Square Kilometre Array Telescope construction begins in West Australian outback

Unparalleled access to the stars once only dreamed of by astronomers is set to become a reality, as construction of the Square Kilometre Array Telescope (SKA) officially begins.

Situated deep in the outback of Western Australia, more than 100,000 antennas will be built across 74 kilometres in the Murchison region on Wajarri country as part of the $3 billion project, involving 16 countries.

The structures are set to provide answers to some of humanity’s oldest and most enduring questions about our universe.

SKA low site construction director Antony Schinckel said the telescope was the first of its kind.

“There’s really nothing else like it in the world,” Dr Schinckel said.

“There are other radio telescopes, other optical telescopes [but] there’s nothing even comparable to this, the scale of this telescope in Australia.”

Dr Schinckel said the idea of building a massive telescope to further our understanding of the universe came about in the early 90s, and by 2003 the SKA project had begun.

“It became apparent that to look back into the earliest epoch of the universe’s evolution, just after the Big Bang, we simply needed a really big telescope,” he said.

Data to flow in four to five years
SKA low telescope director Sarah Pearce said planning the world’s biggest telescope had been three decades in the making.

“So, we expect to have bulldozers and the like on site early next year, it will take us until about 2028 to build the whole telescope,” Dr Pearce said.

She said scientists would start dissecting data at the halfway point of the build.

“We expect the first science results might come as soon as four or five years from now,” she said.

Dr Pearce said the SKA site would work in parallel with a project in South Africa that has 197 dishes. Combined, the two sites will create one of the biggest science facilities on Earth.

“The headquarters with a telescope is in the UK, we have another telescope being built in South Africa, which will be complementary,” she said.

Sixteen countries from around the world have invested their skills, money and resources into the project.

“Each of the countries is bringing their area of expertise, ” Dr Pearce said.

“The antennas are made in Italy, India will lead some of the software work, China is doing some of the signal and timing workflow telescope.

“This is really a world-class system, and the first time that Australia has really hosted one of these mega-science projects for the international community.”

CSIRO aboriginal liaison officer Leonie Boddington said the site had been given the traditional name, Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, which meant sharing sky and stars in Wajarri language.

“I’m really excited about it at the moment because you’ve got SKA coming here and adopted a Wajarri name, as well, that’s shown a bit of respect to us,” she said.

“It’s putting the Wajarri people on the map as well. You know, this is a worldwide international project that’s happening.”