The scientists and engineers of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project hold their annual meeting in Manchester, and will continue discussing where to site the array. The candidates are down to two -- South Africa and Australia. The announcement about the winner is due in 2011. Fifty times more sensitive than any other telescope and one of the most ambitious international science projects ever, the SKA will give astronomers a way to look back to the Big Bang. Construction starts in 2014.
The SKA will be powerful enough to explore the origins of galaxies and probe the edges of the Universe. It will search for Earth-like planets and potential life elsewhere in the Universe, test theories of gravity and examine the mystery of dark energy. Top criteria for the ideal site will be wide sky coverage and radio quietness (free from Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) - radio, television, cell-phone, radar, telemetry and other transmissions.) Ideal tropospheric, atmospheric and ionospheric conditions will also be taken into account. South African astronomers believe their experience building the Karoo Array Telescope, known as &lsquoMeerKAT', in Northern Cape Province gives the country an edge over Australia in the SKA competition. MeerKAT scientists say the project serves "as a &lsquopathfinder' for the cutting-edge technologies of the SKA." MeerKAT will be operational in 2012, they say. The SKA is described as the next logical step in radio astronomy following the completion in 2012 of the large millimetre array ALMA in Chile. With its one square kilometre of collecting area - one hundred times more collecting area than the Very Large Array in New Mexico in the United States, the SKA will probe the gaseous component of the early Universe. It will complement planned facilities at other wavelengths, such as ALMA and James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The international SKA office is run by the University of Manchester, which operates the famous Jodrell Bank radio observatory in the United Kingdom.
Date written/update: 2010-03-22