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China science

China sets its sights on bigger role in development of world’s most powerful telescope

Beijing’s lead scientist on the Square Kilometre Array says that cooperation with joint host nation South Africa will be sped up

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 September, 2018, 1:32am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2018, 12:18pm

China is keen to play a bigger role in a multinational project to create the world’s largest radio telescope, which it is hoped will provide scientists with a greater understanding of the universe and clues to its origins.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is being developed as a collaborative project involving hundreds of scientists from around the world. Set to be developed in two stages, once completed it will feature about 3,000 massive dishes – located in dual sites in Australia and South Africa – and have a combined collecting area of more than a square kilometre.

China is one of 12 members of the SKA Organisation – which coordinates the project from its headquarters at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in northern England – and is leading the design and construction of many of the components for the South African array.

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Speaking at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing this week, Wu Xiangping, China’s lead scientist on the project, said his team was keen to stay at the forefront of the pioneering development.

“Once completed, the SKA telescope will be the largest and most advanced device in astronomy, leading research in the field for the next five decades,” he said.

While the first batch of 15-metre diameter antennas have already been positioned on site in the South African province of Northern Cape, there is much work still to be done.

“China will speed up its cooperation with South Africa over the next few years,” Wu said.

Of the 11 packages of tasks so far undertaken, China has been involved in six, including the low- and mid-frequency aperture arrays, and the “Science Data Processor”.

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Once fully operational – which is expected to be in 2024 – the SKA will be able to scan the sky 10,000 times faster than and with 50 times the sensitivity of any radio instrument on Earth. It will also produce images that exceed the resolution quality of both the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) radio telescope – built by China in 2016 – and the Hubble Space telescope, according to the consortium.

Despite China’s success with FAST, which is located in the mountainous southern province of Guizhou, Wu said earlier this year that it would soon be overshadowed.

“FAST will only be the leader in astronomy for 10 years,” he told a meeting of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in May.

But Chu Ming-chung, a cosmology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the SKA and FAST had different scientific targets.

“FAST is optimised to measure neutral hydrogen in the universe, while the SKA is sensitive to a larger range of frequencies,” he said.

The latter, he said, would be powerful enough to allow astronomers to observe the first stars and formation of structures in the universe.

“It will be able to measure signals of many pulsars – stars that emit regular pulses of electromagnetic waves – from different parts of the sky, which allows [astronomers] to detect indirectly the gravitational waves leftover from the Big Bang,” he said.

The first phase of the array project got under way in 2016 and phase two is set to start in 2023. As well as the dozen members of the SKA Organisation – namely Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands – several other non-member nations are involved in the massive project.