By Donna Vanzetti

On the oldest continent on Earth, the world’s first stargazers still use the night sky to find their way.

For thousands of years the Australian Aboriginal people looked up at the night sky for guidance for many traditions including predicting seasons and food sources. And now on that same land, in the remote Western Australian outback, an army of engineers and scientists is paving the way for the biggest and most powerful telescope on earth. A telescope that will also look up at the night sky and observe the farthest reaches of the cosmos.

The Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, is a global next-generation radio telescope project involving institutions from over 20 countries. The SKA will be the largest and most capable radio telescope ever constructed. During its 50+ year lifetime, it will expand our knowledge of the universe ten-fold and drive technological advancement across the globe.

SKA precursor telescopes, South Africa’s KAT-7 and MeerKAT telescopes on the left and Australia’s ASKAP telescope on the right. Credit: SKA Organisation.

Australia and Southern Africa will each host different SKA components. Australia’s site is located right here in WA, literally on our back doorstep! The site is out in the Murchison Shire, some 900 kilometres away from Perth. This isolated spot was chosen for a particularly good reason. Radio astronomy can only work when there is no radio interference. And that means you need a site with hardly any people around! So after many other countries competed to host the SKA, our quiet spot out in the middle of Western Australia and the sister site on the opposite side of the world, the Karoo in Southern Africa were found to be the most radio quiet across the globe.

The SKA is one of the world’s greatest scientific projects in history and once complete, will allow astronomers to see further and with more detail than ever before. Scientists may find the telescope could discover things out in the universe that they have yet to imagine!

This array will conduct ground-breaking research to try and solve some of the biggest questions in astronomy. One such task will be to better understand dark energy and dark matter, invisible forces that together make up 95% of the universe. Another key science goal will be to look back to the first billion years of the Universe at the formation of the first stars and galaxies, providing valuable insight into the evolution of the Universe. And most interestingly, the SKA will be able to detect very weak extra-terrestrial signals and will search for complex molecules, the building blocks of life, in space, to hopefully answer that age-old question, are we alone?

AAVS team members from Australia and Italy constructing the antennas of AAVS1.5 on site at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in late-April and early-May 2019. Credit: INAF/ICRAR-Curtin

The SKA will be many times more sensitive and much faster at surveying galaxies than any current radio telescope on Earth. The unparalleled flow of information collected by the telescope is estimated to produce data equivalent to a stack of books, possibly millions of kilometres high. This huge data download would push today’s fastest computers to the limit so new supercomputers with exponential processing speeds are being developed.

The low frequency portion of the SKA will deploy hundreds of thousands of identical antennas and amplifiers out at the Murchison Radio Observatory (MRO). Across both sites, the SKA may eventually be thousands of dishes and up to a million antennas, culminating in an extremely sensitive radio observatory.

Up at the MRO site there are now a number of operational telescopes including CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP), which has 36 dishes. In addition there is the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), developed by an international consortium, led by Curtin University, and observing the sky since 2012. Both ASKAP and MWA are critical for helping to pave the way for the SKA, and are also significant, world-class instruments, achieving noteworthy observations and complex science research.

In addition, there are a couple of other instruments on site that are helping to inform the final design for the SKA. The Aperture Array Verification System (AAVS) and the Engineering Development Array are crucial in refining final designs for the SKA.

AAVS team members from Australia and Italy assembling the Smart Boxes that will receive the signals from the individual AAVS 1.5 antennas. Credit: INAF/ICRAR-Curtin

A key member of the Western Australian consortium is the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) which is an equal joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia.

ICRAR has played an integral role in the development of the SKA and has grown into an internationally renowned, multi-disciplinary research centre for science, engineering, and data intensive astronomy, attracting some of the world’s leading researchers in radio astronomy. It works with the Australian Telescope National Facility and the International SKA Project Office, based in the UK.

With the Australian Space Agency now fully operational and the SKA project lighting the way, Australia is beginning to make its own mark in the space science world. The future looks bright indeed for more space science endeavours in this country and an exciting industry for young, enquiring minds, to head towards.

Only time will tell what fantastic discoveries the SKA will make and it’s exciting to be here to watch it all unfold.

SKA 2020 Update

Find out what’s happening on the project now and what’s coming up with SKA’s leader, Professor Peter Quinn.

We look forward to welcoming you to our friendly community of Stargazers & Astronomy Lovers where we thrive on making learning about the galaxy easy & fun!

Carol Redford - Founder Stargazers Club WA