New Eyes on the Universe: The Square Kilometre Array

by Koay Jun Yi

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) has been touted as the most ambitious scientific endeavour in human history. It will be a radio telescope made up of more than 3000 individual antennas and dishes, spanning two continents. In a single day, the telescope could produce more data than the total daily Internet traffic worldwide. Its high sensitivity will allow us to peer into the distant Universe to observe the cosmic dawn – when the first stars, black holes and galaxies have just begun to form.

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Of Lenses and Dishes

One instrument has completely revolutionised our understanding of the Universe and our place in it – the telescope. When Galileo, recorded as the first person to use a telescope to observe the heavens, first saw that Jupiter had its own moons, it was further evidence to him that not every heavenly body revolved around the Earth.

Since then, advances in science and technology have increased the capability of telescopes by enabling the construction of increasingly larger lenses or mirrors. Larger apertures lead to higher resolution (i.e., ability to see finer detail) and better sensitivity (i.e., ability to collect more light and thus see fainter objects). Telescopes sent to space circumvent the blurring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere; the Hubble Space Telescope can observe infant galaxies close to 13 billion light years away.

Technological advances have also enabled us to see light that is invisible to the human eye. Infrared telescopes allow astronomers to peer through thick dust obscuring many galaxies as well as the centre of our own Milky Way Galaxy. X-ray and Gamma-ray telescopes collect light from the most energetic phenomena in the Universe, from black holes feeding on hot gas to the explosions of dying stars. Radio telescopes probe the leftover radiation from the Big Bang, and huge jets of particles launching out from regions surrounding supermassive black holes.

Figure 1: Artist’s impression of the three different components that make up the SKA. The dishes (top) will observe at frequencies from 1-20 GHz, while the dense (middle) and sparse aperture arrays (bottom) will probe lower frequencies of 100s of MHz. Photo: Swinburne Astronomy Productions and SKA Organization.
Figure 1: Artist’s impression of the three different components that make up the SKA. The dishes (top) will observe at frequencies from 1-20 GHz, while the dense (middle) and sparse aperture arrays (bottom) will probe lower frequencies of 100s of MHz. Photo: Swinburne Astronomy Productions and SKA Organization.

Instead of mirrors and lenses, radio telescopes use dishes and antennas to detect these invisible signals from space. Radio astronomy has grown considerably since the 1940s, when it was largely ignored by mainstream astronomers and considered a domain for radar engineers who had too much time on their hands and didn’t know what to do with all their antennas after the Second World War!

In fact, radio astronomy was founded by an engineer named Karl Jansky at Bell Labs (US). Jansky was tasked to investigate an unknown source of static noise detected by long-distance telecommunication antennas, which he found to originate from the centre of the Milky Way.

The advent of radio interferometry, the technique of combining signals from many separate antennas to simulate giant telescopes the size of entire continents, allowed radio telescopes to produce the sharpest ever images in all astronomy, probing objects with 10 times finer detail than the Hubble Space Telescope. To date, radio astronomy has been directly responsible for no less than four Nobel prizes in physics.

The Square Kilometre Array

A new golden age of radio astronomy beckons, with the planned construction of the largest telescope and scientific facility in the world – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA is a scientific enterprise on the scale of the Large Hadron Collider, if not more ambitious. It is a truly global initiative, helmed by a consortium of 11 member countries, involving more than 100 institutions across 20 countries.

With a collecting area equivalent to one square kilometre, it will be the most sensitive radio telescope, capable of observing objects 50 times fainter than current instruments. To achieve such a high sensitivity, thousands of dishes and antennas will be deployed, spread across more than 3000 km. Now in the final stages of design, the plan is to begin construction in 2018 for early scientific observations in 2020.

Two core sites, where most of the antennas will be located, have been selected to host the SKA. One is the Murchison region in Western Australia, the other is the Karoo desert in South Africa. Some antenna stations will be placed in other sites in Australia and New Zealand, as well as in eight other African countries. An important criterion for the selection of these core sites was their radio quietness.

It is critical to train up the next generation of astrophysicists who could fully utilise the SKA’s capabilities, and there is no stopping Malaysians from being among them

To probe faint signals from the distant Universe, radio telescopes have to be isolated as much as possible from man-made radio signals, such as TV/radio transmissions, mobile phone networks and electronic equipment in general. A mobile phone, placed on the moon, could be one of the brightest objects in the sky at radio frequencies!

Cutting-Edge Science

There are five key questions scientists are looking for answers to with the SKA, which will significantly influence its design:

The Dark Ages and the Epoch of Reionisation: After the hot Big Bang, rapid expansion cooled the Universe sufficiently so that neutral hydrogen atoms could form out of protons and electrons. Since visible light is absorbed by neutral gas, and thus cannot travel far, the Universe was generally opaque during these ‘Dark Ages’. When and how did the first stars, black holes and galaxies form to light up and re-ionise the Universe, turning it transparent again?

