Building a HUGE Telescope

Nov 5, 2013 | Uncategorized

Big science means big collaborations these days. Often, it takes many institutions and partners to probe the Universe deeper than ever before. Astronomy has been moving into the arena already occupied by physicists where it takes a big international collaboration to build a really big instrument.

What the SKA may look like. CC SKA Outreach.

What the SKA may look like. CC SKA Outreach.

The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) began as a dream, in a way. It was a wish that radio astronomers had to construct a full square kilometer of collecting area for one radio telescope. No one expects to be able to build one monolithic telescope of that size, especially since we rely on interferometric arrays, such as the Very Large Array, to make bigger and bigger scopes. The more collecting area you have, the fainter the signals from the cosmos that one can detect, and the more intricate science that can be done.

Now, the Square Kilometer Array is taking another step forward with the determination of teams to build each of the components. They are attacking this massive design challenge in the way that the Large Hadron Collider did, by breaking up a large problem into smaller ones and assigning a module or “work package.” Then, of course, some still has to bring it altogether. The hope is that construction can begin quite soon at the South Africa and Australia sites, as early as 2017. I’m always skeptical when I see target construction dates for something that is still on paper, but it is encouraging that the telescope itself IS coming, one way or another.

I have big love for the small scopes, like PAPER. Photo by Danny Jacobs.

I have big love for the small scopes, like PAPER. Photo by Danny Jacobs.

Don’t get me wrong, as much as I love big shiny instruments, there still should be effort set aside for the smaller, focused science experiments and research and development projects. There’s no telling which bit of instrumentation fiddling will provide a breakthrough, such as the development of certain cryogenically cooled amplifiers. Or, a small but elegant experiment can answer a scientific question all on its own, such as the case of the Deuterium Array, a small array built of the grounds of MIT Haystack that was designed, built, and finished its science in just a few years. I was part of a great small-scale project on the scent of big science in graduate school, and these projects are necessary. However, the scientific productivity and demand for telescopes such as the Very Large Array and Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array tell us that big telescopes do bring the awesome science.

All this means more big data, and, hopefully, more interesting citizen science opportunities to come. Already, there are plans for distributed computing to deal with the number crunching needed for SKA through (yet another project named) Skynet. You can donate your spare computer cycles to the effort of dealing with all the data that even the SKA pathfinders are churning out.

Sometimes it is scary to think big, collaborate widely, and take a long, long time to work up to such a big project. But if we don’t try, we’ll never do anything really big.

1 Comment

  1. Peter John Jose

    The project will be a great success in the future and can help scientists and researchers for future development and understanding of the universe with the use of that telescope.


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