Under the joint hosting arrangements, Australia will host the SKA’s low frequency aperture array antennas.
In 2012 the SKA Organisation made the announcement that the telescope would be co-hosted between South Africa and Australia, with Australia hosting a critical component of the final SKA, but also the cutting edge research which would lead up to it.
Low frequency aperture arrays
Australia will initially host more than 130,000 SKA antennas (each about 2 metres in height) covering low frequency radio waves, with an ultimate goal of expanding this up to a million antennas.
This array will conduct research into one of the most interesting periods of the Universe, looking back to the first billion years of the Universe to look at the formation of the first stars and galaxies, providing valuable insight into dark matter and dark energy and the evolution of the Universe.
It will provide an increased capability over existing infrastructure at the same frequencies, providing 25% better resolution and being 8 times more sensitive than LOFAR, the current best such instrument. Moreover, it will be able to scan the sky 135 times faster.
The sheer amount of raw data produced by all these antennas will be equivalent to five times the internet traffic.
SKA precursor telescopes
The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, or ASKAP, is CSIRO’s (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) radio telescope currently being commissioned at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia.
Another important precursor for the SKA located in that region is the MWA (Murchison Widefield Array) which is providing important input in to the design and science goals which the low frequency aperture arrays will be undertaking.
The Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP)
Australia’s existing 36-dish ASKAP telescope is conducting groundbreaking research into new promising technologies for the SKA. The telescope has been designed and built by Australia’s CSIRO in collaboration with leading overseas astronomers and engineers.
Equipped with phased array feed (PAF) technology, it will be able to survey large areas of the sky in great detail.
The phased array feed (PAF) for ASKAP provides the antenna with a wide field-of-view (FoV) by creating 30 separate (simultaneous) beams to give a FoV of 30 square degrees (The width of your little finger at arms length is around 1 degree), speeding up survey time quite considerably.
In addition to being a world-leading telescope in its own right, ASKAP is an important technology demonstrator for the SKA. ASKAP’s home, the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory site will be the central site for major components of SKA telescope infrastructure in Australia.
The Australian Government has committed funding of AUD $111 million to the Australian SKA Pathfinder.
To help meet the scientific, technical and budgetary goals of the international SKA, the ASKAP telescope will develop and trial highly innovative new technologies on timescales consistent with the overall international SKA plan. ASKAP comprises 36 twelve metre dish antennas, each of which will be equipped with a multi-element receiver, or phased array feed, to enable unprecedented surveys of the sky.
The ASKAP project is currently in an intense phase of technology development. All areas are at the cutting-edge of technology and scientists and engineers from the CSIRO are achieving significant breakthroughs in the design and construction of revolutionary new radio feed technologies which will be vital to the SKA.
The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA)
The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) seen in the image above, is a low-frequency radio telescope operating between 80 and 300 MHz. Already delivering first class science, it is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia and is one of three telescopes designated as a Precursor for the SKA. The MWA has been developed by an international collaboration, including partners from Australia, India, New Zealand, and the United States. It became fully operational in 2013. Whilst a precursor to the SKA it won’t be integrated in to the final SKA telescope, and will continue to work as an independent resource in its own right.
The MWA will perform large surveys of the entire Southern Hemisphere sky and acquire deep observations on targeted regions. It will enable astronomers to pursue four key science objectives. The primary endeavour is the hunt for intergalactic hydrogen gas that surrounded early galaxies during the cosmological epoch of reionization. The MWA will also provide new insights into our Milky Way galaxy and its magnetic field, pulsing and exploding stellar objects, and the science of space weather that connects our Sun to the environment here on Earth.
The Murchison region where the ASKAP and SKA telescopes will eventually be located, are traditional lands of the Wajarri Yamatji People, who signed an indigenous land use agreement, which protects the Aboriginal people’s cultural heritage. The agreement also brought significant benefits in terms of education and infrastructure to the local peoples in what is one of the most sparsely populated regions on Earth.