Sunday, September 23, 2012

An Update on the Titanic Telescope

In an article last March, I talked about the titanic telescope that is to be built in either southern Africa or Australia/New Zealand. Well, in late May, the members of the SKA organization announced that the world’s largest radio telescope would be built in BOTH southern Africa and Australia/New Zealand.

Artist's impression of the core region of the SKA. Credit: SKA Organisation/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

In phase one, Australia will host the low frequency arrays and a survey instrument that incorporates 36 Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) antennas/dishes. South Africa will host 64 MeerKAT antennas/dishes creating an instrument that is optimized for deep space observations. All the dishes for phase two will be built in southern Africa, with South Africa and eight African partner countries hosting the dish array and the phase two mid-frequency aperture array antennas.

Thus all the low frequency aperture arrays will be built in Australia, and all the mid-frequency aperture arrays will be built in southern Africa.

The total area of all of the instruments will be one square kilometer and will incorporate 3,000 15-meter wide dish antennas and two other types of radio wave receptors called aperture array antennas. They will be arranged in five spiral arms extending to distances of at least 3,000 kilometers from the center, which is why they need such a large area to build the SKA. And by placing it on two continents, they can play with each country’s advantages, including terrain, the electro-magnetic field, labor, technical capacities, etc.

According to its website, “The SKA will be so sensitive that it will be able to detect an airport radar on a planet 50 light-years away.” That’s more than 473 trillion kilometers.

Detection of an organic molecule in space. Credit: SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

This project is important for South Africa because of the development potential it is bringing to the country. The SKA actually started its capacity development program, ranging from artisan and in-service training programs to advanced studies at postgraduate level, in 2005. About 400 students have received SKA bursaries so far. But beyond training the students, the building of the SKA will also bring other jobs to the area, jobs that will be held by locals, such as for the provision of infrastructure, construction, procurement, build-to-spec contracts for antenna components, technology development and services. SKA South Africa already has a substantial partnership program with small- and medium-sized enterprises as well as local subsidiaries of large multinationals, and their work together is set to grow even further.

For Australia/New Zealand, this project helps place the countries at the forefront of radio astronomy and will bring jobs and investment in the manufacturing, IT, science and operations sectors. The project could see around $750 million in global investments in Australia and New Zealand-based infrastructure.

You can read more about the Square Kilometer Array by downloading the SKA newsletter.