Giant radio telescope scaled back to contain costs

Jul 25, 2017

By Sarah Wild

Designs for the world’s largest radio telescope have been scaled back to save money — a decision that astronomers say could affect its ability to peer deep into the Universe’s past.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a telescope 50 times more sensitive than current instruments, is expected to cost billions of dollars. Its final design calls for around 2,000 radio dishes in Africa, together with up to one million antennas in Australia, that will have a total light-collecting area of roughly 1 square kilometre — hence the project’s name.

But the first phase of construction, called SKA1, is a more modest affair. Already slimmed down from a larger design proposed in 2013, it now comprises 194 dishes in South Africa and around 130,000 antennas in Australia. In March, the SKA’s board said that the project would have to find further cuts of around 20% so that it could be built within a €674 million (US$785 million) cap imposed by the project’s ten funders — Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. And at a meeting in the Netherlands on 18–19 July the board decided to make the savings by, among other measures, scaling back SKA1’s computing power and crowding its antennas and radio dishes closer together.

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