Building the World’s Largest Radio Telescope

SC17 puts the spotlight on the Square Kilometer Array project

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This year’s Supercomputing Conference (SC17) in Denver included a very interesting keynote about the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project. It’s now available online, and I highly recommend watching it. SKA is an extraordinary project that will stretch our ability to peer deeper into the universe thanks, in part, to the application of unprecedented computing power.

Optical telescopes date to 1608, but the first radio telescope didn’t appear until 1931. The world’s largest single-aperture optical telescope is the GTC (Gran Telescopio Canarias), which has a total collecting area of a little less than 79 square meters. The world’s largest single-aperture radio telescope is the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST). It has a total collecting area of 71,000 square meters.

The Square Kilometer Array is an international project that aims to have a collecting area of 1,000,000 square meters in the future. Construction is expected to take place through 2030, and observations are slated to start in the early 2020s. Instead of a single aperture design, the telescope will eventually use thousands of dishes and up to a million antennas to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail, and survey the entire sky much faster than any system currently in existence.

South Africa’s Karoo region and Western Australia’s Murchison Shire were chosen as co-hosting locations for many scientific and technical reasons, including the atmospherics above the desert sites (and because of “radio quietness,” these being some of the remotest locations on Earth). The Karoo desert will host the core of the high and mid-frequency dishes, ultimately extending over the African continent. The Murchison Shire will host the low-frequency antennas.

The bulk of the SKA will be built in two main phases, between 2019 and the late 2020s. The first phase (SKA1) will involve testing the full system in a “proof of concept” manner. For SKA1, Australia will host the low-frequency instrument with more than 500 stations, each containing around 250 individual antennas. South Africa will host an array of some 200 dishes, incorporating the 64-dish MeerKAT precursor telescope. SKA2 will see the completion of the telescope arrays at both sites and become fully operational in the late 2020s, by which time the SKA will consist of about 2,000 high- and mid-frequency dishes and aperture arrays and a million low-frequency antennas.

intell image 24 James Reinders

                       Comparing SKA’s first phase (SKA1) with the ability of
                      other radio telescopes. Image credit: SKA Organization.

It’s exciting to think about how radio telescopes let us see things we’ve never seen before. I can’t help but think about the gravitational wave detection that I mentioned in my prior post mentioning the LIGO presentation, which helps measure another way to learn about the universe we live in. Both of these extraordinary projects rely on enormous computing power to make it possible to see more of the universe.

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