Jodrell Bank to co-ordinate square kilometre array plans

Jodrell Bank Observatory is to become a planning ‘nerve centre’ for the world’s largest radio telescope project.

The €1.5bn (£1.3bn) Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is a collaboration between Australia, China, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK.

After a competitive bidding process the board announced that the SKA Project Office (SPO) will be based at Jodrell Bank, where the design, engineering, costing and industrial collaborations will be planned and coordinated.

‘It would be fair to say it’s going to be the nerve centre and brains of the project until 2015,’ said Jo Bowler, from the SKA Program Development Office.

It is hoped that construction will then begin by 2016, most likely in South Africa or Australia, with the telescope expected to be complete by 2024.

‘There will be some kind of central office once the telescope is up and running in the host country itself and there are likely to be other regional centres around the world, but exactly how that works is not established yet,’ Bowler said.

Manchester University currently hosts the existing SKA Program Development Office, which will grow to 60 people when it transfers to Jodrell Bank as the SPO.

The SKA will have a central core of around 3,000 dishes, each about 15m wide, as well as an extensive network of small sensors spread over 3,000km. The square kilometre refers to the total collecting area of all the receptors combined.

Once completed it will be 50 times more sensitive — and will survey the sky 10,000 times faster — than any other telescope, allowing it to answer fundamental questions about the origin and structure of the universe.

‘It’s being driven by the requirements of the astronomers of course, so although it’s a massive engineering project, the end point is astonishing science,’ Bowler said.

Prof Richard Schilizzi, SKA project director, added: ‘The spin-off technologies will have applications closer to home, such as mega-data management, very low-power radio-frequency devices and system-of-systems control software.’

Last month, BAE Systems signed a two-year statement of mutual interest to support the SKA. Nokia Siemens Networks and IBM are also involved.