In The Lab: Looking to the skies

Australia and New Zealand are up against South Africa in a bid to become the home of the Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope that will see further into space than any of its predecessors.

The concept of the Square Kilometre Array (or SKA) came into being in 1990, and once a location has been confirmed, construction is due to be completed in 2024. Consisting of 3000 individual antennas and dishes, SKA will be capable of collecting the highest resolution images of deep space ever.

Information gathered from SKA will aid scientists in numerous areas of research, from the study of general relativity and the formation of galaxies in the infancy of the universe, to the quest for extraterrestrial life. SKA will collect information ten thousand times faster than any telescope that currently exists.

The placement of SKA is vital to the success of the A$2.5 billion operation. The network of antennas and dishes requires a location that is large, flat and radio-silent (that is, free from interference from outside equipment).

The Murchison Radio-Astronomy Observatory in Western Australia offers ideal conditions, and forms the headquarters of Australia and New Zealand’s bid for SKA. Half of the 3000 antennas would be situated in a five kilometre radius around Murchison Radio-Astronomy Observatory, with the remaining antennas being spread across the rest of the
continent and New Zealand. Southern Africa offers similar conditions suitable for housing SKA, potentially hosting the array of antennas across nine countries.

As is to be expected with a project of this scale, there are a few hurdles to be overcome. The amount of digital information collected by SKA once in operation will exceed the total amount of information on the entire internet. SKA is estimated to be capable of collecting one exabyte of data per day. An exabyte is 1018 bytes, or a million terabytes, so storage of SKA’s data will require more than a few external hard drives. It is hoped that by 2024, computing power will be great enough to deal with this magnitude of information.

Powering the SKA setup is also a challenge, but WA’s Horizon Power is well up to the task. Horizon Power has developed a
hybrid solar/diesel power plant that operates radio-silently (so it won’t interfere with the telescopic equipment) and can reliably provide the energy required to run SKA. Should Australia and New Zealand lose out to South Africa’s bid for SKA, Horizon Power’s hybrid plant will not go to waste. The smaller-scale CSIRO-run project, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (due to be completed in 2013) could use such a hybrid plant.

There is also potential for hybrid plants being repurposed to provide electricity to remote Australian communities. The decision about the placement of SKA was finalised in early February and the results are to be announced in March. Having a project like SKA centered in this country would be fantastic opportunity for Australian science (and tourism), so let’s collectively cross our fingers that Australia is chosen to become the new window to outer space.
For more information on the SKA project, check out www.ska.gov.au