Friday night, Australian time, came the decision that many expected. The battle for the world’s largest radio telescope ended in a draw – with no golden point time!
The site will be spilt between both Australia/New Zealand and South Africa. The Board met in the Netherlands on Friday and announced at a Press Conference at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam that the decision had been made to go with a dual site approach. This decision has been expected by many since the board met earlier this month and put together a working group to consider the option of a dual site solution.
Factors taken into account during the site selection process included levels of radio frequency interference, the long term sustainability of a radio quiet zone, the physical characteristics of the site, long distance data network connectivity, the operating and infrastructure costs as well as the political and working environment.
This agreement was reached by the Members of the SKA Organisation who were not a part of the two bidding consortia. (Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom)
Construction will begin in 2016, and when it is completed around 2024, it is believed that the telescope will be able to image the early universe at the time when the first stars and galaxies began to form. It will be 50 times more sensitive than current radio telescopes and will be able to shed light on fundamental questions about the Universe including how it began, why it is expanding at the rate it is, what is dark matter and whether there is life beyond our planet.
Splitting the site may be politically expedient, but was certainly not the cheapest or easiest solution. Each of SKA’s thousands of elements will send 160 gigabytes of data per second. Even though that data will be further processed to reduce the bandwidth, both of the remote sites will need high-speed networking and powerful supercomputers, along with all the necessary infrastructure that goes along with it. These costs will increase the cost of the project significantly.
But it isn’t over yet – the member countries – Australia, New Zealand, Republic of South Africa, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, China, Canada and Italy still have to raise the financing for this major project. India is an Associate member of the SKA Organisation as well.
In the decision, it was announced that the ASKAP and MeerKat dishes will be incorporated into Phase I of the SKA. These alone will deliver more science for the radio astronomy community than we can now do.
It was announced that the majority of SKA dishes in Phase 1 will be built in South Africa, combined with MeerKAT, while further SKA dishes will be added to the ASKAP array in Australia. All the dishes and the mid frequency aperture arrays for Phase II of the SKA will be built in Southern Africa while the low frequency aperture array antennas for Phase I and II will be built in Australia. The decision means that they can now get on with the job of building this – the world’s largest telescope.
The Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be about one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity, and 10 000 times the survey speed, of the best current-day telescopes. Thousands of receptors will extend out to 3, 000 km from the centre of the telescope.