Monday, 4 April 2011

Jodrell Bank selected for Square Kilometre Array


Major news from the world of radio astronomy this week, as Jodrell Bank was chosen as the headquarters for the planning and construction of the long-awaited Square Kilometre Array radio telescope.

Set to be one of the great scientific endeavours of the 21st Century, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope. Jodrell Bank beat off fierce competition from sites in Holland and Germany to be selected as the project headquarters. The SKA itself will be located in either Australia and New Zealand or Southern Africa.

The SKA will investigate fundamental unanswered questions about our Universe, including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, how galaxies have evolved since then, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the eminent radio astronomer who discovered pulsars at Jodrell Bank in 1967 had this to say:
"The power of this new telescope project is going to surpass anything we've seen before, enabling us to see many more radio-emitting stars and galaxies and pulling the curtains wide open on parts of the great beyond that radio astronomers like me have only ever dreamt of exploring."

Steve Rawlings of Oxford University hopes it might explain dark energy:
"The Square Kilometre Array is a time machine. As you look out to greater distances you're seeing the universe as it was when it was younger, and so you can map out the expansion of the universe. Dark energy seems to accelerate that expansion and so we will be able to map out dark energy and perhaps discover what it is."

Rather than being a huge single radio dish, it will be made up of thousands of smaller ones, which are distributed across vast geographical areas. A large array is needed because the wavelength of radio waves is far greater than that of visible light. "In order to get the same level of detail as a good optical telescope you'd need something 100km across. Clearly you can't build a single telescope a 100km across, but what you can do is build a network of telescopes and link those telescopes together." Simon Garrington, of Jodrell Bank explains.

Set to cost an estimated 1.5 billion Euros, this huge endeavour involves more than 70 institutes in 20 countries. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity of the best current-day telescopes.


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