December 2014 – January 2015

The Nation Reviewed

Star noise

By Michael Lucy
The world’s biggest radio telescope is under construction in Western Australia

At Boolardy Station, 300 kilometres north-east of Geraldton, on Wajarri Yamatji land in the remote West Australian shire of Murchison, scientists are slowly reconfiguring a patch of the Earth’s surface into a gigantic eye gazing outward. The site will hold half of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an arrangement of radio dishes and antennae that will form a telescope allowing humans to see further out into space and back in time than ever before.

Boolardy is a long way from anywhere: Murchison shire is the size of the Netherlands and at last census had a population of 114. The absence of radio noise makes it perfect for radio astronomy, which tunes in to the faintest of signals coming from the sky.

The first detected extraterrestrial radio signal was not initially recognised for what it was. In 1933, an American engineer working on transatlantic short-wave telephony noticed a staticky signal recurring at the same time each day. After ruling out sub-lunar alternatives and doing some calculations, he realised it was coming from the direction of the centre of the galaxy. He called it “star noise”.

Radio astronomy has come a long way since. One early success occurred in the 1950s, when astronomers discovered the spiral shape of the Milky Way by mapping signals emitted by free-floating hydrogen. In the 1990s, an international group of radio astronomers decided that it was time to go big: rather than using individual radio dishes, they would build an array of many that would act as a single telescope.

The SKA is the product of that initial idea. (The “Square Kilometre” in Square Kilometre Array refers to the approximate total collecting area of its hundreds of thousands of dishes and antennae.) The countries involved have changed, funding and people have come and gone, various memoranda of understanding have been signed and superseded, locations have been proposed and dismissed. Murchison and a sister site in South Africa were chosen in 2012.

On a grey, gull-filled Monday at the end of this past September, 300 radio-astronomy engineers from around the world converged on the Esplanade Hotel in Fremantle, 600 kilometres south of Boolardy. In June, the SKA science teams had held a conference in Sicily to hash out the exact dimensions of what they wanted from the project, and now it was time for the engineers to work through the nitty-gritty of turning scientific dreams into reality: schematics, blueprints, logistics, procurement, costings and committees, endless committees. The purpose of the week-long meeting was twofold: first, to keep all the many teams up to date with one another’s parts of the project; and second, to engage in the unpopular process of “re-baselining”, or adjusting the engineers’ proposals to fit the constraints of a budget.

Brian Boyle, the tall Scottish-born astrophysicist in charge of the Australian SKA effort, launched proceedings in the hotel’s conference room by welcoming WA premier Colin Barnett and various dignitaries, and expressing the hope that the SKA will “embed itself in global consciousness”. The engineers in the audience – mainly men, mainly older – seemed more focused on mundane matters. Many had laptops out, sending emails or surfing the web, a few even coding.

The scale and complexity of this globe-spanning undertaking are considerable. In Murchison, several thousand radio dishes, each 15 metres wide and 3 storeys high, will be laid out in a spiralling pattern almost 100 kilometres across, and a quarter of a million head-tall antennae will be planted nearby. A similar set-up will be created in the desert Karoo region of South Africa. Eventually, if all goes to plan, further dishes may be added elsewhere in Africa, Australia, even New Zealand.

Data from the dishes and antennae will allow SKA to see the universe faster, in greater detail and over a greater range of frequencies than any previous telescope. Both sites will require vast data pipelines to manage the sheer quantity of information that will pour out (estimated to be in the range of petabits per second – more than the entire world’s current internet traffic) as well as formidable supercomputing resources to filter and comprehend the flow. Head office will be at Jodrell Bank in Manchester, and astronomers from around the world will use the results. The design work has been divvied up among 11 consortia: one working on the dish design, for instance, another on infrastructure like roads and power, a third on the central signal processor and so on.

