Construction Begins on World’s Biggest Radio Telescope, Set to Observe the 'Epoch of Reionization'

The intercontinental Square Kilometer Array will comprise thousands of dishes to image vast swathes of the sky.

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A rendering off the SKA in South Africa (left) and Australia (right).
A rendering of the SKA in South Africa (left) and Australia (right).
Illustration: SKAO

The world’s largest radio telescope is officially under construction in Australia, where work is underway on one component of what will be an intercontinental instrument. When operational in the late 2020s, the telescope will offer a sharper, wider view of the universe in radio wavelengths.

The telescope is called the Square Kilometer Array, a reflection of scientists’ original goal of having a collecting surface of a square kilometer; the actual SKA will have a collecting area of half a square kilometer. According to an SKA Observatory release, teams celebrated the commencement of construction with ceremonies at project locations in Australia and South Africa.

The array will be a combination of nearly 200 radio dishes and 130,000 dipoles, which are smaller, ground-based antennae. In other words, the SKA is one big telescope made up of many smaller telescopes.

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The array’s radio dishes will be located in South Africa’s Karoo Desert, and its Christmas-tree-shaped antennae will be situated deep in the Western Australian outback. Radio telescopes need radio silence to be able to focus on the long wavelengths from deep space, which is why the SKA’s organizers chose these remote set-ups.

Having such massive scientific instruments in wild places doesn’t come without difficulties. In Australia, ants can fry the electronics, and termites build mounds around telescope antennae. Kangaroos occasionally kick over existing instruments, and giant lizards named Steve walk around the arrays like they own the place. And given the near-total absence of humans, they kind of do.

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A composite image of the planned SKA dishes (left) and completed MeerKAT dishes (right) in South Africa.
A composite image of the planned SKA dishes (left) and completed MeerKAT dishes (right) in South Africa.
Image: SKAO

Numerous predecessors to the SKA exist already, including the MeerKAT array in South Africa, which took a stunning image of the ‘threads’ in the galactic center. But only now are pieces of the SKA’s core being constructed, after years of design and planning. The completed SKA is expected to be operational in the late 2020s.

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Bigger telescope arrays offer better resolution—hence the excitement surrounding what will be the world’s largest radio telescope array.

“To put the sensitivity of the SKA into perspective, the SKA could detect a mobile phone in the pocket of an astronaut on Mars, 225 million kilometers away,” Danny Price, a senior research fellow at the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy, told AFP.

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The SKA will observe massive compact objects like pulsars and black holes to better understand gravitational waves, as well as the epoch of reionization, when the first galaxies and stars appeared, and the first billion years of the universe.

The Webb Space Telescope is also looking at some of the universe’s earliest light, but it observes at the infrared and near-infrared wavelengths, rather than at the much longer radio wavelengths.

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Combine these cutting-edge observatories with the number of new space missions set to launch at the turn of the decade, and it’s clear that we’re in for some very interesting astrophysical insights in the years ahead.

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