SKA isn’t just music anymore

Made it to another PI lecture last week. This one was Lisa Harvey-Smith from CSIRO (Commenwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization) who was here, presumably, celebrating Canada’s recent entry into the supporter’s ring for the Square Kilometer Array.

The whole project is a pretty interesting world cup of who’s gonna get the array. It’s a series of several types of radio receivers that comprise what will be the most sensitive radio telescope we’ve ever created. The idea is that they will be able to look “back” at the early universe and get a much better understanding of how things came to be, and maybe get a handle on just what the hell black energy and black matter really is. Essentially looking at the smooth universe from much earlier after the big bang and before it got all clumpy (if, indeed, that is how it happened).

Harvey-Smith was an engaging speaker who made liberal use of video and humour (to better effect, I thought, when she wasn’t discussing her primary research and the array – almost as if it’s too hard to be irreverent with the thing you most care about).

What’s more interesting is that every aspect of this project is pretty much open market competition, including the ultimate site for the array (thanks to @Melle for the link). It may be a defining moment for Africa if they get the bid. There’s some pretty mind-boggling innovation required, including how to cool facilities in a desert in a way that is environmentally sound, and get enough computing power together to process the equivalent of the Internet every day. But they’ve got the guy who has a copyright on wifi working on the project, so they may have a shot at it.

I came out of there with one essential question though: if the actual space needed is thousands of kilometers, why the hell is it the Square Kilometer Array?