Australia Completes Powerful New Radio Telescope

Ready for action. The new Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder has 36 antennas, each 12 meters in diameter.

CSIRO Australia/Terrace Photographers

Australia today marked the completion of what it bills as the most powerful radio survey telescope in the world. The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) will give astronomers an unprecedented look at black holes, the gas clouds from which stars form, and "exotic objects that push the boundaries of our knowledge of the physical laws in the universe," says astrophysicist Brian Boyle, of Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

ASKAP, built at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia, comprises 36 antennas, each 12 meters in diameter. Boyle says that with its wide field of view and high-speed data acquisition, the array can capture views of galaxies in two images and 5 minutes of observing time that previously took 400 images and 2 years to assemble. ASKAP is "many orders of magnitude" more efficient in making observations, he says. And it will be available to the global community; 350 scientists from 150 institutions around the world will be participating in the observational programs planned for the array's first 5 years of operation. The agenda includes a census of galaxies within 2 billion light-years of Earth, studies of cosmic magnetic fields, searches for black holes, and looks at pulsars and quasars.

Beginning in 2016, an additional 60 dishes will be erected as ASKAP is expanded to become part of what will be the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope—the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). SKA will consist of two arrays, one collecting high-frequency signals to be built in southern Africa, and an array for low frequencies in Australia/New Zealand. "ASKAP is a really important scientific project in its own right but it will be more important when it is part of the SKA, which will be one of the most important scientific projects of the 21st century," says Chris Evans, Australia's minister for science.

The cost of the antennas, a supercomputer to crunch the data, and fiber-optic links and other infrastructure totals about $400 million. Boyle says scientific observations will start by the end of the year with the first results likely within 12 months.