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China lauded for vital role in radio telescope project

By Cao Chen | China Daily | Updated: 2019-11-26 08:54

China has played a critical role in bringing expertise to the construction of the Square Kilometre Array project to create the world's largest and most advanced radio telescope, Philip Diamond, director general of SKA Organization, said at the opening ceremony of the four-day SKA Shanghai Meeting on Monday.

Organized by the SKA China Office and the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory of Chinese Academy of Sciences, the meeting gathered scientists and engineers from 25 countries to learn about the current state of the project and to share advice on the project's next stage of operation.

"The project can only be possible as an international collaboration," Diamond said. "China has been there from the beginning and sits at the top table as a full member of the SKA board, bringing technological and engineering design expertise."

On Nov 11, the construction of the first regional center prototype of the SKA was completed. It was developed by the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory with support from the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"I've seen the prototype. It's very impressive, accomplished earlier than we expected," Diamond said. "It is an example of what the other countries will follow and learn from."

Shen Zhiqiang, director general of Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, said the prototype is to test how scientists can manipulate the data and use it in the larger-scale project.

"The SKA project needs much more data than what we have now, so we have a long way to go to optimize and compute resources," Shen said.

Diamond said the future full-size regional center will also support and facilitate communication between China and east Asian members in the SKA Organization.

"Other countries are getting close to having a regional center like the one in Shanghai," he said. "We hope to have five in total around the world."

As the world's largest radio telescope, the SKA will combine signals received from thousands of small antennas spanning over 3,000 kilometers to simulate a single giant radio telescope with a total collecting area of approximately 1 square kilometer.

The antennas will be installed in the southern hemisphere with the core stations located in western Australia and South Africa, where the view of the Milky Way is the best and radio frequency interference is the least.

The telescope will assist in the study of the history of the universe. It will help test general relativity, galaxy evolution and the cradle of life and will enable transformational science in many other areas.

Dishes and other hardware will be built in member countries, shifted to Australia and South Africa and erected on the site. All will be controlled from SKA headquarters in the United Kingdom.

Countries involved in the project signed an international treaty in March, establishing the intergovernmental organization that will oversee the project.

Diamond said the project faces major technological challenges, most of which he said can be overcome. Another concern is funding, so the board is asking member governments to consider increasing their contributions.

The construction of SKA phase 1 is set to begin in 2021 and conclude around 2028.

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