It’s an interesting thing in astronomy that we tend to have a number of sub-communities, and those sub-communities don’t tend to interract that much. One thing that happens to a fair amount of people is to end up working exclusively in one wavelength range. Radio frequency, submillimetre, infrared, optical, ultraviolet, x-ray… As a result, I’m rather naive to radio astronomy. This made things all the more interesting when I got a message on Saturday evening asking if I’d like to attend a meeting on the Square Kilometre Array.
All in all, I’m rather glad I decided to say yes and agreed to attend. Now, I’ll freely admit that I’m a radio astronomy n00b*. So it had managed to escape my attention precisely how big the SKA project is. This is a huge, global effort and when completed, it’s set to be quite simply awesome. I mean that in the truest sense of the word. The plan is to ultimately have a radio interferometer with a radius of up to 3000 km. That’s around 7.5% of the circumference of the Earth! The conference then, as you’d expect, was filled with scientists and engineers from all across the world. The SKA is a long term global effort, and it’s really lovely to see how things like this can bring people together. Amongst all of the interesting science that the SKA will be able to do, there are 5 primary scientific objectives to study: gravitation, galaxy formation and evolution, cosmology and the dark ages of the Universe, astrobiology and origins of life, and cosmic magnetism. Simply, the SKA is going to help us explore the deep unknown recesses of the Universe. And that’s pretty damn exciting!
The entire array is going to take decades to build, and in the meantime, a number of “pathfinder” projects are busy developing all of the technology that it’ll end up using (and doing some excellent science in the process!). Of particular interest to radio wannabes like me, was a talk regarding the EVLA — the Extended Very Large Array, a planned expansion to the VLA in New Mexico. I guess the name “Very Large Array” seems a bit ironic now. But I digress. Interestingly, the EVLA is set to provide support for non-radio astronomers wishing to use it. This could be extremely helpful!
To get some idea of the scale of this thing, here’s a video** which was shown at the conference. The magnitude of it can’t fail to impress!
*And I should really say a huge thank you to Nicole for letting me e-mail her with random dumb questions in the past!
**Feel free to insert your own “video killed the radio star” joke, if you wish.