SKA ‘will be an astronomy game-changer’

24 February 2014

The who’s who of global radio astronomy gathered in Stellenbosch, South Africa last week to discuss the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the impact it is expected to have on the future of science.

According the SKA South Africa, the meeting was characterised by “electrifying expectations” and “impatient excitement” on the part of scientists who are keen to see the long-awaited SKA and its precursors, South Africa’s MeerKAT and Australia’s ASKAP, become a reality.

The SKA project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, which is to be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia. The 64-dish MeerKAT is due to come online in 2016 as one of the most powerful telescopes in the world in its own right.

The more than 160 delegates at last week’s conference included high-level delegations from China, South Korea, the UK, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Argentina, Australia and the US.

‘Global buzz’ around the SKA’

“There is a global buzz about doing cutting-edge science with the SKA, and the project is already attracting some of the world’s foremost scientific talent to South Africa,” SKA South Africa project director Dr Bernie Fanaroff said in a statement on Friday.

At the opening session of the conference, Professor Philip Diamond, the director-general of the international SKA Organisation, emphasised the fact that the SKA would be a global observatory and not an experiment.

Astrophysicist Professor Katherine Blundell from the University of Oxford in the UK described the SKA as “an amazing science discovery machine … With the SKA we will be able to see fuller, reach deeper and understand better. It will literally expand our horizons and give us a much clearer picture of how the Universe came to be what it is today.”

Professor Michael Kramer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, was thrilled about the future possibilities of the SKA. “I can’t wait to get my hands on SKA data,” he said.

‘Before and after the SKA’

“There will be a clear distinction in radio astronomy research between before and after the SKA,” Kramer added. “All the radio astronomy research done up to now will be a prelude compared to what will be possible in future.”

When asked about why the SKA is seen as an instrument that will transform radio astronomy, scientists talk about its sheer size, exceptional sensitivity, wide frequency range and unique flexibility. It is described as a “one of a kind” instrument that has the power to unite the global radio astronomy community to work towards common science goals for several decades.

“The SKA will also achieve lots of synergies with other telescopes across all electromagnetic frequencies, ranging from optical telescopes to new, high-energy telescopes on Earth and in space, as well as with gravitational wave predictors,” Kramer said. “We are lucky to live in a time when all these instruments will be working together to give us new windows on the universe.”

Among those at the meeting was Professor Pierre Cox, director of the ALMA radio telescope in Chile. ALMA operates at very high radio frequencies and will have important synergies with South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope and the SKA.

Huge opportunities for young scientists

Experts at the meeting agreed that the SKA presents huge opportunities for young men and women in Africa to be the engineers, computer scientists and astrophysicists that will make the technology happen and produce the transformational science outcomes that will only be possible with the SKA.

A special session at the conference focused on making the science of radio astronomy accessible to learners, including a group of children from the primary and secondary school in Carnarvon. Top scientists took on the challenge to present their research to these young people in small groups and to answer all their questions about astronomy and the Universe.

Another highlight of the week was a public talk by Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, famous for her role in the discovery of the first radio pulsars. She launched the audience into a world of unimaginable extremes with her talk about pulsars and fast radio bursts.

“The SKA will not only enable astronomers to see ten times as many pulsars as is currently possible, but will also bring about new and unexpected discoveries,” Burnell said. “South Africa is going to be a very special place in the near future of radio.”

The meeting concluded on Friday with a summary of the week’s discussions by Professor Roger Blandford from Stanford University, who convened the United States’ 2010 Decadal Review of priority astronomy projects.

Square Kilometre Array South Africa and SAinfo reporter