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World’s largest telescope to detect threats from outer space

Square Kilometer Array

An artist's interpretation of the Square-Kilometer Array, a huge radio telescope currently under development in Australia. (SPDP/Swinburne Astronomy Productions)

If there are space invaders out there, it won’t be long before they can no longer stage a sneak attack, thanks to a project to build the most sensitive radio telescope ever -- one that’s the size of a continent.

Known as The Square Kilometer Array (SKA), it will explore the universe, identify any potential alien threats to our planet and hopefully answer some fundamental questions from astronomers. Its thousands of receptors, spaced roughly one kilometer apart, will be linked across an entire continent.

They’ll be arranged in five spiral arms like a galaxy, 3,000 50-foot-wide dishes that extend out from a central core at least 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) -- about the distance from New York City to Albuquerque, N.M.

The board of directors behind the telescope met for the first time in late January to kick off the project. Their first decision: where to house such a beast. After all, if it’s located in Australia, the antennas could span the entire continent. If it’s in South Africa, another location being considered, they would stretch to the Indian Ocean islands.

Optical telescopes can reveal only so much of the universe. The SKA’s radio telescopes, on the other hand, pick up radio-frequency signals unobscured by, say, cosmic dust. They will survey the sky 10,000 times faster than any other telescope and with 50 times the sensitivity and 100 times the survey speed of current imaging instruments.

Among the SKA’s missions: finding an answer to the question, “Are we alone?”

From a defense perspective, that’s a coy way of asking whether there are aliens out there with the capacity and appetite to attack us.

The SKA will be able to detect very weak extraterrestrial signals and search for complex molecules, the building blocks of life. Many new planets outside our solar system have been discovered in recent years, but it’s not clear whether they host life.

The search for extraterrestrial transmission has been underway for a long time, but the SKA’s sensitivity will provide a key advantage.

For the first time, it will even be possible to detect the relatively weak signals of televisions and radars from nearby stars. Spying such an artificial transmission from a planet around a star would be a pretty good clue that we’re not in this by ourselves.

The SKA will also look at how galaxies evolve and investigate the nature of dark energy. By mapping out the cosmic distribution of hydrogen, it will study the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang. Such a map will also allow researchers to track young galaxies.

How were stars born and black holes formed? The SKA will study the very first ones, as well as stars and galaxies that shaped the development of the universe. It will even be able to detect black holes forming during the Dark Ages.

SKA will also take on Einstein. The board of directors speculate that it may challenge the theory of general relativity and probe the nature of gravity.

Initial construction is due in 2016, and the SKA is expected to be fully operational by 2024. By 2019, well before the full array is completed, the team expects some exciting science results will be achievable.

All that science won’t come cheap, of course. The SKA is expected to cost approximately $2.36 billion.

But those bucks buy an awful lot of power: The SKA’s central computer will have the processing power of approximately 1 billion PCs, and it will produce enough raw data to fill 15 million 64GB iPods every day. The SKA dishes will produce 10 times as much data the world’s Internet traffic.

In fact, one of the largest design challenges was how to relay the huge amount of data across such large distances.

The solution: Enough optical fiber to wrap twice around the Earth -- and take the Earth’s defense to an entirely different scale. 

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