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One Observatory operating two telescopes on three continents: the SKAO, headquartered in the UK, will operate two of the world's largest radio telescope arrays in South Africa and Australia. [Credit: SKAO]

Zooming in on deep, deep space

By Catarina Chagas, Research Outreach and Events Specialist

Kristine Spekkens

Kristine Spekkens, Canadian SKA Science Director, Professor, Physics, Engineering Physics, and Astronomy

The international astronomy community is pushing the boundaries of science by building a next-generation radio telescope – furthering our understanding of the inner workings of the universe. Today, the Honourable François-Philipe Champagne, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry, announced that Canada has officially joined the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO), a billion-dollar initiative by 16 participating countries.

A big portion of our current knowledge of the universe comes from data collected by traditional optical telescopes: essentially, what they capture is the light emitted or reflected by stars, galaxies, and other objects. But many astronomical bodies – even those that don’t emit visible light – emit radio waves that can also be used to gather information from the skies and see details that even the mightiest optical telescopes cannot capture.

Canada has been collaborating with the Square Kilometre Array project for over two decades and will contribute $269 million over eight years to the new observatory through the National Research Council (NRC) and provide governance support through NRC’s Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre.

SKAO will be the largest radio astronomy observatory ever built, combining the power of tens of thousands of antennae spread across Australia and South Africa, and is expected to enable the next 50 years of discovery in radio astronomy.

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Stills/artist's impressions taken from animations of the SKA-Mid telescope in South Africa. [Credit: SKAO]

Canadian researchers and industry partners will deliver key components of the observatory and have access to the facilities once they are completed. Through an agreement between NRC and the Digital Research Alliance of Canada, the Canadian investment will also support infrastructure expansion for Canada’s SKA Regional Centre, which is part of an international high-performance computing network to enable the scientific use of SKA data. Spekkens is also the Canadian representative and elected vice-chair of the SKAO’s international Science and Engineering Advisory Committee.

"Beyond astronomical discovery, SKAO-related technologies have the potential to enhance the everyday life of Canadians, through better networks, and in other areas like more accurate and advanced driver assistance systems in cars," says Minister Champagne.

Capturing radio waves

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SKA-Low telescope artist impressions. Supplied by DISR. [Credit: SKAO]

Radio astronomy gained traction after the Second World War and has since become an important part of how astronomers worldwide look up to the universe and discover, for example, new galaxies. Because radio waves have a much longer wavelength than visible light waves, the technology to capture them is different. Radio telescopes are usually larger than optical ones, and the most powerful radio telescopes are composed not by one, but a group of antennae to catch fine details in remote areas of the sky.

"SKAO is going to transform our understanding of the radio sky, everything from how galaxies form and evolve to the origins of magnetic fields, from how the very earliest galaxies and stars lit up the universe to how planets form around their host stars and where we may find signatures of life," says Dr. Spekkens.

SKAO’s construction is expected to be completed by 2029.