University of Calgary

World's largest telescope

U of C guides plans for world’s largest telescope

By Alana Mikkelsen

International experts have narrowed their choice of locations for the largest telescope ever to be built, and University of Calgary scientists are playing a key role in plans to study the universe in the greatest detail ever.

The revolutionary Square Kilometre Array (SKA)—a grid of radio telescopes with a reflective surface of one square kilometre—will be 50 times more sensitive than any imaging radio telescope array ever built, able to survey the sky 10,000 times faster, observe farther back in time and over a larger volume of space.

Australia and South Africa have been short-listed to host the SKA and radio astronomer Dr. Russ Taylor, head of U of C’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, is one of two Canadians on the selection committee.

Key technologies for the telescope are also being developed at the U of C, including ultra-sensitive miniaturized radio amplifiers in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Radio telescopes—which look like satellite dishes—pick up faint, low-frequency cosmic radio waves. In the past, devices that collect these radio waves have been cryogenically cooled. But such an approach is “expensive and not practical for the SKA because there will be millions of these amplifiers,” says Dr. Jim Haslett, professor of electrical and computer engineering. Graduate student Leonid Belostotski is working on a design that circumvents those barriers.

The SKA’s central collecting area will be the size of about 200 soccer fields, but a surrounding grid of radio antennae will extend thousands of kilometres from the central point, most likely beyond the host country.

Just how this grid will function is currently being developed, but scientists like Taylor are running tests that will help determine the best design. One of his projects is to build three-dimensional images of the Milky Way galaxy in preparation for larger maps that will be produced by the SKA.

An image from this project was recently pronounced the year’s best radio astronomy picture in an international competition.

Construction of the SKA is predicted to begin in 2014, at a cost of more than $1 billion. The final site is expected to be chosen toward the end of this decade.