Jodrell launches bid to build giant ear on heavens

November 22, 2002

Fields around Jodrell Bank could be planted with a dense forest of antenna in a bid to keep the iconic radio astronomy observatory in the forefront of world science.

Scientists are drawing up plans for a prototype instrument made up of an array of panels, sited in the Cheshire countryside, linked up to banks of PCs.

If the approach proves successful, the technology from Manchester University's Jodrell Bank Observatory could be used to guide the construction of a giant radio telescope, dubbed the Square Kilometre Array (Ska).

Astronomers worldwide believe that Ska's unprecedented sensitivity, resolution and field of view will reveal a host of new cosmic phenomena by detecting radio frequency signals naturally emitted by celestial objects.

It could also carry out the first comprehensive survey of our galactic neighbourhood in search of radio transmissions made by alien civilisations. A proportion of the telescope's estimated $1 billion (£630 million) cost is likely to come from supporters of the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Astronomers met in Oxford this month to begin a debate on the UK's contribution to the effort.

Peter Wilkinson, associate director of Jodrell Bank and a member of the international Ska steering committee, said there were no technological barriers to creating the telescope, just the issue of making it affordable.

He believed Ska would be operational towards the end of the decade. "We're going to build the world's premier imaging instrument," he said.

A variety of design concepts is being investigated, including an Australian proposal to float an instrument from a balloon over a giant dish. Some Ska prototypes will be powerful instruments in their own right, such as an array of 350 6.1m dishes under construction in the US.

Professor Wilkinson said the Jodrell Bank prototype was "very much in an embryonic stage" and had not yet gained funding.

It would use simple equipment to collect radio signals and use innovative processing software run on commercial PCs to extract detailed images from the heavens.

He said it was likely that the final Ska design would incorporate elements from several of the prototypes.

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