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Megascience! Plans Unveiled for World’s Biggest Telescope

SKA dishes by night

An artist's impression of the radio dishes that would make up the Square Kilometer Array, planned to be the world's biggest and most sensitive telescope and part of the quest for exterrestrial life..SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

Apparently, size does matters -- especially to scientists.

Plans were unveiled Sunday for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a $2.1 billion array of telescopes that will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world -- and may help understand such fundamental cosmic mysteries as dark energy and why the universe is the way it is.

Signals from individual radios that make up the massive array of antennas, which is planned to cover one square kilometer of South African or Australian soil, will be combined to form one giant telescope. A decision on its final location will be made in 2012.

“The power of this new telescope project is going to surpass anything we’ve seen before, enabling us to see many more radio-emitting stars and galaxies and pulling the curtains wide open on parts of the great beyond that radio astronomers like me have only ever dreamt of exploring," said Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, prominent radio astronomer and president of the Institute of Physics, in a statement on the new plans. 

"The Square Kilometer Array heralds in a post-Einstein era of physics that will help us take huge strides in our attempt to understand the most bizarre objects and the darkest ages of the Universe,” she said.

Australia, China, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, and the U.K. signed a letter of intent in Rome, Italy, declaring their ambition to see the SKA built. The U.K., through the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said it expects to invest about $24 million in the next phase of the SKA.

The SKA project will drive technology development in antennas, signal transport, signal processing, and software and computing, those involved said. The design, construction and operation of the SKA has the potential to impact skills development in science, engineering and in associated industries not only in the host countries but in all project partners.