Australia has launched one of the world’s fastest telescopes tasked with surveying outer space and probing the origins of stars and galaxies.
The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) in Western Australia’s outback has 36 antennas with a diametre of 12 m (40 ft) each.
The A$152 million ($155 million) telescope is expected to capture radio images, starting from Friday.
ASKAP forms part of the world’s biggest radio telescope project.
The telescope is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, 315 km (196 miles) north-east of Geraldton in the Western Australian desert.
Dr. John O’Sullivan, from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, says that while the telescope is not very big, “it is still a very, very powerful survey instrument to start to get a look [at] the origins of galaxies”.
“It is the beginning of a great new period, I think,” he said.
The ASKAP is part of the bigger Square Kilometre Array (SKA) that is set to begin construction in 2016.
SKA, set to become the world’s biggest radio telescope project based in both South Africa and Australia, aims to answer key questions about the Universe.
Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will host the biggest radio telescope ever built.
The nations belonging to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) organization took the decision at a meeting on Friday.
The 1.5 billion-Euro SKA’s huge fields of antennas will sweep the sky for answers to the major outstanding questions in astronomy.
They will probe the early Universe, test Einstein’s theory of gravity and even search for alien intelligent life.
The project aims to produce a radio telescope with a collecting area of one million square metres – equivalent to about 200 football pitches.
To do this, it will have to combine the signals received by thousands of small antennas spread over thousands of kilometres.
The 1.5 billion-Euro SKA's huge fields of antennas will sweep the sky for answers to the major outstanding questions in astronomy
South Africa and Australasia had put forward separate, competing bids, and the early indications had been that there would be one outright winner.
But the SKA organization decided both proposals should contribute something to the final design of the telescope.
“We have decided on a dual site approach,” said SKA board chairman John Womersley.
He was speaking at a press conference held at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport following a meeting of the organization’s members in the Dutch capital.
The SKA’s targets will be radio sources in the sky that radiate at centimetre to metre wavelengths.
These include the clouds of hydrogen gas in the infant Universe that collapsed to form the very first stars and galaxies.
The SKA will map precisely the positions of the nearest billion galaxies. The structure they trace on the cosmos should reveal new details about “dark energy”, the mysterious negative pressure that appears to be pushing the Universe apart at an ever increasing speed.
The telescope will also detail the influence of magnetic fields on the development of stars and galaxies. And it will zoom in on pulsars, the dead stars that emit beams of radio waves that sweep across the Earth like super-accurate time signals.
Astronomers believe these super-dense objects may hold the key to a more complete theory of gravity than that proposed by Einstein.
The Australasian bid was centred on a site at Boolardy Station, about 500 km (310 miles) north of Perth in Western Australia. For South Africa, the central location put forward was in the Karoo in the Northern Cape, about 95 km from Carnarvon.
Both have exceptional conditions for radio astronomy in that, being remote territories, they experience very little stray interference from cellular phone networks and TV broadcasts.
Both Australia and South Africa had even started building precursor facilities which they hoped would enhance their bids’ attractiveness.
The SKA’s designers will now have to work out how these smaller radio telescope systems can be incorporated into the final network.
The SKA’s members include the UK, Netherlands, Italy, China, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. India has associate member status.
There will be major industrial return for all members. The next project engineering phase is worth about 90 million Euros. Phase 1 of the project, due to start in 2015/16, was valued at around 360 million Euros. The cost of the last phase was always uncertain and depended on knowing exactly where the SKA would be built and the final design it would take; but a sum of 1.2 billion Euros was considered a likely figure.
The decision to dual-site will undoubtedly increase the cost and complexity of the SKA.
IBM is developing a computer which will digest twice as much information every day as the entire internet, sifting through radio waves from space in an effort to unravel the origin of the universe.
The huge computer will be attached to a 1,900 square mile array of telescope antenna, and will be built to “suck in” in radio telescope data which will “see” 13 billion years into the past, back to the dawn of the universe and the Big Bang.
IBM machine will be millions of times more powerful than the fastest PCs today – and will deal with 100 times more information than the output of the Large Hadron Collider.
Ton Engbersen of IBM resarch said: “If you take the current global daily Internet traffic and multiply it by two, you are in the range of the data set that the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope will be collecting every day.”
Upon completion in 2024, the telescope will be used to explore evolving galaxies, dark matter and even the very origins of the universe dating back more than 13 billion years.
The IBM computer will be attached to a 1,900 square mile array of telescope antenna, and will be built to “suck in” in radio telescope data which will “see” 13 billion years into the past
IBM is to investigate using 3D “stacks” of computer chips to achieve the enormous computing power required by the Square Kilometre Array.
This extremely powerful survey telescope will have millions of antennas to collect radio signals, forming a collection area equivalent to one square kilometre but spanning a huge surface area – approximately the width of the continental United States.
The SKA will be 50 times more sensitive than any former radio device and more than 10,000 times faster than today’s instruments.
The SKA is expected to produce a few Exabytes of data per day for a single beam per one square kilometer. After processing this data the expectation is that per year between 300 and 1500 Petabytes of data need to be stored.
In comparison, the approximately 15 Petabytes produced by the large hadron collider at CERN per year of operation is approximately 10 to 100 times less than the envisioned capacity of SKA.
The directors of the SKA project are to meet in Amsterdam on 3 April to discuss the location of the huge telescope, scattered across 1,900 square miles of Earth’s surface.
It will start building in 2016.
“It will have a deep impact on the way we perceive our place in the universe and how we understand its history and its future,” said Michiel van Haarlem, interim director general of the SKA project.
“We know we are going to discover things.”
The SKA will consist of thousands of dishes across 1,900 miles, with a total surface area of one square kilometre, that will provide so much data that one astronomer has declared it will completely change our view of the universe.
The scientific community also believe that the SKA represents our best ever chance of finding out if there’s life beyond our solar system.
To do this will require ground-breaking technology. The SKA’s 15m-dishes, which will detect electromagnetic radiation emitted by objects in space, will be the most sensitive ever built – able to detect an airport radar on a planet 50 light years away.
These dishes will be complemented by low and medium frequency aperture arrays, which provide a large field of view and are capable of observing more than one part of the sky at once.
It will be carried on enough optical fibre cable of such quantity that it could be wrapped twice around the world.
As yet, a location for it hasn’t been decided, but Southern Africa and Australia are both n the reckoning.
They all offer areas with ideal conditions for telescopes, which must be well clear of electronic interference, such as that generated by mobile phones.
It’s hoped that construction will begin in 2016, with the dishes coming online eight years later.
A prototype of SKA called KAT-7, which consists of seven 16-metre dishes, is undergoing testing in South Africa’s Karoo desert.