Biggest-ever telescope to look for ETs

 

Cape Town

South Africa and Australia will be partners in the development of the biggest radio telescope ever built, astronomers meeting in The Netherlands announced yesterday.

The nations – which had bid against each other to host the £1.2bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – will set up fields of satellite dishes to probe the origins of the Universe and even look for extra-terrestrial life.

The SKA, billed as one of the most ambitious international scientific co-operations in history, will be 10,000 times faster and 50 times more sensitive than any telescope ever built.

After a meeting at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport yesterday, Michiel van Haarlem, interim director-general of the SKA Organisation, said: "The SKA will transform our view of the Universe; with it we will see back to the moments after the Big Bang and discover previously unexplored parts of the cosmos."

To qualify as candidates for SKA – which will look like fields of giant satellite dishes – countries had to propose sites with clear night skies and little or no radio interference. South Africa came up with an area near Carnarvon in the arid Karoo of the Northern Cape, while Australia offered a desert-like plain called Boolardy Station, about 500km (310 miles) north of Perth in Western Australia. Both countries' parliaments have passed laws to protect the sites.

Due to be completed in 2024, SKA's 3,000 dishes – each 15 metres wide – will have a data-collecting area of one million square metres. The South African host computer, to be based in Cape Town, will be linked to stations in Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar and Mauritius. The Australian project will have stations in New Zealand.

Yesterday's decision to split the project was delayed from March when an outright winner had been expected. Both countries have already built pilots on their sites.

The SKA is also expected to spawn technological progress across the world. Scientists say the project's computers will need processing power equivalent to several million of today's fastest computers.

"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 SKA will be collecting every day," said IBM researcher Ton Engbersen.

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