By Chris Wickham
LONDON May 24 The location of a huge radio
telescope strong enough to detect extraterrestrial life in the
far reaches of the universe could be settled on Friday when the
group in charge of the project meets in the Netherlands.
When completed in 2024 the "Square Kilometre Array"
(SKA)will be made up of 3,000 dishes, each 15 metres wide,
together with many more antennae, that will stretch over 3,000
km (1,864 miles).
Scanning the sky 10,000 times faster and with 50 times the
sensitivity of any other telescope, it will be used to study the
origins of the universe and will be able to detect weak signals
that could indicate the presence of extraterrestrial life.
A joint bid between Australia and New Zealand to host the
telescope is pitted against South Africa for a $2 billion
project that will bestow an economic boost and major scientific
prestige on the winner.
The lobbying has been intense and at times acrimonious, with
the Australians raising concerns about the security of such an
expensive project in South Africa, which suffers from high rates
of violent crime. South Africa has accused the other side of
dirty tricks and selectively leaking data to boost its bid in
what are supposed to be secret deliberations.
The project could now be split between the two bidders. In
March, a science panel gave a marginal preference to South
Africa but after intense lobbying from both bidders the decision
was delayed and a group of experts was set up to examine the
scientific and cost implications of a split location.
That group will report back to the consortium on Friday but
scientists say a split location would almost certainly add to
Radio telescopes work best in remote locations away from
interference from other radio signals, hence the decision to
site this one in the more sparsely-populated southern
MORE THAN SCIENTIFIC EYE CANDY
The SKA is more than just a scientific bauble for the
winner. Global tech companies are already earmarking development
funds linked to the project, which will rely on computing
technology that does not even exist yet to process the flood of
data it will collect. Scientists estimate that the SKA will need
processing power equivalent to several million of today's
International Business Machines Corp <IBM.N > and Astron,
the Netherlands institute for radio astronomy, announced in
April a 33 million euro ($42 million), five-year deal to develop
extremely fast computer systems with low power requirements for
the SKA project.
"If you take the current global daily Internet traffic and
multiply it by two, you are in the range of the data set that
the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope will be collecting
every day," said IBM Researcher Ton Engbersen at the
announcement of the deal.
Other companies that have signed partnership agreements with
the project include Nokia-Siemens, BAE Systems PLC,
Cisco Systems Inc and Selex Galileo, a UK unit of
Italian group Finmeccanica SpA.
The engineering and computing challenges are significant,
not least the provision of power to run the array and the
supercomputers in such a remote location.
It is in overcoming those challenges that the leaders of the
project argue could lead to untold spin-offs for industry. They
point to Wi-Fi technology as one of the best known commercial
applications to come from radio astronomy, for instance.
The first phase of construction is set to start in 2016, and
by 2019 about 10 percent of the array should be built, extending
some 100 km from the telescope's core. Expansion to 3,000 km
should be complete by 2023 and the project will be fully up and
running the following year.
ANSWERS TO BIG QUESTIONS
In an interview with Reuters, the leaders of the project
said they hope the array will help to answer some of the biggest
questions about the formation and make-up of the universe.
"For me, one of the most exciting questions is what is the
universe made of," said John Womersley, Chair of the Board of
Directors of the SKA organisation. "We know that 5 pct of
universe is made of atoms but what about the dark matter and
other stuff that makes up 95 pct of the universe?
"Connecting to discoveries from the Large Hadron Collider,
we will get a consistent picture of what the universe is made
The Large Hadron Collider is the world's largest and
highest-energy particle accelerator and is testing some of the
most basic theories in physics by smashing particle beams
together to simulate the conditions in the universe a fraction
of a second after the Big Bang.
Michiel van Haarlem, Director General of the group, said the
telescope's capabilities will expand over time.
"In stage one, finding out about the first stars and
galaxies that formed in the universe, pulsars and gravitational
radiation. Then in the second stage the role of magnetic fields
in the formation of galaxies and looking for SETI (Search for
Extraterrestrial Life) type things."
The Britain-based consortium behind the telescope includes
Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom as
well as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.