They’re called radio telescopes, but to excited astrophysicists around the world, these receivers of deep-space signals are time machines on the verge of seeing further back than ever before.
You can now add scientists at the University of Calgary to the list of space researchers counting the days until the most powerful array of radio telescopes ever assembled goes live — because when the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) is completed in roughly five years’ time, Canada will be a full partner.
- Photo above: A composite image of the future SKA-Mid telescope, blending the existing precursor MeerKAT telescope dishes already on site with an artist's impression of the future SKA-Mid dishes.
“This will be one of the most complicated machines on the planet,” says Dr. Jeroen Stil, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Calgary.
“This will give us a very different vision of the universe, and we want to know everything that is going on, because if we miss something crucial, we will not understand the universe.”
Federal announcement of full SKAO membership
Last month, the federal government announced Canada’s intention to proceed to full membership in SKAO, the culmination of a 30-year vision to build the largest telescope on Earth, through an international effort involving 16 countries, and costing close to $3 billion.
Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François‑Philippe Champagne praised the international effort: “By combining our resources, knowledge and experience, we are one step closer to understanding the mysteries of the universe.”
Dark energy and Einstein
Some of those mysteries include dark energy, an unknown force that may be responsible for accelerated expansion of the universe, and whether Einstein's General Theory of Relativity continues to stand up in extreme environments, such as around supermassive black holes.
SKAO will allow researchers like those at UCalgary to study the earliest galaxies, tracking how they formed and evolved over billions of years, while also providing new insight into our current neighbours, including high angular resolution radio images of the sun.
International co-operation key
Full membership will provide Canadian astronomers with a six per cent user share of the observatory, plus access to data collected by the observatory — but Stil says the entire observatory will be centred on continued international co-operation and sharing of research.
“One of the achievements of telescopes that are operational now is that we are building the framework for international co-operation, where everyone can do their research in a transparent way,” says Stil.
“The international culture between researchers is highly collaborative, and it needs to be so, because the strength of telescopes like the SKA is that they scan the whole sky in unprecedented detail, and the amount of information is so large you need a supercomputing facility to deal with it.”
Africa and Australia to host telescopes
The international radio astronomy observatory will operate two telescopes on two continents, starting with 197 radio dishes in South Africa and 131,072 dipole antennas in Australia, with SKAO headquarters based in the United Kingdom.
The Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) will represent Canada in the governance of the SKAO, which currently includes South Africa, Australia, U.K., China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland as full members, with India, Sweden, South Korea, Japan, France, Spain and Germany otherwise involved on the national level. Eight African partner countries are involved in co-ordinated action to support the future expansion of the SKA project in Africa.