‘World’s biggest radio telescope could unlock sercrets of life itself’

A new international treaty has confirmed the launch of what will be the world’s biggest ever radio telescope, write Dr Pamela Klaassen and Dr Alan Bridger.

The Milky Way, the galaxy that contains the Earth, holds many mysteries  (Picture: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)
The Milky Way, the galaxy that contains the Earth, holds many mysteries (Picture: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)

The UK has this week formally become the home of the new international organisation behind what will eventually be the world’s biggest ever radio telescope – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Once operational, the SKA will improve our understanding of the evolution of the Universe and help us to map hundreds of millions of galaxies.

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By collecting and processing unprecedented volumes of data, it will tackle some of the most fundamental scientific questions of our time, ranging from the birth of the Universe to the origins of life.

Radio astronomy allows us to study the celestial objects that give off radio waves. With radio astronomy, we study astronomical phenomena that are often invisible or hidden in other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. There is no other way to ‘see’ these objects.

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The SKA will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, stretching technology to its limits.

UK engineers, technologists and astronomers will be at the forefront of making this project a success.

By the time it is completed, SKA will reach across continents, from Africa to Australia, and involve thousands of scientists from around the world.

It will consist of 130,000 antennas and 133 radio telescope dishes, which will join the 64 dishes of the existing MeerKAT array in South Africa.

The unprecedented sensitivity of the thousands of individual radio receivers, combining to create the world’s largest radio telescope, will give astronomers insight into the formation and evolution of the first stars and galaxies after the Big Bang, the role of cosmic magnetism, the nature of gravity, and possibly even life beyond Earth.

Some of the main science questions that SKA could help solve include:

How do galaxies evolve? What is dark energy?

The acceleration in the expansion of the Universe has been attributed to a mysterious dark energy. The SKA will investigate this expansion after the Big Bang by mapping the cosmic distribution of hydrogen.

Was Albert Einstein right about gravity?

The SKA will investigate the nature of gravity and challenge the theory of general relativity.

What generates giant magnetic fields in space?

The SKA will create three-dimensional maps of the cosmic magnetic field to understand how they stabilise galaxies, influence the formation of stars and planets, and regulate solar and stellar activity.

How were the first black holes and stars formed?

The SKA will look back to the ‘Dark Ages’ – a time before the Universe lit up – to discover how the earliest black holes and stars were formed.

Dr Pamela Klaassen is an instrument scientist and Dr Alan Bridger is head of software, both at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh