From SKA: “Australian Square Kilometre Array telescope takes shape in WA outback”

SKA Square Kilometer Array


13 Oct 2014
Gian De Poloni

A project to build one of the world’s most powerful radio astronomy telescopes is taking shape in Western Australia’s outback.

The $160 million Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder [ASKAP] is being built in a radio quiet area of WA’s Murchison region, about a four-hour drive from the port city of Geraldton.

Photo: Three ASKAP telescopes are trained towards the sky east of Geraldton. (Alex Cherney)

The project has seen the installation of 36 huge antenna dishes on Boolardy Station, which will eventually work together to survey large areas of sky to help scientists understand how galaxies have formed and evolved.

CSIRO scientist Lisa Harvey-Smith said although only six of the dishes were active, the images that had been taken so far were remarkable.

“The latest picture we’ve taken has almost 2000 galaxies in it, which is incredible,” she said.

“It’s kind of a wide field image of the sky.

“Once we’ve got 36 telescopes, we’ll be able to do a huge survey of the entire night’s sky and see millions of new galaxies, black holes and things in the very distant universe that no one’s ever seen before.”

She said the question of what exactly the telescope will be able to see in distant space was a complete mystery.

“The discovery potential of this telescope is quite amazing,” she said.

“Even now, we’ve been able to look at galaxies that are actually older than our Earth – which is a pretty incredible thing – and look into the distant universe to search for galaxies that were actually around billions of years ago and may not exist anymore.”

Dr Harvey-Smith said the giant dishes were picking up radio waves being emitted from objects in space.

“Our eyes can’t see radio waves, so the data that we get is just boring ones and zeros, but we actually use clever computer algorithms and a super computer that’s based in Perth to make the images into real optical type images that we can see,” she said.

Telescope will view area 200 time size of moon

Project director Antony Schinckel said images produced so far were stunning.

“The thing about ASKAP is it’s a completely new type of telescope – it’s never been built before – so a lot of this very early work is simply understanding exactly how to use it,” he said.

“Many of our staff said ‘look, it’s not worth trying to do much with just the six dishes because we won’t be able to see much’, but they’ve been completely shown to be wrong.

“Trying to predict ahead to what we’re going to see with 36 at the full capability is really hard but we’ll be able to very quickly map really big areas of the sky and by really big, I mean in a single snapshot we’ll be able to see an area around about 200 times the size of the full moon.

“There are still huge holes in our knowledge of how our universe evolved, where galaxies come from, how planets form and we expect ASKAP will be able to really help us answer a lot of that.”

Dr Schinckel estimated it would cost about $10 million a year to keep the project going.

“We’ve had good support from the Government over the last few years and we believe the Government does see the positive impacts of these sorts of projects,” he said.

“There’s the pure science side, there’s the very tight international collaboration aspect, there’s the technology spin off, there’s training of engineers and scientists who may or may not stay on in astronomy but may go on to work in other fields.”

ASKAP is viewed as a precursor to the future $1.9 billion Square Kilometre Array, which will be built in both the Murchison and South Africa in 2018, with input in design and funding coming from 11 countries.

The SKA is expected to be the largest and most capable radio telescope.

Photo: This wide shot image taken from the ASKAP telescope over 12 hours shows distant galaxies. (Supplied: CSIRO)

ASKAP telescope image Photo: This wide shot image taken from the ASKAP telescope over 12 hours shows distant galaxies. (Supplied: CSIRO)

Murchison ideal location for project

Dr Harvey-Smith said the isolation of the Murchison region made it the perfect place for the project.

“If you could imagine trying to listen for a mouse under your floorboards hearing tiny scratching noises, you don’t want to be playing the radio very loudly in the background,” she said.

“It’s the same type of thing with the radio telescopes.

“We’re looking for tiny, tiny signals incredibly week from galaxies billions of light years away.
Under a brilliant night sky, ASKAP telescopes are pointed to the night stars Photo: Raw data from the ASKAP telescopes totals about 100 terabytes per second. (Alex Cherney)

“They’re so weak we have to amplify them millions of times with specialist electronic equipment.”

Dr Schinckel said the communications infrastructure in place to support the telescope was unfathomable.

“The raw data rate we get from the telescopes is about 100 terabytes per second,” he said.

“To put that in context, that’s about the entire traffic of the internet all around the world in one second.

“Luckily the super computers we have on site can very quickly reduce the data back to a more manageable volume of around about 10 gigabytes per second.

“The sheer volume of that and the speed of which that raw data comes in is truly astounding.”

Dr Harvey Smith said she could control the telescope from the comfort of her lounge room.

“As one of the research scientists, I can access the telescope from Sydney – from my house, on my laptop,” she said.

“We just send signals through the internet and tell the telescope what to do.

“It’s pretty amazing that we can have a giant international scientific facility with very few people actually out there on the site.”

It is hoped the entire network of dishes will be fully operational by March 2016.

See the full article here.

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About SKA

The Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity, and 10 000 times the survey speed, of the best current-day telescopes. The SKA will be built in Southern Africa and in Australia. Thousands of receptors will extend to distances of 3 000 km from the central regions. The SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our Universe including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth. Construction of phase one of the SKA is scheduled to start in 2016. The SKA Organisation, with its headquarters at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester, UK, was established in December 2011 as a not-for-profit company in order to formalise relationships between the international partners and centralise the leadership of the project.

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