The sharp and good-humoured Phil Diamond, an English astrophysicist and director-general of the SKA organisation, gave an update on the state of affairs. Construction of the SKA has been planned in several stages. The earliest – relating to the construction of prototype, or “precursor” and “pathfinder”, telescopes – were completed years ago, and the construction of the official Phase I is set to begin in 2018. It will take five years, with a budget of €650 million.

Earlier this year, the 11 design consortia submitted their costed proposals for their pieces of the puzzle. “You may have heard a rumour,” Diamond said, “that these costs came in at €1.8 billion.” A wave of nervous laughter ran through the crowd. “Well, I can confirm that this is true.” A lot of disappointed exhalations.

Diamond tried to allay concerns about the “re-baselining” that would be required to cut that €1.8 billion by two-thirds, though the mood in the room didn’t appear to improve. He asked for questions, but no one had any.

After a break for coffee and generic conference pastries, proceedings resumed with an efficient briefing from SKA’s deputy director-general, Alistair McPherson, a former British Army officer who has brought a military approach to logistics. Military contractors are also involved, from the multinational arms manufacturer Raytheon to the South African radar firm Reutech. McPherson discussed the three types of complexity SKA faces: scientific, technical and political. He spoke as if the political challenges of shoring up multilateral treaties and securing ongoing funding from a dozen or more sovereign states were just more obstacles to be Gantt-charted around.

Like military projects such as the Joint Strike Fighter, or Australia’s next naval submarines, the SKA is a long-term proposition that will try to carve itself out a niche of regulatory and financial protection strong enough to survive any foreseeable changes of government. In a political environment as volatile and subject to sudden reversals as our own, this technocratic approach has its appeal. Who else is 20 years in on a project that’s planned to last another 50? Who else is even planning 50 years ahead?

It’s profoundly undemocratic, of course, as McPherson made clear: “Decisions need to be made by the competent people … It’s not a democracy.” This met with some disgruntled murmurs from the audience.

The rest of the day was taken up with reports on governance, on developments at the Australian and South African sites, on the latest scientific goals. It was by turns fascinating and wildly boring, as strangers talking shop can sometimes be. One presenter played The Rolling Stones’s ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ as the finale of his talk, while the lyrics popped up karaoke-style on the big projector screen.

The next day, as speaker after speaker zoomed in on different parts of the project in ever-finer detail, Brian Boyle and Phil Diamond took a few minutes in the hotel bar to talk about what it’s all for.

“We’re designing it for probably three key areas,” said Diamond. “One is to study hydrogen, all the way back to the early part of the universe. We can watch how galaxies evolved, using hydrogen as a tracer. We’ll be able to survey ultimately a billion galaxies across the sky.”

Radio astronomers love hydrogen, the lightest and most abundant of the elements. It emits radio waves at a distinctive frequency around 1420 megahertz, and it’s everywhere. The sun is three-quarters hydrogen by mass, our bodies around 10%. What little stuff there is in the space between the stars is mostly hydrogen. At one stage the proposed SKA was simply called “the hydrogen telescope”.

“Gravity is another area,” Diamond went on. “Pulsars are some of the most accurate clocks in the universe.” (A pulsar is a collapsed star that emits a sweeping beam of radiation, lighthouse-style.) “If we have a network [of pulsars with known rotational speeds] across the sky, we could watch the passage of gravitational waves.”

“The SKA is an information machine” was Boyle’s take. “It’s going to have between 100 and 10,000 times the information-gathering power of any other radio telescope on the planet. It’s going to discover new stuff out there, but it’s also going to push the boundaries of technology. Wind forward 30 years, you know, when they’ll be doing the orations at our funerals or whatever.”

Diamond chuckled. “Some bright young spark will find something in that data,” he said. “We don’t know what.”

Diamond never did come back to what the third key area was, but he seemed confident that most important discoveries would be what Boyle calls “the Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns”. The SKA website lists some other things the telescope will be looking for: the origin of the huge magnetic fields that permeate space, the details of the formation of the first stars. And also, as the kind of afterthought that might be popular with the public and funding bodies, evidence of life elsewhere.

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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