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China plays key role in birth of supersensitive radio telescope

Zhang Zhihao
Updated: May 30,2018 8:46 AM     China Daily

China is helping to build the world’s largest and most advanced next-generation radio telescope that can probe the “dawn of the universe” with unprecedented detail and efficiency, the project’s chief Chinese scientist said on May 29.

The project is called Square Kilometer Array, or SKA, an international mega scientific endeavor with 10 cornerstone member states and several partner countries. It is China’s second-largest international science collaboration after the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, the world’s largest nuclear fusion experiment.

SKA is an interconnected network of more than 1.3 million antennas — including 250 antenna stations, each with a 60-meter-diameter dish and 2,500 reflector antennas each with a 15-meter-diameter dish.

The total collecting surface area of all the antennas will add up to 1 square kilometer, the equivalent of 140 soccer fields.

Most of the array will be in western Australia and South Africa. Eight other African nations including Botswana, Ghana and Kenya will also house some of the system’s components.

“Only China has the industrial capability to ensure the quality and speed of manufacturing and installation of SKA’s reflector antennas,” said Wu Xiangping, chief scientist for China’s involvement in the project. China unveiled the prototype for one of the reflector antennas in February.

“It is a great opportunity to showcase China’s manufacturing prowess in scientific equipment, and will greatly improve China’s overall tech manufacturing industries through global exchanges,” Wu said.

SKA’s first prototype station consisting of 256 antennas was completed in Australia on May 25.

The first phase of the construction, which includes around 10 percent of the total installations, will begin in 2019 and be finished in five years, Wu said.

The rest of the facilities will be finished around 2030 in the second phase. Upon completion, SKA will be the largest and most advanced astronomy equipment assembled to date.

The full array will produce data at a rate more than 100 times the global internet traffic, and the central computer will need the processing power of about 100 million personal computers, he added.

SKA will have 50 times the sensitivity and 10,000 times the survey speed of the best current-day telescopes — the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico in the United States, according to the SKA Organization, which is headquartered in the United Kingdom.

“SKA is so sensitive that it will be able to pick up conversations from an airplane 50 light years away,” Wu said. The instrument will also help discover alien life-forms, as well as planets suitable for colonization proximate to Earth.

SKA will help to make many Nobel Prize-worthy discoveries, such as the formation of the first stars, first light of the universe and basic properties of dark matter and dark energy, which are two of the greatest scientific mysteries of this century, Wu said.

SKA will be capable of discovering nearly every pulsar in the Milky Way galaxy, Wu said. Since 1967, scientists have discovered around 2,600 pulsars, but the galaxy is estimated to have around 40,000 of them.

Pulsars are superdense, superbright rotating remnants of massive stars that eject beams of powerful electromagnetic radiation from their poles.

Scientists can use the light and other properties from pulsars to study gravitational waves and black holes, where gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape.

“SKA will anchor radio astronomy research for the next 50 years,” Wu said. “China has demonstrated its responsibility as a big nation, as well as a strong drive for reaching major scientific goals.

“Joining the SKA will be a milestone in China’s development of astronomy, and we are confident that China will play a big role in the project and shoulder the duty of exploring the unknown universe.”