SKA searches for alien life

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope will be looking for signs of life on other planets, project director Bernie Fanaroff has said.

“We want to look for organic molecules, the molecules of life out in space and, of course, we want to look for extraterrestrial intelligence,” he told delegates at a New Age breakfast in Joburg today.

Fanaroff said the telescope would be so sensitive that if a person was sitting with the SKA on a star 50 light years away from Earth, and they looked back at the planet, they would see “all the airport radars, TV transmitters and SABC programmes”.

“So, if we have it on Earth and we are looking out at all these stars and new planets which are being discovered, we hope to be able to see if there is a civilisation out there that is broadcasting.”

The SKA project would be the most powerful radio astronomy telescope in the world upon completion. Construction was set to start in 2017.

The majority of the project, the full dish array and the dense aperture array, will be built in Africa. The sparse aperture (or low frequency) array will be built in Western Australia.

Fanaroff said the global project had 10 member countries and four guest countries.

The “very substantial” costs would be shared by all countries. He said that for the pre-construction stage, a total of €110 million (R9.2 million) was committed for the four years leading up to 2016.

“We are still waiting to hear for contributions from Germany and India.”

He said the design for the first phase of the telescope would be sent to the SKA board in July for costing, and a decision would be made whether to cap costs or build to design.

Still under negotiation was the amount each country would contribute.

“Every country wants to be able to say we are investing in it and what are we getting back from it?” Fanaroff said.

He hoped to get the US on board from 2020 onwards.

In the meantime, South Africa had signed an agreement with IBM and the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy to research the vast high-performance technology needed to read, store, and analyse raw data.

“We are also playing a leading role in the international SKA organisation in many of these wireless technology projects and are doing some really nice work on digital signal processing,” Fanaroff said.

A team in Cape Town, together with institutions in the US and other countries, had developed very fast computing boards that digitised signals and converted them into something that could be understood.

The US had apparently completed the first-generation design.

Fanaroff said it was encouraging that South Africa had completed the second and third generation designs and was selling them back to the US and other countries.

“That’s a really nice example of the fact that we can do it in South Africa,” he said.

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