A giant radio telescope will begin scanning the night sky for signals sent by extraterrestrials by the end of the decade.
The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) will include 197 dishes and 130,000 antennas across South Africa and Australia.
It was designed to pick up radio signals – both natural and extraterrestrial – that are too weak to be detected by current telescopes.
Construction began last year and ahead of opening in 2025, researchers are now developing the software needed to operate.
Corresponding BBC NewsA team of British scientists is building a prototype ‘brain’ for SKA, which will be the world’s largest radio telescope.
It is tested on a piece of infrastructure before being rolled out across the network.
The artificial brain will help parts of the network communicate across continents and presents a tremendous computing challenge, said Dr. Chris Pearson, head of the astronomy group at RAL Space, told the BBC.
“We’re talking about 600 petabytes (600 million gigabytes) of data per year coming out of the SKA to be delivered to astronomers worldwide,” he said.
“So it’s a scaling issue, a processing issue, a data transfer issue.”
The SKA Observatory is a £1.7 billion international project that has been in the making for 30 years.
It’s not a single telescope, but a series of dishes and antennas that work together to collect radio waves from the darkest corners of space.
When operational in the late 2020s, the telescope will allow scientists to peer into the early Universe in unprecedented detail.
It will be able to collect low-frequency radio waves dating back almost 14 billion years to the birth of the cosmos.
In addition, scientists will use the telescope to try to detect extremely weak extraterrestrial radio signals – if they exist at all.
Astrobiologists will use the technology to search for amino acids, the building blocks of life, on distant planets and asteroids by identifying their special signatures at specific frequencies.
The various dishes and antennas of the SKA are connected to exchange large amounts of data.
To do this, they must work together in perfect harmony to communicate across locations in South Africa’s Karoo region and Murchison Shire in Western Australia.
The cost is huge and the UK government has offered to fund 15 per cent of the cost of construction between 2021 and 2030.
Funding of £15 million is being made available by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) for software development.
Dubbed the “brain” of the telescope, it’s designed to identify problems and convert signals received from the telescope into data that scientists can work with to make new discoveries.
“We’re starting small,” said Dr. pearson
“The software we are producing will initially work on four radio dishes in South Africa. And speaking of these small antennas in Australia, initially it will work on six stations (out of 256 antennas).
“And then we need to scale intelligently. We cannot do it linearly as the number of dishes and antennas increases, or it becomes impossible.”
The SKA will join a series of next-generation telescopes that will become operational this decade.
These include the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope and the massive European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).
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