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Square Km Array: what largest telescope will do

It is proposed to be built in two phases, with an estimated 1.8 billion euros required for phase-I, planned over the next ten years.

Written by Anjali Marar , Edited by Explained Desk | Pune |
Updated: February 6, 2021 7:38:09 am
radio telescope, largest radio telescope, Square Kilometre Array Observatory, SKAO, SKAO treaty Convention, indian express newsNighttime composite image of the SKA combining all elements in South Africa and Australia. (Image source: SKAO, ICRAR, SARAO)

On Thursday, a global collaboration for the world’s largest radio telescope took formal shape with the constitution of an Intergovernmental Council. The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) project, spanning two continents and involving the participation of 20 countries, is expected to be ready for carrying out observations towards the end of this decade.

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What will SKAO do?

Headquartered and controlled from the UK, the SKA is not a single telescope but will be an array of antennas strategically designed and set up in South Africa and Australia. It is proposed to be built in two phases, with an estimated 1.8 billion euros required for phase-I, planned over the next ten years.

SKA will allow astronomers to look deeper into the universe and unravel secrets about its evolution. Among its goals are: studying the universe and its evolution, the origin and evolution of cosmic magnetism, and dark energy and evolution of galaxies. Scientists are also optimistic that the SKA will be able to detect very weak extra-terrestrial signals and search for molecules that support life.

How is it designed ?

The telescope in South Africa will have 197 dishes, each 15 metres in diameter, and will be located in the Karoo region. Of these, 64 dishes are on site and are at present operated by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory.

The telescope in Australia will have 1,31,072 antennas, each measuring 2 m high. They will be installed on the campus of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory operated by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Started in 2014, the design and engineering took six years to complete, with science and policy proposals coming from over 1,000 scientists, and more than 500 engineers representing 20-plus countries who deliberated over three decades.

Is India among these countries?

Yes, India is participating in SKAO. through the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST). Pune-based TIFR-National Centre for Radio Astrophysics leads a team of researchers including from Raman Research Institute, Indian Institute of Science, Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, IITs of Kanpur, Kharagpur and Indore, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Presidency College and IISER-Mohali.

The Indian team was among the first to submit and get the design approval of a highly sophisticated Telescope Manager (TM), nicknamed “nervous system”, of the SKA observatory. The Indian team has now been chosen to lead the construction of the TM system, which will be responsible for end-to-end operations of SKAO.

India will also contribute towards building digital hardware for the SKA low-frequency receiver systems, some parts of the receiver for the SKA mid-frequency telescopes along with parts of the data processing units.

Which are the SKAO member countries ?

The three hosting nations are South Africa, Australia and the UK — headquarters in which will remotely monitor the telescope operations located in Australia and South Africa. Member nations include Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

In addition, eight African countries are taking part in coordinated actions to support the expansion of the project on the continent.

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Although there are 16 member nations, not all of them have officially attained membership as yet. India’s SKA membership, for example, is currently under review with the DAE and DST, and is expected to be completed sometime this year.

What has happened now, and why is it significant?

It is necessary that five countries ratify the SKAO treaty Convention, which effectively means that they approve their participation and commit financial support towards construction and operations in coming years. By December 2020, six countries had completed the ratification process — South Africa, Australia and UK, besides Portugal, the Netherlands and Italy. With the ratification of the UK, the last of the host countries, the SKAO Council came into existence “in principle”.

On Thursday, the Intergovernmental Treaty Organisation came into being and the SKAO Council hosted its maiden meet virtually. Prof Philip Diamond of the University of Manchester has been appointed the first Director-General of SKAO and French-born Dr Catherine Cesarsky will be the first Chair of the SKAO Council.

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