Work is finally underway on the world’s largest radio astronomy observatory.
Known as the Square Kilometre Array, the mega telescope consists of huge clusters of dishes and antennas spread across remote parts of South Africa and Western Australia. Construction of the observatory began Monday after three decades of planning.
The Square Kilometre Array has been called one of the biggest scientific projects of the 21st century. The ultra-sensitive instrument will be used to probe some of the most baffling cosmic mysteries, ranging from dark matter, dark energy and how galaxies were formed to the origin of short but intense pulses of radio emissions known as fast radio bursts.
Catherine Cesarsky, chair of the Square Kilometre Array board of directors, said the observatory has been “many years in the making.”
“Today, we gather here to mark another important chapter in this 30-year journey that we’ve been on together. A journey to deliver the world’s largest scientific instrument,” she said in a statement.
The observatory is made up of two arrays: the SKA-Low in Western Australia, located on traditional lands of the Wajarri people, and the SKA-Mid, built in Karoo in the Northern Cape of South Africa.
The facility in Australia will be made up of more than 131,000 tree-shaped antennas each standing about 6.5 feet tall. Together they will be sensitive enough to pick up some of the faintest signals in the universe — low-frequency radio waves between 50 megahertz and 350 megahertz.
Compared to similar telescopes that exist now, the SKA-Low will be eight times more sensitive, have 25% better resolution and be able to survey the sky 135 times faster, according to the project’s scientists.
The South African component will consist of nearly 200 dishes, expanded from the 64-dish MeerKAT telescope that already exists on the site. These will be capable of operating in the mid-frequency range, from 350 megahertz to 15.4 gigahertz.
Compared to existing telescopes, the SKA-Mid in South Africa will operate with four times the resolution and five times the sensitivity and will be able to survey the sky 60 times faster, according to the project’s scientists.
Construction of the roughly $2 billion observatory is expected to continue through 2028, though parts of the arrays could be operational as early as 2024.