Giant radio telescope gets funding boost from UK

Britain today pledged funding of £119 million towards a telescope so powerful it will be able to tune in to alien TV. The observatory, with its HQ based at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, will use thousands of antennas spread across southern Africa and Australia to study the Universe in greater detail than ever before.

How the main spread of dishes forming the SKA will look in the desert. Credit: SKA Organisation

It is called the Square Kilometre Array. And astronomers are confident that if ET is broadcasting from a star in our neighbourhood of the Milky Way galaxy, they will find him. One way will be to eavesdrop on his radio and TV signals.

But Professor Tim O’Brien, Associate Director of Jodrell Bank, said: If extra terrestrials exist and they have airport radar like ours, then we will be able to detect those signals out to a distance of about 50 light-years.”

Scientists also believe the telescope will be able to look back in time more than 13 billion years to see the first structures in the Universe forming.

By combining their forces, the telescope will work like a radio telescope that is 50 times more powerful than NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. It will also be the equivalent of 220 dishes like the iconic Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank.

It is called the Square Kilometre Array because that will be the total collecting area of all the individual antennas plus 3,000 dishes that make up the telescope, all linked by fibre-optic cables. It will be able to survey the sky thousands of times faster than any other radio telescope on Earth.

The telescope will have to handle ten times the amount of data that is flowing worldwide across the Internet, and scientists are still investigating ways to deal with so much information.

Announcing the new funding, UK Science Minister David Willetts said: “After the International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider the world’s next great science project is the Square Kilometre Array.

“Investment in science is a crucial part of this government’s long-term economic plan. It’s about investing in our future, helping grow new industries and create more jobs – and that will mean more financial security for people across the country.”

Construction of the telescope, which is expected to cost £1 billion in total, is expected to begin in 2018 with the first observations carried out early in the next decade.

As well as £100 million funding from the Government, a further £19 million will come in grants from the Science and Technology Facilities Council to the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester and Oxford which are involved in developing the Square Kilometre Array.

Ten other countries are also supporting the SKA project – Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India (associate member), Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, and the Netherlands

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