very hard to get women and black astronomers and engineers into the program,” said Fanaroff.

“If you go to a number of European countries, you'll see that the proportion of women in our program is much higher, so we're doing quite well. It's been quite difficult to get black astronomers and engineers. Some of the technologies that we're dealing with are technologies that black students haven't gone into – things like digital signal processing,” he told the Guardian.

“We've been finding young people and bringing them into our training programs as far as we can. We haven't gone nearly far enough, but if you look at our bursary program for instance, more than half the bursaries and grants have gone to black students, and I think it's about 40 percent have gone to women,” he added.

Next, KAT-7 will grow into MeerKAT, which will consist of 64 dishes that will rival the current world leader, the Very Large Array in New Mexico. But even MeerKAT, due to be completed in 2016 or 2017, will pale in comparison to the SKA.

“The SKA project will provide astronomers with a fantastic new tool which may well revolutionize our understanding of the universe,” Dr. Ian Griffin, from the UK Association of Science and Discovery Centers, told MailOnline.

“With its huge area the telescope will show incredibly fine detail in galaxies, help test the theory of relativity by studying exciting and mysterious objects like black holes and allow astronomers to learn more about the early history of the universe,” he said.

The scientific community also believe that the SKA represents the best chance ever of finding out if there is life beyond our solar system. The SKA´s dishes, which will detect electromagnetic radiation emitted by objects in space, will be the most sensitive array ever built, and will be able to detect an airport radar on a planet 50 light years away.


Image Caption: An artist's impression of the central core of dish antennas of the SKA. Credit: SKA Project Development Office and Swinburne Astronomy Productions


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