China completes prototype dish for mega-telescope

Feb 7, 2018

A research institute linked to the Chinese military has manufactured the first prototype dish for what will be the world’s largest radio telescope, with vast fields of antennas picking up radio signals from space in remote regions of South Africa and Australia. The Square Kilometre Array’s 15-meter prototype dish was built by the 54th Research Institute of CETC, a state-owned company that specializes in producing hardware and electronic communications systems for China’s People’s Liberation Army. Once it is finished in the mid-2020s, the SKA will consist of about 200 dishes similar to the Chinese prototype stationed in South Africa and 130,000 much smaller antennas operating at a different radio frequency in Australia. They will provide astronomers with the most powerful instrument yet for tackling unsolved questions about how the first galaxies and stars formed after the Big Bang, while probing the depths of outer space for signs of intelligent life.  For China, the project is a milestone in its emergence as a global science power, earning it the prestige of participating in multinational projects. It is one of ten countries collaborating on the SKA. “The SKA is a reflection of Chinese wisdom and the determination of the Chinese government to be engaged in international megascience,” said Huang Wei, a vice-minister at the ministry of science and technology, at an unveiling ceremony this week. “Our Chinese partners are extremely well resourced,” said Mark Harman, SKA dish project manager. “They’ve demonstrated that they have the technology and capability to construct a telescope with the specifications that the SKA requires.” Under President Xi Jinping, China has poured national funding into research and technological innovation. At the same time, it has sought to build up its own scientific infrastructure. In 2016 in Guizhou province China completed what will be the world’s most powerful radio telescope until the SKA is finished. Unlike the distributed multi-dish design of the SKA, the Guizhou instrument has a single huge 500-meter dish. The SKA telescope will be funded through a model in which countries pay in accordance with their scientific capacity and desired returns. The more a country pays, the more procurement contracts and research access it gains. China has informally agreed to contribute about 8 percent of SKA costs, which are projected eventually to run to billions of dollars, but it could raise that proportion. Every member country, regardless of how much it contributes, will own the intellectual property of the SKA’s design and manufacture. Particularly lucrative could be the commercial applications of big data storage and transmission technology being developed to support the telescope. Once fully running, the SKA will require data links with streaming speeds that far exceed anything that exists at present. SKA countries are also bidding to host supercomputing research centers where researchers will be able to access the troves of radio signal data SKA scoops up. The Shanghai Astronomical Observatory and the China Academy of Sciences are negotiating to host one in China. The US dropped out of the SKA Organisation in 2011 and is ineligible to host a center. The organization’s base is at Jodrell Bank, Manchester, in the UK. Low labor and shipping costs and a willingness to invest in the manufacturing toolkit ultimately made China the winning contender for producing SKA prototype dishes. They will incorporate components from Italy and Germany as well as China. CETC54 hopes to manufacture many of the telescope’s dishes. “China can just do it more effectively than everyone else,” said Willem Esterhuyse, an SKA satellite engineer. “Any other country would have struggled.”

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