The world’s largest scientific instrument

In a whisper-quiet area of the outback in Western Australia, 133,000 radio telescope antennas are about to be built.

When complete, they’ll be able to pick up radio signals from the time when the first stars in the universe formed.

This will be part of the first phase of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the world’s largest radio telescope—and its largest scientific instrument.

Astronomer Antony Schinckel from CSIRO says it’s an exciting instrument because “we don’t know what questions to ask yet”.

Antony is heavily involved in planning the infrastructure and construction of the Australian part of the SKA. (More of the globe-spanning telescope will be built in South Africa, while project headquarters are in the UK.)

The infrastructure project Antony headed was partly funded by the EU through a Horizon 2020 grant. It laid the groundwork for the telescope by looking at the sites chosen for construction and planning the facilities.

One big challenge was to ensure the site’s electronics don’t interfere with the supersensitive receivers. This complicates the buildings, power distribution, weather stations, site-monitoring cameras and more.

Similar challenges are also present at sites in South Africa, so the teams worked together to tackle them.

“Astronomy has always been a highly international science,” says Antony. “Telescopes are so expensive that no one country can own a full set, so astronomers are always using telescopes in other countries and countries band together to build the bigger ones.”

Around a dozen countries are involved in the SKA, and a huge number of universities, research institutes and companies are contributing to designing the telescopes.

The 133,000 phase one antennas are just the beginning of an even grander plan—the full array will potentially be 10 times larger.

Banner image: The Square Kilometre Array is under construction. Credit: SKA