Biggest radio telescope array ready to probe for secrets

A powerful new super telescope in the Australian outback is set to begin probing the origins of stars and galaxies. The Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder lies in the western Australian desert. The technology is expected to capture radio images with unprecedented sensitivity and speed across large areas of sky.

Australian scientists say the new facility opening Friday on the country’s remote west coast will be one of the world’s most important radio telescopes.

The isolated site was chosen because it is remarkably quiet, with a small population and few man-made radio signals that could interfere with the faint astronomical data.

The antenna array will give astronomers the power to investigate some fundamental questions about the universe, including dark matter, the nature of gravity and the origins of the first stars and galaxies.

The super telescope is 100 times more powerful than any previous design.

John O’Sullivan, a scientist at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, says these are exciting times.

“It is a number of telescopes; 30-odd telescopes that are each 12 meters in diameter. They are not very big telescopes but it is still a very, very powerful survey instrument to start to get a look at the origins of galaxies, and it looks a long way back towards the beginning of the universe,” he said. “My personal interest has been partly on the technology and partly on the, you know, big questions about where do we all come from, how does the universe operate and so forth. It is the beginning of a great new period, I think.”

The power of the telescope in Western Australia will, however, be dwarfed by what is to come. It will become part of an even greater astronomical adventure, the Square Kilometer Array project. It aims to build the world’s biggest radio telescope spread across different continents.

Its main components will be constructed in Australia and South Africa, with additional facilities in New Zealand. The super telescope will be made up of thousands of antennas. Combining their signals will create a telescope equivalent to a dish with an area of about one square kilometer. This means that very weak signals from space can be detected.

The Square Kilometer Array will take well over a decade to finish. Among its tasks will be to search for alien life.

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