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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 8:28 EDT

SKA Organisation Headquarters Opening Ceremony Paves The Way For World’s Largest Radio Telescope

May 7, 2013
Image Caption: The SKA Organisation Headquarters, at Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester, UK, and the Lovell Telescope in the background. Credit: SKA, R. Millenaar (ASTRON/SKA)

Square Kilometre Array

Less than a year after the decision to site the revolutionary Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in both Southern Africa and Australia, the SKA Organisation has opened its new international headquarters.

In front of an invited audience of local and global dignitaries, scientists and engineers, the UK Minister for Universities and Science the Rt. Hon. David Willetts MP recently opened the building which will be home to the team managing the construction, design and scientific output of this groundbreaking telescope.

The SKA Organisation headquarters, located near to, and with views of the iconic Lovell Telescope at the University of Manchester´s Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK, will be the central control hub for a global team who, over the next decade, will be building the SKA — the largest radio telescope ever seen on Earth.

“The Square Kilometre Array is set to be one of the world´s most exciting international science projects, giving us new and unparalleled insights into the universe”, said the UK Minister for Universities and Science the Rt. Hon. David Willetts MP. “The fact that the UK has been chosen to host the project office is recognition of our leading expertise in science, engineering and design. It will give us a leading role in the development and operation of this groundbreaking telescope.”

“The opening of the SKA headquarters at Jodrell Bank means that the world´s largest radio telescope now has a home in the UK — a major milestone for this truly inspirational international science project to explore the origin and evolution of the Universe”, said John Womersley, CEO of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and Chairman of the SKA Organisation.

The elegant and modern £3.34 million building, funded by the University of Manchester, is a state of the art facility which will eventually be home to upwards of 60 members of staff, including visiting scientists and engineers.

“The new Office of the SKA Organisation at the University of Manchester´s Jodrell Bank is an ideal place for scientists and engineers to work together to plan the world´s largest radio telescope”, said Professor Stephen Watts, Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at The University of Manchester. “It sits alongside world-leading radio astronomy facilities in the Lovell Telescope and e-MERLIN, itself a Pathfinder to the SKA. Together with the hugely successful Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, these offer a real opportunity to inspire people of all ages with this ambitious project to answer truly fundamental questions about the nature of the universe.”

Designed by architects Fielden Clegg Bradley and built by John Turner Construction Group, the building uses numerous environmentally friendly engineering solutions by Capita Symonds to ensure a minimal environmental impact. Natural lighting is provided by the huge glass facade, and the architectural teams have made important efforts to ensure that the ventilation, lighting and heating systems are as energy efficient as possible. Built in just over 6 months, the SKA Organisation office has been in use since November 2012, when the team moved from the Alan Turing Building at the University of Manchester.

“This wonderful new office, which offers our team stunning views of the Jodrell Bank site, including the famous Lovell Telescope, will we hope inspire everyone who works here, and will provide our guests and visiting scientists a truly unique scientific facility to conduct their research and work”, said SKA Director General Philip Diamond. “The limited environmental impact and energy efficiency goals we set with the construction of the project office, are also in line with our long term aims for the entire SKA project.”

The Square Kilometre Array is a radio telescope which will be built in the remote and radio quiet deserts of Australia and Southern Africa. These seemingly harsh locations have been carefully chosen for their remoteness from any possible man made radio interference. The SKA will comprise thousands of radio telescopes, which will be located in these two desert locations, and will also have dishes and antennas spread over thousands of kilometers to create a single giant telescope.

When the faint radio waves, coming from the very edges of our Universe reach the array of radio telescopes, the signals are then combined, using powerful supercomputers which will create a virtual telescope with a total collecting area of one square kilometer. That´s one million square meters, or the equivalent of 140 football fields. This will make the SKA more than 50 times more sensitive than any existing radio telescope on Earth, surpassing even the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The SKA telescope will be attempting to unravel the most profound mysteries of humanity and will revolutionize our understanding of the Universe. It will investigate how the first stars and galaxies formed after the big bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and will even search for life beyond Earth. And scientists believe that the SKA´s unparalleled sensitivity and ability to image such huge portions of the sky at up to 10,000 times to the speed of current survey telescopes will produce detailed information and provide answers to many more fundamental questions about mysteries which are baffling scientists today.

The project is led by the SKA Organisation, a not-for-profit company, which includes multiple countries around the world including Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the UK. With India also as an associate member, the SKA Organisation is expected to embrace more countries over the coming years. With such a formidable scale, international collaboration is fundamental to this gigantic 21st Century project.

Construction of the SKA is due to begin in 2016 using a phased development approach. This means that scientific output will come even before the project completes and is fully operational in 2024, by which time several thousand combined radio telescopes will be collecting and processing data equivalent to 100 times today´s global internet traffic.

However, even before the SKA comes online, a series of demonstrator telescopes and systems known as pathfinders and precursors, are already operational or under development across the world, paving the way for the kinds of technology which the SKA will need to pioneer to make the huge data available to scientists. These pathfinder and precursor telescopes, in place in Australia, South Africa, across Europe and in America are providing the SKA scientists with vital information relating to the science and technology that will be created and required to make the SKA work at its optimal performance capability.

With so much being learned from the pathfinders and precursor telescopes, the SKA project is now entering a hugely exciting phase. Research organizations around the world along with leading industrial partners have recently being invited to collaborate and submit proposals on the R&D and design of the telescopes and instrumentation which will become the heart of this epic endeavor. This first round of proposals are expected to be evaluated and assessed at the new SKA offices in July of this year.

“We are now firmly on the journey to create one of the most iconic scientific instruments of the 21st Century!”, said Phil Diamond.

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Source: Square Kilometre Array