Unlike visible light, radio waves can reveal phenomena like hydrogen ionized in the early days of the universe, pulsars orbiting black holes, and maybe even alien signals. But detecting those long, frail frequencies requires a monstrous instrument, and dish antennas top out around 1,600 feet in diameter. So engineers build sprawling arrays to simulate much bigger telescopes. When complete, SKA will be 1,800 miles wide, and it'll see 50 times as much detail as the Hubble Space Telescope and record electromagnetic radiation up to a quadrillion times weaker than what your cell phone emits.
“In just very general terms, this makes a ton of sense,” said James Cordes , an astrophysicist at Cornell University, adding that while further details still need to be worked out, “I would say it’s a good horse to bet on.” What the astronomers really like, though, is that Metzger’s theory generates very specific predictions for what future FRBs should look like, predictions that will soon be put to make-or-break tests.
SKA was dreamed up over beers at a conference in 1990. Some 1,500 engineers have worked on it since. But it took until 2011 to form the 13-country consortium that'll fund the project and share its data. Collaboration, says director-general Philip Diamond, is SKA's biggest challenge. “I sometimes spend more time being a diplomat and firefighter than a scientist.” The first phase of construction, expected to end in 2027 and cost nearly $1 billion, will erect 133 dishes. On each, incoming waves will bounce off the reflector to a 16-foot subreflector that focuses them onto receivers. Each second, 8.8 terabytes of data will fly down fiber-optic lines to a main supercomputer. The timeline for phase 2? “It's something for my successor to pursue,” Diamond says.
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