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Giving us the edge


An artist’s impression of some of the 130,000 antennae of SKA-low to be assembled on the red plains of Murchison, Western Australia.
SKA Organisation / Eye Candy Animation

The telescope that goes by the name Square Kilometre Array will be the largest global, collaborative science project ever. If all goes to plan, in 2018 the first of 130,000 antennae will be rolled out on a remote red plain a few hundred kilometres north-east of Geraldton, Western Australia. A sister telescope will be built on another remote red plain, the Karoo, about 600 kilometres north-east of Cape Town, South Africa.

Overall, this is a complex, vast, daunting project. Myopic journalists struggle to get its measure. It’s the elephant problem; here’s a tail, there’s a tusk, but what is this entire monstrosity all about? That’s a concern because this is an extraordinary beast: we should all be falling off our seats in excitement.

There are at least two reasons. First, there’s the sheer audacity of it – SKA-low, the telescope to be built in Australia, will fill in a missing chapter in the history of the universe: how did we get from a featureless sea of neutral hydrogen to galactic islands separated by a thin sea of ionised hydrogen? Theorists have had free rein to model elaborate scenarios on their computers. The SKA-low data, expected to come online in 2021, will at last put these models to the test.

SKA-low is the most ambitious of the two telescopes. SKA-mid, in the Karoo, has its sights set halfway to the edge of the universe; SKA-low is aiming for the very edge. To do so, it needs technology yet to be developed. That’s because it’s a software telescope. Not majestic dishes like those to be deployed in the Karoo, but a forest of antennae whose signals are combined to achieve sensitivity and resolution. Together they will multiply into a telescope 168 times more powerful than current equivalents such as LOFAR in the Netherlands.

To get a clear image of the early universe, SKA-low will have to crunch data at an unprecedented scale – greater than the entire global internet traffic per day.

That’s the second reason we should be falling off our chairs. The innovations that will emerge from this big data project promise huge windfalls. The Word Wide Web was the spin-off when CERN – the home of the Large Hadron Collider – needed to find a way to manage its big data problem. Wi-Fi was the offshoot when CSIRO researchers learnt how to realign the scrambled signals from black holes.

Which is why companies are already flocking to Western Australia’s capital city, Perth. Cisco, Woodside, Google and Chevron are getting involved. This conglomerate of astronomers, computer geeks and industry is a far cry from the romance of Galileo, grinding his lenses into a telescope, gazing heavenward and discovering the moons of Jupiter.

But how he would have swooned to see the first images from the edge of our universe.

Ella finkel twic.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Elizabeth Finkel is editor-in-chief of Cosmos.
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