Galaxy Evolution, Cosmology and Dark Energy: What is this dark energy that causes the Universe to expand at an ever-increasing rate? How did galaxies form and evolve to how we observe them today?

Cosmic Magnetism: What roles do magnetics fields play in the formation and evolution of structures in the Universe? How did these large-scale magnetics fields form in the first place? The SKA will study imprints left by these magnetic fields on the radio waves that travel through them.

Extreme Tests of Einstein’s Theories: Predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, gravitational waves are ripples in space-time, but have yet to be detected directly. The SKA will monitor an interstellar network of pulsars – the rapidly spinning cores of dead stars detected as regular radio pulses – which will function as very accurate clocks to detect these gravitational waves.

The Cradle of Life: The SKA will search for possible radio emissions generated by other extraterrestrial civilisations. It will also search for complex molecules that form the building blocks of life and determine how common they are in the Universe.

An Engineering and Technological Feat

Figure 2: Maintaining radio-quietness is essential if the SKA and other radio telescopes are to observe faint radio signals from space without interference from man-made signals. Photo: Western Australia Department of Commerce.
Figure 2: Maintaining radio-quietness is essential if the SKA and other radio telescopes are to observe faint radio signals from space without interference from man-made signals. Photo: Western Australia Department of Commerce.

Building the SKA and making it work will in itself be a feat of human ingenuity. The SKA is expected to generate an exabyte (1018) of data in a single day, which is more than the total amount of data transmitted daily through the Internet worldwide today – no computers yet exist that are powerful enough to handle and process these vast amounts of data! The project will thus be a test-bed for supercomputing and large-scale data handling.

There are also plans for it to be a ‘green telescope’; engineers are exploring alternate sources of energy to power the instrument. The new Pawsey Centre for SKA Computing in Perth, Australia, is already using geothermal solutions to cool its supercomputers. In the mean time, new antenna technologies and image processing techniques are being developed, to increase survey speeds, and improve the reliability of data.

It is hoped that the SKA will drive innovation leading to technological spin-offs that will eventually impact society in other ways. For example, many people may be unaware that all Wi-Fi devices we use today are dependent on a technique developed in the 1970’s by radio astronomers who were trying to detect exploding black holes in space!

Opportunities for Malaysia and Malaysians?

Radio astronomy is still a fledgling field in Malaysia, though there are plans by the Radio Cosmology group in Universiti Malaya to construct a radio telescope that can be used in tandem with telescopes in Australia and East Asia. Perhaps there could be a future SKA station in Malaysia? Do we dare to dream?

The key question, however, is whether Malaysian tax-payers are keen to fork out money for fundamental sciences like astrophysics and cosmology. In the meantime, opportunities are already opening up for passionate postgraduate students to be involved not just in the science but also in the engineering and computing aspects of the SKA.

Figure 3: Simulations of the ‘Epoch of Reionisation’, when the first stars and galaxies formed to light up the Universe and create pockets of ionised gas that is transparent to visible light, in between neutral gas that absorbs light. Today, the Universe is almost 100% ionised. Photo: Marcelo Alvarez, Tom Abel and Ralf Kaehler.
Figure 3: Simulations of the ‘Epoch of Reionisation’, when the first stars and galaxies formed to light up the Universe and create pockets of ionised gas that is transparent to visible light, in between neutral gas that absorbs light. Today, the Universe is almost 100% ionised. Photo: Marcelo Alvarez, Tom Abel and Ralf Kaehler.

Aspiring astrophysicists and engineers from Malaysia do not have to travel far, as one of the core sites of the SKA is situated in Western Australia, not more than 5.5 hour’s flight from Kuala Lumpur. It is critical to train up the next generation of astrophysicists who could fully utilise the SKA’s capabilities, and there is no stopping Malaysians from being among them.

For non-specialists, there are also ways to participate through citizen science projects. One example is theSkyNet, which allows volunteers to share a tiny fraction of the processing power of their laptops and personal computers to crunch radio astronomy data from existing telescopes (and SKA precursors in the near future).

The Story Continues…

The story of the telescope is one in which science and technology are closely intertwined. Advances in technology open up new avenues for exploring the Universe. If history is any indicator, it is inevitable that the SKA will make many unexpected discoveries that will further transform what we know about the Universe. We live in exciting times indeed!

components of universe

For more information on the SKA, see:

https://www.skatelescope.org

http://www.ska.ac.za

http://www.ska.gov.au

To find out more about theSkyNet and to participate, visit:

https://www.theskynet.org

About the Author

Koay Jun Yi is an astrophysicist at the Dark Cosmology Centre, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen. He obtained his PhD at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), Curtin University in Perth, Australia, and a BEng (Hons) Electronics (majoring in telecommunications) from Multimedia University, Malaysia. His research involves studying the structure and growth of supermassive black holes in distant galaxies, and how they affect galaxy evolution, using mainly radio telescopes. He is also interested in exploring the best designs and observing strategies for next generation radio telescopes such as the SKA.



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