Australia's 50-Year Plan to Scan the Sky for Life, the Universe and Everything

This article discusses the effect of The Square Kilometer Array (SKA)on Australia.

Murchison is an area of Western Australia with a landmass larger than the Netherlands and a population of just 113. Located 450 miles north-east of Perth, this patch of hot, dry, flat bush land is as 'in the middle of nowhere' as it is possible to be, while still remaining on the surface of this planet.

This, it turns out, is the perfect site to build a radio telescope. But to describe the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) simply as a radio telescope is as much of an understatement as describing Murchison as merely 'distant'.

Professor Brian Boyle, who heads up the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) SKA team in Australia, explains that the SKA's 3,000 dishes will make it 50 times larger than the current largest radio telescope, with far greater bandwidth. Its field-of-view will also be 100 times bigger than its nearest rival.

"If you multiply all these together, you have got a telescope with 10,000 times the discovery potential of any existing radio telescope," said Boyle.

"We will be able to carry out surveys of not just hundreds of thousands of galaxies but billions of galaxies to do the most exquisite cosmological tests ever possible. We know a lot about the stars from optical telescopes; radio telescopes will tell us about the gas from which they form ... we will be able to further test the theories of Einstein and Hawking in cosmic laboratories we never before had access to," said Boyle.

The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) is an international science project funded by 10 countries including the UK, Germany, Italy, China, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

It will cost Euro 1.5bn with construction due for completion in 2023. The dishes will be spread over two sites in the southern hemisphere, one in Murchison and the other a remote part of South Africa.

The SKA project is associated with some truly mind-boggling numbers. For a start, when in full operation, it will generate more than five exabytes of data every week.

"Five exabytes is five million, million, million bits of data. The world produced around 24 exabytes of data in the past year," said Boyle.

One of the major challenges of this project is to not only build the dishes but also the high-bandwidth data network and supercomputer required to make sense of all the data.

Senator Don Farrell, Australia's Minister for Science and Research, believes that co-hosting the SKA will create a range of significant investment, business and employment opportunities for Australians during its construction, and more importantly, over its 50-year operational lifetime.

"The project has already resulted in the development of the Pawsey Supercomputer Centre for SKA Science in Perth," said Farrell.

Along with the supercomputer, hundreds of kilometres of fibre optic cables have already been laid in the ground with a little help from the Australian National Broadband Network project (NBN).

The other major challenge is to power to all the equipment as this part of Oz isn't connected to the national grid. So the plans also include building a combined solar and biodiesel power station.

With daytime temperatures in Murchison regularly hitting 40 degrees Celsius, an on-site datacentre will be cooled using the latest in geothermal wells, which extract heat from the computers and transfer it to the cooler ground below.

Senator Farrell said he hopes the SKA project will ensure Australia holds a "prominent role in addressing some of the big scientific questions of the 21st Century – raising our profile as a scientifically literate country and inspiring our young people to look to science and engineering as great career options."

In the past, these types of experiments have led to exciting discoveries. For example, in the 1990s CSIRO radio astronomer John O’Sullivan was looking for a way to better understand black holes when he stumbled upon a technology that formed the basis of 802.11a, or wireless networking.

The SKA project has to be on the scale it is purely because the waves it is picking up are extremely weak.

“To put this into perspective,” said Boyle, "If you added up all the energy from all the radio astronomy objects collected by radio telescopes over the entire history of radio astronomy, it adds up to less energy than a snowflake hitting the ground."

In order to catch exceedingly faint waves from the cosmos, you need a very, very large dish to detect anything, continued Boyle, who said that SKA would also help projects like SETI – the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence – by default.

"Because the SKA has such a wide field of view, if we are going to be counting galaxies in the universe, we will likely have some nearby stars in the field of view so we will be getting any potential signals from those for free. The chances of detecting anything are infinitesimally small, but the impact on humanity would be infinitely large – so you can't not look," he added.

By Mun Kotadia