Dishing up the goods: Square Kilometre Array moves out of the theoretical and into the contractual

Plus: Australian telescope precursor finds weird waves in the middle of the galaxy


The governments of South Africa and Australia have signed agreements formalizing the construction and operation of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) telescopes by the Observatory's governing body.

The intergovernmental radio (and world's biggest) telescope will survey the sky over ten thousand times faster than has ever been done before, in the hopes of understanding the universe's biggest secrets.

It will use around 3,000 15-metre dishes, plus hundreds of thousands of low-frequency aperture array telescopes, for a total of over 130,000 antennas. With what is expected to be 130 petabytes of data produced a year, it will also require a powerful HPC engine.

The project was conceptualized over 30 years ago and now has over a decade of engineering design work under its belt. In February of this year, the council required to make the one square kilometre tech into a reality was finally established, so it seems about time for things to charge forward for the $1.5bn telescope, even if it's just to sign contracts.

The two documents penned last week establish rights and responsibilities of each party regarding sites, assets, and necessary yet to be built infrastructure, as well as each government's obligation to provide radio frequency interference protection for the instruments and other matters.

The SKAO will have operations at four separate facilities in each country. They will include a remotely located telescope array, an Engineering Operations Centre, a Science Operations Centre, and a Science Processing Centre for the supercomputer handling the country's incoming data which will then be shifted off to the various member countries' astro-boffins. There will also be a number of SKA regional centres for the scientists to tinker around in.

South Africa and Australia were chosen for wide-open spaces, but also because their positions in the southern hemisphere provide the best view of the Milky Way with the least radio interference, an ever-growing concern since the telescope's conception.

Meanwhile data on SKA-precursor, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and its 36 parabolic antennas at Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia, was published in peer-reviewed The Astrophysical Journal on October 12. Turns out the telescope detected some unusual radio wave signals six times in the first nine months of 2020.

The global group of researchers who studied the signals said they are coming from somewhere in the direction of the center of our Milky Way galaxy and might be from a new stellar object, as they don't fit any known radio emission pattern. The "object's" presence was picked up by ASKAP six times in the first nine months of 2020.

Several things making these radio signals different are the brightness of the object, which not only varies, but also switches on and off at what appears to be random intervals.

The signal is also highly polarized and oscillates, meaning its light oscillates in only one direction, and that direction rotates.

The boffins at one point lost the signal and another radio telescope, the MeerKAT in South Africa (which will be incorporated into the SKA-Mid array one day), found it again, but this time it was acting differently.

Before anyone queues up the 1997 movie Contact, we might just have some cosmic indigestion on our hands.

"The information we do have has some parallels with another emerging class of mysterious objects known as galactic center radio transients (GCRTs), including one dubbed the 'cosmic burper'," co-author and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor of physics David Kaplan told the university news outlet.

And while for now it's all still very much a mystery, there's hope that the completion of the SKA telescopes and corresponding supercomputers will provide definitive answers to these types of questions in the future. ®

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