A remote place in South Africa contributes to the pioneering science of the universe
Ellen van Gelder
Ellen van Gelder
It seems almost unthinkable: a mega telescope capable of picking up signals just after the big bang that are still floating around the universe and converting them into photos. Nevertheless, scientists believe that it will soon be possible: this week, the green light was given for the construction of the largest radio telescope in the world: the Square Kilometer Array, or SKA telescope.
The telescope will map parts of the universe we’ve never seen before. It is an international mega-project worth two billion dollars, in which the Netherlands is also investing.
The telescope is built in two locations, in Western Australia and South Africa. In the latter country, an existing radio telescope of 63 dishes will be extended to 197 dishes and in Australia, more than 130,000 antennas will be placed where a predecessor already is. All measures will soon be grouped together.
Tracey Cheetham, SKA’s Infrastructure Manager in South Africa, gave a very exceptional site visit to the site where construction will take place in South Africa this week. A visit is rarely possible, because the MeerKAT telescope that is already there is extremely sensitive.
This is why the telescope is located in one of the quietest places in the world, in the vast desert region of the Karoo, in a place where there is no mobile coverage. However, all phones and smartwatches must be turned off before entering the pitch. Because Bluetooth can also disturb the measurements.
“This telescope listens to the universe,” says Cheetham, responsible for building the megatelescope in South Africa. “All stars and galaxies emit radio waves, which are received by the dishes and digitized. And then we can make images of them, a photo of space. And the more dishes there are, the more we can, for so to speak, catch.”
The telescope is to become fifty times more sensitive than our current telescopes and will soon be able to not only take sharper pictures, but also look farther. “Like what happened after the big bang when we went from dark to light. It’s amazing, but those radio waves are still on their way to us. We’re also hoping to learn more about the formation of stars and galaxies.”
South Africa is happy with the mega project. First of all, it is now giving contracts for the construction of roads and gigantic fiber optic networks, which are being built to handle all the data in the future.
“It’s not just a big science project, it’s also a huge data project,” Cheetham says. “All the information will soon be transferred from the dishes to a gigantic data center in Cape Town. It will then be sent to supercomputers in various other places around the world. The fiber optic cables we lay for the SKA telescope can go around our globe twice.”
The information will soon also be sent to a scientific data center in the Netherlands. As a partner country, the Netherlands hopes to be at the forefront of groundbreaking research. “We already have the computers here to process data from our own Lofar radio telescope,” says Frank Nuijens of Astron, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy. We will extend it to handle SKA data.”
According to Nuijens, it can produce scientific research that can win you Nobel Prizes. “Like when the lights went on in the universe. We will also challenge Einstein’s general theory of relativity and investigate extraterrestrial life.”
For Richard Robyn in his early twenties, such a Nobel Prize is still far from my bed, but he is already reaping the rewards of initiative. He works at a training center near the village of Carnarvon, 85 km from the telescope. In this training center, young South Africans are trained to become electricians, essential for the maintenance of the telescope.
Robyn is tinkering in a classroom and trying to find a fault in an electrical panel. “Here in the countryside there is hardly any work,” he says. “I now have the chance to learn and support my family. I hope to be able to work at the telescope, I like to stay close to my village, but if not, I can use my knowledge elsewhere.”
Scientists expect the telescope to produce the first observations in four years, which will add to current knowledge.
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