Earth's Giant 3,000 Kilometer Wide Telescope Is Growing in the Australian Outback

When it’s finished in 2024, the Square Kilometer Array telescope will search the sky for evidence of the early universe and alien life with a footprint that stretches 3,000 km across.

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Oct 8 2012, 9:29pm

When it’s finished in 2024, the Square Kilometer Array telescope will search the sky for evidence of the early universe and alien life with a footprint that stretches 3,000 km across. With thousands of relatively small dishes and antennas dotting the hinterlands of Africa and Australia, the SKA will boast one single dish every one single square kilometer, or 1,000,000 square meters. For reference, the current largest single dish radio telescope in the world, the famed Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, is about 73,000 square meters, while West Virginia’s Green Bank telescope (which Motherboard profiled here), measures about 7,800 square meters. Around 50 times more powerful than any radio telescope yet devised, the SKA will be able to register an airport radar on a planet 50 light-years from Earth, a distance of around 300 trillion miles.

One of the very first pieces of the project, Australia’s ASKAP telescope, went live yesterday. Not to be confused with ASCAP of course, it’s what’s known as a precursor project, a much smaller operation that will help test out the technology behind the full-scale project. That final project will be completed in three phases, with the first going operational in 2019 with about 20 percent the total capacity of the finished SKA telescope. So imagine the surreal landscape in the video below stretched out over eight African countries and 3,000 or so dishes. It’s one of the largest science projects ever – and one that’s gotten relatively little attention, especially in the US.

ASKAP telescope time-lapse

That lack of attention might have a bit to do with Washington having very little to do with the SKA, at least in terms of funding. According to CNN, “The National Science Foundation decided against funding SKA for now, based on a review it commissioned with NASA and the Department of Energy examining priorities for the next decade.” The $1.9 billion project — a successor to Europe’s LOFAR array, which we visited last year — is mainly South Africa’s baby, with Australia as the main partner. Last November, a handful of other international partners signed on to the project as well, including Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. Recall that the US’ own precursor project, the Allen Telescope Array, had to shut down for a period after losing its pittance from the National Science Foundation. It resumed operation several months later, thanks in part to online donations and fringe funding from the US Air Force.

Put another way, if the US can’t fork out a bit of scratch for an array in California, don’t expect it to sign on with the SKA project. Which is sad, but such is the state of science in America. A state that right now, only promises to get worse. As is mentioned in the video linked above, even the Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia, the largest mobile single-dish radio telescope in the world, is under threat from cutbacks.

The official SKA telescope animation

So it goes, I guess, but let’s celebrate this awesome thing that’s happening with no America needed. The SKA will probe galaxies all the way to the edge of the observable universe, filling in crucial gaps in what we currently understand about the formation of the current universe, in particular that edge in time when galaxies began to form. The sensitivity of the telescope will allow scientists to test with the finest sensitivity ever the accuracy of Einstein’s theories of relativity. (Remember: science always tests itself, which is one reason it’s awesome.) Probing this deep should hopefully help us understand the cosmos’ two sexiest mysteries too: dark matter and dark energy.

Graphic by Time. See more here

To sync and manage all the data flowing in from space, the SKA will require absolutely unparalleled information transmission and processing technology. All of those thousands of dishes need to be linked by super-high bandwidth fiber-optic cable, enough of it to wrap around the planet twice. The data collected by the telescope in just 24 hours would take nearly two million years to play back on an iPod, and will take a supercomputer equivalent in processing power to some 100 million PCs. In terms of computing, it’s treading into new frontiers too.

Of course, with a timeline stretching almost 15 years into the future, a lot can happen to derail the SKA. It wouldn’t be the first multibillion dollar project to collapse, and nothing looks particularly good in the world money-wise right now. Hell, it’s probably a good thing this is happening without the shaky promise of American help. Now it’s just a matter of getting people to pay enough attention.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.