The SKA Project: A triumph in scientific collaboration

The term globalisation has become almost a euphemism for business growth over the past couple of decades, encompassing almost every industry sector imaginable. Perhaps this description is best exemplified by The SKA Project, which draws on the expertise and imagination of some of the finest scientific brains on the planet.

SKA is a radio telescope project to be built and co-located in Australia and South Africa. It is said to be an instrument so large that its size will span two continents, and so sensitive that it will be able to detect very faint radio signals emitted by cosmic sources billions of light years away from Earth.

In October 2015, the Indian Government signed the membership of SKA Organization, becoming the tenth nation, along with Australia, Canada, China, Italy, Holland, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the UK, to work together on building the world’s largest radio telescope.

The SKA Project is led by the UK-based SKA Organisation (SKAO), a not-for-profit organization established in December 2011, with the purpose of coordinating all global activities of the SKA project, and formalising the relationship between all international partners.

The two main goals for the SKA Project will be to look for signals related to the birth of the first stars, and to test Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in regions of extreme gravity.

The official website states: “The SKA will be used to answer fundamental questions of science and about the laws of nature, such as: how did the Universe, and the stars and galaxies contained in it, form and evolve? Was Einstein’s theory of relativity correct? What is the nature of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’? What is the origin of cosmic magnetism? Is there life somewhere else in the Universe?”

The idea behind the project is to build a radio telescope that will be tens of times more sensitive and hundreds of times faster at mapping the sky, when compared to the best radio astronomy facilities available today.

However, this will not be achieved with just a single telescope, rather an array of different types of antennas spread across Australia and South Africa.

Radio signals are emitted by a large number of cosmic sources. A radio telescope consists of an antenna, receiver and a data recorder. The SKA will combine the signals received from thousands of small parabolic and dipole antennas spread over a distance of several thousand kilometres. The dipole antennas are capable of receiving very low frequencies and the parabolic antennas operate at higher frequencies. These antennas will simulate a single giant radio telescope with extremely high sensitivity.

Construction of Phase 1 is set to take place from 2018 to 2023, with the initial operations taking place from 2020.

India’s involvement in this project will be led by the National Centre for Radio Astronomy (NCRA), Pune. The secretary of the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Dr. R.K.Sinha signed the documents on behalf of the Government of India, in Mumbai, thereby formally becoming a part of the SKA project.

“We welcome India as part of the ongoing SKA project. India, via NCRA, has already been playing a significant role in the design phase of the telescope which will continue till 2017, and I look forward to continued involvement of India during the construction of the telescope, starting 2018. India has several decades of expertise in low frequency radio astronomy which is an added advantage,” commented Professor Philip Diamond, Director General of the SKA Project.

A further benefit of the project will be improved technology with which to search for extra  terrestrial intelligence (SETI), although Tyler Bourke, a project scientist for SKA, emphasized that SETI is “an important area of exploration,” though not the central research goal of the telescope. The primary goals of the SKA is to study the early universe when stars and galaxies were first forming and detect gravitational waves.

“The history of science has shown that major new discoveries follow from major advances in technical innovation,” Bourke told Inverse. “Telescopes like SKA enable SETI observations to be more systematic and unbiased than in the past, which will only help to make it more mainstream and respectable within the scientific community.”

Bourke explains that scientists can do SETI searches using SKA in one of the two ways. They can examine all the data collected by the telescopes for candidate SETI signals, or “commensal observations; or, they can request to use the telescope on their own time.

Another, perhaps more tangible benefit of the SKA Project may be an increase in scientific interest within South Africa.

In October 2015 it was reported that researchers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal were hopeful, with the country co-hosting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, that more young people will develop a keen interest in astrophysics.

Dr. Matt Hilton, a senior lecturer at the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit, explained that astrophysics is the study of everything in the sky adding that astrophysicists try to answer questions including where the universe comes from.

Hilton says that although this sphere is not yet as significant as in the US and UK – the field has grown in the last decade in South Africa.

“This is being driven by the fact that South Africa will be hosting the world’s largest radio telescope – the Square Kilometre Array. Even at the moment there are some world-class instruments in South Africa being built. 

“We have the Southern African Large Telescope, and also the MeerKAT radio telescope is being built right now and will be up and running fully by 2017,” he said. 

Hilton says the university is offering bursaries for pupils who are interested in studying astronomy next year.

“The aim here is really to grow the number of home-grown South African astronomers so that when SKA gets going, they’ll be people there that can lead the research, and that South Africa doesn’t just host it but make some of the key discoveries with this instrument,” he said.

Hilton says the bursaries are being funded by the SKA project and will cover tuition fees, and to some extent, accommodation. 

The call for future astronomers echoes that of Science and Technology Minister, Naledi Pandor, who has used numerous platforms to highlight the urgent need for scientists in South Africa.

The long-term benefits of the SKA Project may be far-reaching, and may leave a legacy in a number of ways.