The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be one of the most complex scientific instruments ever built. It will, when fully deployed, consist of an array of ~4000 dishes, with a novel flat panel aperture array component capable of all-sky imaging, and work in the frequency range 70MHz to ~25GHz. The total project cost is likely to be around 1.5 billion Euros. The array will be supported by an IT infrastructure designed to handle data rates comparable to the current internet traffic of the Earth.
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will probe the gaseous component of the early Universe, thereby addressing fundamental questions in research on the origin and evolution of the Universe. The SKA will complement planned facilities at other wavelengths, such as ALMA and James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
An international consortium of funding agencies, including STFC, has established a Founding Board for the project which will develop the appropriate governance, oversee site selection (either South Africa or Australia) and progress towards the construction of the first phase of the project, expected by 2015/16. The UK community, led by the Universities of Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge, together with UK industry are fully engaged in the development of the project, supported by resources from STFC and the EU.
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is an international project to design and build the largest radio telescope ever conceived.
Radio astronomy, the study of our Universe using radio waves, has led to a number of important discoveries – from the afterglow of the Big Bang and neutron stars (pulsars) – to black holes in the centre of galaxies.
SKA will help answer key questions in astrophysics and astronomy, such as the role of dark energy and dark matter in our Universe. It also hopes to determine whether general relativity holds in the strong gravitational fields associated with massive black holes.
SKA will enable scientists to trace the evolution of magnetic fields and to probe the formation of molecules that are essential for life. This includes the study of Earth-like planets outside our Solar System and possibly answering one of mankind’s biggest questions: ‘are we alone?’ Finding out more about this will help us understand more about the Universe.
It will explore the Universe over a wide range of radio frequencies in an unprecedented level of detail. SKA will have a far greater surveying speed than current instruments and will be 50 times more sensitive than the world’s current most powerful radio telescope.
Most radio telescopes consist of one large dish or antenna to receive the radio waves from space, be it from stars, galaxies or pulsars. By combining several small antennas over a wide area, these can act as one single much larger antenna, or ‘array’.
SKA will have a proposed collecting area of one square kilometre – one million square metres. This collecting area, to be sited in either Australia or Southern Africa, will comprise dozens of individual antenna stations and will be 100 times larger than the Very Large Array telescope in the United States.
SKA is an ambitious and challenging project which needs global collaboration. A decision on the preferred site is expected to be made in 2012 and construction expected to start in 2015/16. The preliminary design and technology development involves more than 50 institutes in 17 countries. The UK’s interests lie in several areas of critical technology, including the possible use of phased array antennas as one of the design options.
STFC is providing funding for the UK’s involvement in the European design and prototyping activities as part of the SKA’s preparatory phase (PrepSKA). STFC has also been central in leading the activity between governments surrounding this global project and is acting as the coordinator for PrepSKA. The SKA Program Development Office (SPDO) is hosted by the University of Manchester and is responsible for co-ordinating the global activities of the SKA programme in terms of engineering, science, site evaluation, operations, telescope simulations and public outreach.
SKA will complement other planned facilities that aim to answer fundamental questions about the Universe such as the ground-based ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array) telescope in Chile and Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), and in space, the James Webb Space Telescope – a large infrared telescope that is due for launch in 2014.