University of Calgary

Square Kilometre Array

Feb. 12, 2009

Unlocking the mysteries of the universe

Russ Taylor holds a paper model of a radio telescope similar to the ones to be used in the Square Kilometre Array project. / Pho

Russ Taylor holds a paper model of a radio telescope similar to the ones to be used in the Square Kilometre Array project. / Photo: Ken Bendiktsen
Imagine a telescope that can see back almost to the beginning of time. A telescope that is 50 times more powerful than any other, one that can scan the skies 10,000 times faster than ever before. A telescope that will lead to endless discoveries and help unravel some of the biggest mysteries of the universe.

The University of Calgary is the lead Canadian institution on a C$3-billion international project called the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). It will be the largest radio telescope ever built and will be used to study naturally occurring radio emissions from the edge of the universe to a distant time before stars and galaxies were formed.

Scientists and engineers from around the world are gathering in Banff, Alberta, this weekend for a special session on the SKA at a conference on radio sciences. Russ Taylor, head of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, is leading the Canadian planning on this unprecedented international project.

“SKA will help us understand the complete history of time,” says Taylor, who is the Chair of the Canadian SKA Consortium. “It will help us answer many of our fundamental questions concerning space. What happened after the big bang and before the stars formed? How are galaxies formed and how do they evolve? How do Earth-like planets form and the conditions for life arise? Are we alone in the universe? It will also bring up many more questions that we do not even know yet to ask.”

Radio telescopes can see much more than optical telescopes. Instead of gathering and focusing visible light like optical telescopes, they operate in the radio frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and use typically large, dish-shaped antennas, seeing a universe that is invisible to our eyes.

Leonid Belostotski examines one of the ultra-sensitive miniaturized radio amplifiers being developed at U of C for the SKA.

Leonid Belostotski examines one of the ultra-sensitive miniaturized radio amplifiers being developed at U of C for the SKA. / Photo: Ken Bendiktsen
Engineers at the U of C’s Schulich School of Engineering are designing key parts of the technology behind the SKA.  

Jim Haslett and Leonid Belostotski are working on the design for the receivers that will gather signals from deep space.

“This telescope will be so powerful it will require about 20 million receivers,” explains Belostotski, assistant professor at the Schulich School of Engineering and a leading expert in circuit design. “We think that by using state-of-the-art electronic technologies, we can keep costs under control. But the performance of today’s technologies is not good enough, so we are experimenting with various designs.”

Construction of the SKA is slated to begin in 2012-2013. The telescope will be made up of an array of tens of thousands of radio antenna receiving stations with a total area of one million square metres collecting radio waves from the universe. Starting from the centre of the telescope, receiving stations fan out in a spiral pin-wheel pattern extending to a distance of 3,000 kilometres.

The SKA must be located far from major centers of population in order to avoid interference from radio, TV, radar and other radio devices. Two locations that have made the shortlist are the Australian Outback and South Africa. The Canadian SKA program is led by the U of C and is a collaboration among institutions in 19 countries including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Several universities in Canada, including the U of C, have scientists who are planning to use the SKA. Scientists and engineers at the University of British Columbia, University of Victoria and McGill University are working with the University of Calgary on science planning and SKA technology. The University of Calgary is also working closely with the National Research Council of Canada through its Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Penticton, B.C.—a major partner in the Canadian SKA program.

One of the big challenges will be processing the scads of signals from deep space collected by the radio receivers and analyzing the data.

“In the most ambitious telescope concept, 500 terabytes—that’s 500 trillion bytes—of information will travel through the receivers per second,” says Jim Haslett, electrical engineering professor and researcher at the Schulich School of Engineering. “That’s enough to fill the hard drives of 500 personal computers each second. The size and scope of this telescope is phenomenal.”

A computer model of the SKA.
A computer model of the SKA.
In fact, the SKA will require so much energy that it will need its own power generating station.

Len Bruton, an expert in signal processing at the Schulich School of Engineering, is developing the complex signal enhancement algorithms that must be implemented in the SKA’s computers in order to filter out the signals of interest from high levels of noise. He says the immense size of the project presents huge engineering challenges.

“The collecting area of all of these telescopic dishes will be over one square kilometre, spread over a vast expanse of desert. Collecting the radio data from all of these dishes and intelligently processing it has never been attempted on this scale,” says Bruton.

Taylor says the SKA will be one of the largest science projects ever undertaken.

“The scale, complexity and scope are so large that it takes the cooperation of a world community to make it possible.  It is exciting that the University of Calgary is playing a strong, leading role in making this vision a reality.”

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