Australia's deserts will soon hold hundreds of radio dishes, forming part of a global radio telescope designed to listen for signals from the start of the universe: The Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
When completed, the ambitious project will be the world's single largest piece of astronomical equipment, stretching across multiple countries and being assembled from thousands of individual radio dishes.
The project will involve researchers from across the world including China, Australia, Britain and parts of Europe. Each of the dishes will be 21 metres tall, with a prototype of the dish design recently unveiled at a test site in Shijiazhuang, China. The project will also erect another prototype at the South African site by April of 2018.
Three antenna concepts were devised for consideration by experts and the China-led design, a dual-offset Gregorian reflector antenna, was chosen by panelists at a meeting in November 2015. It has a height of 21 meters, a weight of 42 metric tons and a service life of 50 years, and features a high level of sensitivity, accuracy and reliability. It is also lightweight and "not prohibitively costly".
"It's great to actually see metal being deployed," says Phil Diamond, director-general of the SKA Organisation, based in Manchester, UK. "This is the culmination of a 5-year design program."
CSIRO’s director of astronomy and space science, Douglas Bock, says Chinese and Australian scientists collaborated on the light and affordable dish design.
“In radio astronomy, we have been working with China since before we had diplomatic relations,” said Bock.
“We open our telescopes in Australia to scientists from around the world because that is how we get the best brains from around the world for free, to combine with our telescopes and our minds, to broaden our knowledge and our networks,” he said.
Once deployed, the radio telescope will hopefully help to answer questions about how galaxies, stars, and black holes formed, in addition to informing on the existence of dark matter.