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The world's biggest radio telescope is preparing to explore the farthest reaches of space

CNET logo CNET 27/02/2019 Claire Reilly
a close up of a desert: An artist's impression of the final Square Kilometre Array setup in Western Australia, featuring 132,000 low frequency antennas (which CSIRO says resemble "metal Christmas trees.") © CNET

An artist's impression of the final Square Kilometre Array setup in Western Australia, featuring 132,000 low frequency antennas (which CSIRO says resemble "metal Christmas trees.")

The world's largest radio telescope is one step closer, with Australian scientists putting the final touches on the build for the Square Kilometre Array in the remote West Australian desert.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is an ambitious international project that will see the world's largest radio telescope built across two continents, capable of imaging huge areas of the sky at a resolution surpassing the Hubble telescope. The SKA will include more than 100,000 low-frequency antennas in Australia and hundreds of dishes in South Africa, all working together to create a total collecting area of 1 square kilometre.

The SKA will eventually help scientists look at how galaxies formed after the Big Bang, uncover the secrets of magnetic fields and dark energy and even potentially search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

But building a radio telescope that powerful requires overcoming serious design and construction challenges. Now scientists at CSIRO, Australia's national science agency heading up the Australian side of the project, have revealed just what it takes to get the world's biggest radio telescope running.

"We're setting the groundwork to host 132,000 low-frequency SKA antennas in Australia. These will receive staggering amounts of data," said CSIRO SKA infrastructure consortium director, Antony Schinckel.

"The data flows will be on the scale of petabits, or a million billion bits, per second -- more than the global internet rate today, all flowing into a single building."

All that data requires its own infrastructure, including 65,000 fibre optic cables to transfer the data from the antennas to the SKA's supercomputing facilities.

The issues don't end there. Because the SKA will be searching for the faintest signals from deepest, darkest space, the team needs to reduce the interference from radio emissions on the ground -- including from the computing and power systems that are running the telescope itself. (The Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory where the SKA will be built is currently a government-designated Radio Quiet Zone, meaning there are no mobile phones, refrigerators, cameras or computers allowed.)

a close up of a barrel: ska-fibre-cables © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. ska-fibre-cables

"We're trying to reduce the level of radio emissions by factors of billions," said Shandip Abeywickrema, senior project engineer for Aurecon, the industry partner working with CSIRO.

"For example, the custom supercomputing building is effectively a fully welded box within a box, with the computing equipment to be located within the inner shield, while support plant equipment will be located in the outer shield."

With infrastructure design finalised across Australia and South Africa, CSIRO says construction on the SKA is expected to commence in 2020.


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