The Square Kilometre Array (SKA)

Australia and New Zealand have together been short-listed, as has South Africa, to host a revolutionary new radio astronomy facility: the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). I attended two talks about SKA recently, one hosted by RiAus, another by the Australian Computer Society.

The SKA will provide a sensitivity that is about 50 times greater than any radio telescope before it. The sheer size and complexity of this thing is staggering. It will consist of 3000 dishes spread across a couple of thousand kilometres with a combined collecting area of about 1,000,000 square metres (i.e. 1 square kilometre).

There are plenty of technical challenges to solve in areas like data storage, database technologies, and the need for green energy to handle the SKA’s power requirements. A super-computer will be required on-site to process the signals collected by the SKA in real-time.

Here are some factoids from SKA publicity material:

  • The SKA will generate enough raw data to fill 15 million 64GB iPods every day.
  • The SKA will use enough optical fibre to wrap around the Earth twice.
  • The SKA will be so sensitive it could detect an airport radar on a planet 50 light years away.

Some questions the SKA will be help to answer, or provide more insight into, are:

  1. How were the first stars and black holes formed?
  2. How do galaxies evolve?
  3. What is the nature of Dark Energy?
  4. Are there Earth-like planets around other stars?
  5. What generates giant magnetic fields in space?

As mentioned at the RiAus talk, part of the excitement lies in what the SKA may be used to discover that we had no clue about in the first place, i.e. serendipity.

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