365daysDate: July 1, 2009

Title: S.K.A Music — The Square Kilometer Array


Podcaster: Kylie Sturgess

Organization: Skeptic Zone:

Description: The Square Kilometer Array is the next generation radio telescope that will explore the cosmos like never before – and may very well call Australia home. An interview with Professor Steven Tingay, the co-Director of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy, Curtin University, Western Australia.

Bio: Kylie Sturgess is a reporter for the Skeptic Zone Podcast – Australia’s leading skeptical podcast with reports from around the world – and a researcher of gender differences in paranormal beliefs and superstitious behaviors.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the parents of Ben Given, in honor of his 9th birthday. Happy Birthday, Ben. We love you.


I’m Kylie Sturgess of the Skeptic Zone podcast. Today you’re listening to a little ‘ska music’ before we learn about the S.K.A.

In radio astronomy, that’s an acronym for the ‘Square Kilometer Array’, and is the next generation of radio telescope currently being planned, with my home state Western Australia short-listed to host the instrument.

This episode features Professor Steven Tingay of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy, who will tell us all about the progress of the project and what exciting things it will tell us – including answering some of the big questions in astrophysics, cosmology and astrobiology. Prepare to have your understanding of the universe – transformed.

Kylie: I’m here talking to Professor Steve Tingay, the co-Director of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy, and staff member of the Department of Imaging and Applied Physics. He’s very deeply involved in the ‘Square Kilometer Array’ project, as a chair and as a member of a number of working and advisory groups. It’s lovely to meet you Steve!

Steve: Thank you.

Kylie: We’re talking at the moment from the Curtin Institute for Radio Astronomy in Perth, which is in Western Australia – it happens to be the state in Australia which is hoping to host the Square Kilometer Array. Why is Australia interested in this project?

Steve: Australia has a very long tradition in Radio Astronomy and Astronomy in general. So, after the Second World War, Radio Astronomy came to the forefront in a number of different countries, arising out of radar developments in World War Two. Australia was one of the countries that picked this up strongly and built telescopes like the Parkes Dish and so we’ve maintained that history, so naturally our interest lies in being in the forefront and future of Radio Astronomy as well.

The project has a fairly long history, and it has evolved somewhat; it really originated in the late 80s, early 90s, and has developed into this concept of the ‘Square Kilometer Array’. Currently we’re still in the design and conceptual phase of the project, with various pathfinder instruments being built and we hope to be securing funding in the 2012 – 2013 – 2014 time-scale and with a projected completion date of somewhere around 2018-2020.

There are two host countries left in the competition to win…

Kylie: Only two?

Steve: Yes, it’s down to two! A few years ago there were four countries in the bidding to be the host of the S.K.A – China; Argentina / Brazil; Australia and Southern Africa. A few years ago we went through a selection process and Australia and South Africa are the remaining two countries. So, Australia’s proposed site for most of the antennas is in the Murchison Region of Western Australia.

So, CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), the Federal Government and the State Government, are working hard to establish the Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory, which is the parcel of land where we propose to host the S.K.A. On that Observatory at the moment there are two Pathfinder telescopes being built. One is the Australian S.K.A Pathfinder, which is being built by CSIRO; the second is called the Murchison Widefield Array, which is being built by an international consortium of universities, mainly. It’s that project that Curtin University is deeply involved with.

Kylie: I’ve heard it described as a ‘revolution in Astronomy’. Why?

Steve: Just because the scale of the instrument, really. The ‘Square Kilometer Array’, as the name suggests, has a collecting area of a square kilometer, which is much, much greater than existing telescopes that have been built. So, the factor of improvement you get in terms of sensitivity and resolution and flexibility of the instrument is far, far greater than any telescope yet built.

So, being a very sensitive telescope, it means we have access to very faint signals from very distant objects. So, a big part of the S.K.A will be to probe the early structure and evolution of the universe. Looking at the very first objects that formed and produced radio waves; also being able to see back to the very beginning and being able to look at the objects around us in the Universe today, and to essentially fill in all the gaps. To see how galaxies evolved soon after the Big Bang, all the way to the current day – and what that will hopefully tell us about not only the structure and the evolution of the galaxies themselves, but also the structure and evolution of the universe.

For example, the space-time fabric of the universe has a particular structure; we’d like to understand the structure better and also the constituency of the Universe. At the moment, we don’t know what 96% of the Universe is made up of and the S.K.A, we hope, will give us some strong hints in that direction.

Kylie: No wonder we’re so keen to be a part of it!

Steve: Well, exactly. It’s physics at the most fundamental level that you can possibly imagine, when you don’t understand what 96% of the Universe is! They’re not the atoms and molecules that we see around us everyday life; it’s something completely different.

Kylie: One of the questions that I’ve heard it might also answer is whether or not there is going to be evidence of life elsewhere in the Universe, which is one of the things that I study – how much people believe in the possibility of other life out there. What sort of things might be identified by the Array, which could constitute ‘alien life is out there’?

Steve: Well, the classic signature that’s been previously looked for at radio wave length is evidence of narrow-band transmissions, from Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars. So, basically, looking for planetary systems where life may have evolved and pointing the radio telescope at those systems to try to pick up narrow-band radio transmissions. Narrow-band radio transmissions could be taken as evidence for high-technology communications, for example, all of the TV signals and radio signals that we generate on earth, propagate out into space and potentially civilizations on other planets could detect us in that manner, so assuming that technology and civilizations, communications have evolved in different parts of the Universe, we can make that assumptions and go on to look for those signals elsewhere.

So, that’s a very direct method, I guess, of searching. The S.K.A will also be able to look for the formation of planetary systems, so directly observe the emission from planets that are forming around stars and so that really tells us about the physics of planetary system formation.

Kylie: I hear that New Zealand may be chipping in to help, perhaps?

Steve: Sure! So, the square kilometer of collecting area isn’t just a single block of collecting area. It’s really a square kilometer broken up into many thousands of individual segments. So, small antennas. Which means that we can distribute the small antennas as far and as wide as we wish.

So, the S.K.A will really be five, ten thousand antennas stretching from one end of the continent to the other. So, if sited in Australia, most antennas will be in Western Australia, with distribution all the way to the East coast – and then perhaps some antennas in New Zealand, to extend that geographical range of the instrument to about five and a half thousand kilometers.

Kylie: Where can people go to find out more about the progress of this project?

Steve: The project is organized as an international consortium, so there’s a website that encapsulates all of that information – at Go to and get a bit of information about us – there’s also a website for the Murchison Widefield Array at

Kylie: Marvelous! Thank you very much, Steve!

The song that was used in this interview is ‘The Air’ by Milo Firewater, which was provided by the Podshow Podsafe Music Network – at This has been Kylie Sturgess of the Skeptic Zone podcast, found at

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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