Cutting-edge tech will take us back to the start

21/07/2021 - 14:00

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Construction has begun approved for the SKA-Low telescope in the Mid West.

Cutting-edge tech will take us back to the start
Peter Quinn says the telescope will be “mind-blowingly different to what we’ve seen before”. Photo: David Henry

The recently formed SKA Observatory (SKAO) has just announced construction on the world’s largest radio telescope arrays, the SKA-Low, will proceed at CSIRO’s Murchison RadioAstronomy Observatory in Western Australia.

The SKA-Low telescope will consist of more than 130,000 antennas, grouped in 512 stations, with 256 antennas in each.

It will stretch 65 kilometres end-to-end.

International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) executive director Peter Quinn says the telescope will allow us to look deep into the universe, back to near the time of the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.

We will be able to explore, in detail, when the first stars and galaxies formed and discover how they evolved into the things that are in our universe now.

How does it work?

In simple terms, radio telescopes use antennas to collect radio waves.

The signals are transported over optical fibres and then combined into a computing process, using the largest supercomputers in existence.

Radio waves originate in many different objects, so the SKA will be looking at signals from stars, galaxies, and even hydrogen.

What will we find?

Professor Quinn says it will be “mind-blowingly different to what we’ve seen before”.

What were the first objects in the universe? Stars, black holes?

It can observe every pulsar that lies within the Milky Way, detect heavy biomolecules, mysterious dark matter and give us clues to any forms of life.

Professor Quinn says we will see the seeds of everything we see in the sky, chapter one of the story book.

He also refers to the SKA as a “very good ET-hunting telescope”.

SKAO director general Philip Diamond says that, if any instrument is going to detect the signal of intelligent extra-terrestrials, it will be the SKA.

Collateral benefits

The original goal of the project was to observe hydrogen throughout the entire history of the universe.

But much of the SKA technology is translatable to other applications, opening a world of possibilities.

For example, you can send about 100 times more data through a light beam than you can through radio technology.

ICRAR has been working on a system to send signals through fibre optic cables to the SKA.

These signals become distorted when traveling enormous distances, but ICRAR has worked out a system to correct this.

The same solution can apply to sending light signals – laser beams – through the air.

ICRAR has subsequently won a project with NASA for hosting the space communications station for the Artemis project.

It means we could watch HD footage of the first woman to walk on the moon.

The SKA predecessor, the Murchison Widefield Array, has also been used for space situational awareness.

There are lots of pieces of metal floating around a few hundred kilometres above us, known as ‘space junk’.

This poses dangers when launching a satellite.

We can now track space junk by using FM radio waves that go into space and reflect to the ground, solving this problem.

Flow-on effects

Steven Tingay is a key contributor to the SKA project across his role as executive director at Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy, deputy executive director at ICRAR, and director at Murchison Widefield Array, having been involved for more than 20 years.

ICRAR started out in 2009 as a joint venture with Curtin University and the University of Western Australia.

Now, there are now about 200 staff and students at ICRAR, with almost a third of all astronomers in the country based in WA.

It has become a major international powerhouse as a result.

The SKAO has a €2 billion budget, with €200 million in work packages assigned to Australia.

There are big developments locally with WA industries, from power and electrical considerations to the antenna design and manufacturing, and the civil engineering and infrastructure work that needs to go on for the deployment.

Businesses in Geraldton and the Mid West are also being prepared to be able to bid for these large construction projects, with qualification processes for potential vendors and contracts being let out to Australian industries soon.

We will then be able to view when the very first parts of the universe lit up for the very first time.

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