Green light for the construction of the world’s largest radio telescope

The telescope – being built partly in South Africa and partly in Australia – will soon have nearly 200 feeders and more than 130,000 antennas.

After many years of production – a lot of thought has been given to what the ultimate radio telescope should look like, the necessary technologies have already been tested and further developed – the decision was made last week. Construction is underway Square kilometer line (Abbreviation: SKA): Earth’s largest radio telescope.

This result sent radio astronomers into a happy mood. Professor Philip Diamond, Director General Square kilometer line layout (SKAO), could not believe his luck. “I am just happy to be free. We have been working towards this moment for 30 years. An important step has been taken today (…) we are not one, we are going to create two of the largest and most complex radio telescope networks on earth, designed to reveal some of the most fascinating secrets of our universe. “More news was received with Sears in the Netherlands (one of SKAO’s member countries, see box). “We are very pleased to announce that construction of SKA is finally underway,” said Michael von Harlem, head of the Dutch SKA office.

The square kilometer line is an intergovernmental project in which 16 countries – including the Netherlands – have been operating for years. Countries will work together to create a radio telescope. The Netherlands invests about 30 million in SKA and offers a variety of components. Its construction is led by Radron Astronomy Netherlands company Astron.

Larger and more sensitive
There are few radio telescopes worldwide. But the square kilometer sequence is clearly different from this, explains Van Harlem “SKA is bigger and therefore more sensitive than existing tools, so it is possible to see the universe deeper (and over time).”

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The largest radio telescope actually has two parts. An area in South Africa with an elevation of 131,072 antennas. The rest will be in Australia and have 197 radio dishes. “Antennas and foods capture radio waves, which are then converted into digital signals, which are then processed into very (super) computers. The end result is, for example, images of the sky at radio wavelengths and other processed signals used to read stars and planets. ”

The two telescopes in Australia and South Africa operate separately from each other. “One (in Australia) at very long wavelengths and somewhat at short wavelengths in South Africa,” says Van Harlem. “Examples of both interferometers.” This means that observations made simultaneously by thousands of antennas in South Africa are combined. This also applies to the observations of nearly 200 foods in Australia. It actually simulates a large radio telescope, covering a total area of ​​1 square kilometer.

Expectations are high because it will change when Van Harlem is asked what SKA can reveal. “SKA is a widely applicable instrument that can be used to perform numerous experiments, from studying the first stars and galaxies in the early universe, to mapping the distribution of hydrogen gas in nearby and distant galaxies, to researching pulsars emitting pulses of radio radiation. ). Lots to mention. “

The location of the antennas (as can be seen in this art form) and the feeds are well thought out. A conscious choice has been made for the remote areas of Australia and South Africa. “It is far from man-made interference signals,” says Van Harlem. “Elsewhere on Earth, human activity prevents very important observations.” Image: SKAO / ICRAR.

Radio astronomers are eager to explore the first images from the square kilometer line, but need some patience. Although it has been officially decided to start construction, the hoe actually has a little more time to go to the ground. By the beginning of 2022 there will be some activity in selected locations in Australia and South Africa only. Prior to this, member states were not yet seated; They are ready to build ‘their’ areas. “In the coming months, Dutch companies will receive orders to supply the required software and hardware Square kilometer line It should be completed by the end of this decade, ”said Van Harlem.

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First views
Now it seems, it is Square kilometer line In 2028. However, fortunately, the first observations did not take long to come. “Telescopes like SKA are built on steps. Observations can begin before all antennas and foods are placed. We expect the first results from 2024. ”

The construction and use of the world’s largest radio telescope is estimated at 2 2 billion. “It’s a lot of money, and that’s why 16 countries are working together to build this telescope. We share the costs so that each country can access a more sensitive telescope than it can afford individually, ”explains Van Harlem. “The technological innovation needed to develop such a complex tool creates opportunities for companies in participating countries.” But the heart of radio astronomers naturally beats fast at the thought of SKA because powerful radio telescopes help answer basic questions. “Like: How did the stars and galaxies form? What will happen to the universe in the distant future? Is there brilliant life anywhere else on other planets? These are all astronomy, so these are the questions that SKA also wants to answer. ”

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