Giant Radio Telescope Gets Two Different Locations
May 26, 2012

Giant Radio Telescope Gets Two Different Locations

Lee Rannals for

Australia and South Africa will host a giant radio telescope made up of thousands of separate dishes, which will help scientists gain a better understanding of our universe.

South Africa and Australia both battled for bidding for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project, but South Africa came away with a victory by capturing two parts of the three-part project.

"We may feel slightly disappointed that we didn't get the whole thing. But I think one should emphasize that we did get most of it," Justin Jonas, the chief South African scientist on the project, said in a statement. "Two-thirds of the biggest instrument in the world is still the biggest instrument in the world."

SKA will be 50 times more sensitive, and will be able to scan the sky 10,000 times faster than any existing telescopes.  It will require large open spaces, with very few humans.

John Womersley, chair of the consortium's board, said the telescope will help scientists answer key questions like "Where do we come from?" and "What is this universe we live in?"

"We don't understand what 96 percent of our universe is made of," he said in a statement.

The organization said dividing construction of the telescope will "maximize on investments already made by both Australia and South Africa."

Womersley said splitting construction between the countries adds about 10 percent to the $439 million cost, but would be big payoff for astronomers.

"It delivers more science in phase one. The capabilities of this instrument are greater than the original design," Womersley said.

Companies like Nokia-Siemens, BAE Systems PLC, Cisco Systems and Selex Galileo have signed partnership agreements with the project.

The leaders of the project say Wi-Fi technology could be one of the best known commercial applications to come from radio astronomy.

"If you take the current global daily Internet traffic and multiply it by two, you are in the range of the data set that the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope will be collecting every day," IBM Researcher Ton Engbersen said at the announcement of the deal.

IBM announced a five-year deal to develop extremely fast computer systems with low power requirements for the SKA project.

Scientists believe the SKA will need processing power equivalent to several million of today's fastest computers in order to run.

The telescope will be completed in 2024, and will be made up of 3,000 dishes, each about 50-feet wide.  Together, they will cover a surface area of a little under a half of a square mile.

"This hugely important step for the project allows us to progress the design and prepare for the construction phase of the telescope," Michiel van Haarlem, Director General of the consortium, told Reuters. "The SKA will transform our view of the universe; with it we will see back to the moments after the Big Bang and discover previously unexplored parts of the cosmos."

The first phase of construction for the SKA radio telescope will start in 2016.