— The project that gives us an edge

Cosmos - - Contents - EL­IZ­A­BETH FINKEL Ed­i­tor-in- chief

THE TE­LE­SCOPE that goes by the name Square Kilome­tre Ar­ray will be the largest global, col­lab­o­ra­tive science project ever. If all goes to plan, in 2018 the first of 130,000 an­ten­nae will be rolled out on a re­mote red plain a few hun­dred kilo­me­tres north-east of Ger­ald­ton, Western Aus­tralia. A sis­ter te­le­scope will be built on an­other re­mote red plain, the Ka­roo, about 600 kilo­me­tres north-east of Cape Town, South Africa.

Over­all, this is a com­plex, vast, daunt­ing project. My­opic jour­nal­ists strug­gle to get its mea­sure. It’s the ele­phant prob­lem; here’s a tail, there’s a tusk, but what is this en­tire mon­stros­ity all about? That’s a con­cern be­cause this is an extraordinary beast: we should all be fall­ing off our seats in ex­cite­ment.

There are at least two rea­sons. First, there’s the sheer au­dac­ity of it – Ska-low, the te­le­scope to be built in Aus­tralia, will fill in a miss­ing chap­ter in the his­tory of the uni­verse: how did we get from a fea­ture­less sea of neu­tral hy­dro­gen to ga­lac­tic is­lands sep­a­rated by a thin sea of ionised hy­dro­gen? The­o­rists have had free rein to model elab­o­rate sce­nar­ios on their com­put­ers. The Ska-low data, ex­pected to come on­line in 2021, will at last put th­ese mod­els to the test.

Ska-low is the most am­bi­tious of the two tele­scopes. Ska-mid, in the Ka­roo, has its sights set half­way to the edge of the uni­verse; Ska-low is aim­ing for the very edge. To do so, it needs tech­nol­ogy yet to be de­vel­oped. That’s be­cause it’s a soft­ware te­le­scope. Not ma­jes­tic dishes like those to be de­ployed in the Ka­roo, but a for­est of an­ten­nae whose sig­nals are com­bined to achieve sen­si­tiv­ity and res­o­lu­tion. To­gether they will mul­ti­ply into a te­le­scope 168 times more pow­er­ful than cur­rent equiv­a­lents such as LOFAR in the Nether­lands.

To get a clear im­age of the early uni­verse, Ska-low will have to crunch data at an un­prece­dented scale – greater than the en­tire global in­ter­net traf­fic per day.

That’s the sec­ond rea­son we should be fall­ing off our chairs. The in­no­va­tions that will emerge from this big data project prom­ise huge wind­falls. The Word Wide Web was the spin-off when CERN – the home of the Large Hadron Col­lider – needed to find a way to man­age its big data prob­lem. Wi-fi was the off­shoot when CSIRO re­searchers learnt how to re­align the scram­bled sig­nals from black holes.

Which is why com­pa­nies are al­ready flock­ing to Western Aus­tralia’s cap­i­tal city, Perth. Cisco, Wood­side, Google and Chevron are get­ting in­volved.

This con­glom­er­ate of astronomers, com­puter geeks and in­dus­try is a far cry from the ro­mance of Galileo, grind­ing his lenses into a te­le­scope, gaz­ing heav­en­ward and dis­cov­er­ing the moons of Jupiter.

But how he would have swooned to see the first im­ages from the edge of our uni­verse.

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