Construction starts in Australia on the world's largest radio telescope

The Square Kilometer Array will help study dark energy and the early universe.

Artist's depiction of the SKA-Low radio telescope's antenna 'trees.' (Australia Department of Industry, Science and Resources)

Astronomers are now closer to a major technological upgrade. Australia has started construction of its portion of the Square Kilometer Array, a system that should become the world's largest radio telescope. The Australian portion, SKA-Low, will revolve around 131,072 antenna "trees" in the country's western Wajarri country. As the name implies, the array will focus on low-frequency signals. The Guardian notes it's expected to be eight times more sensitive than existing telescopes, and map the cosmos about 135 times faster.

A counterpart with 197 conventional radio dishes, SKA-Mid, is coming to Meerkat National Park in South Africa's dry, unpopulated Karoo region. That element will study mid-range frequencies. The Australian segment is a joint effort between the dedicated SKA Organization and the country's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO).

The combined array, originally envisioned in 1991, is expected to transform radio astronomy. It will mainly be helpful for studying the early universe, and might provide new insights into the formation of the first stars during the reionization period. However, it should also help investigate dark energy and its potential effect on cosmic expansion. The extreme sensitivity may even be useful in the search for extraterrestrial life, although the resolution will limit the most detailed searches to relatively close stars. Director Dr. Sarah Pierce told The Guardian the telescopes could spot an airport radar on a planet "tens of light-years away."

Work on the Square Kilometer Array isn't expected to finish until 2028, and it will take some time after that for scientists to collect and decipher results. As with the James Webb Space Telescope, though, the lengthy wait is expected to pay dividends. This is a generational shift that could provide new insights into the universe, not just more detail — Pearce expects SKA to shape the "next fifty years" of radio astronomy.