What makes the SKA telescopes so powerful?

In short: a combination of smart design and cutting-edge technology, in addition to the sheer scale of the telescopes.

The popular perception of a radio telescope is a single large dish. However, there are structural and engineering limits on how big a single dish can be. To build bigger telescopes, astronomers use a technique called interferometry, using large numbers of smaller antennas connected together by optical fibre networks and working as a single virtual telescope, called an array – this is how both SKA telescopes have been designed.

The more antennas, the larger the effective collecting area and the greater the sensitivity (i.e. the ability to see fainter details) to detect the very weak cosmic radio signals. More antennas spread over longer distances also means that the images made are of finer resolution than is possible with a single antenna. The SKA telescopes will produce the sharpest pictures of the sky of any current radio telescopes.

As the SKA telescopes will have so many antennas (more than 130,000 log-periodic antennas in the case of SKA-Low, and 197 dishes for SKA-Mid), significant effort has gone into developing software and hardware that will be able to handle the flood of data they will collect. As well as on-site processing, each telescope will have a dedicated supercomputer, each with a computing power that would put them in the top five fastest supercomputers in the world in 2022.

Designing and building the SKA telescopes has required the development of cutting-edge technologies. Such innovations will continue through the construction and operations phases, in order for the SKA telescope to keep pace with technological developments as they arise.

Click here to view SARAO’s telescopes and instruments

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