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Scientists plan to create biggest map of the universe
  • Scientists plan to create biggest map of the universe

Copyright: Flickr/ GCIS, GovernmentZA

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  • The big study is being undertaken by researchers involved in the SKA project

  • The survey aims to help probe the universe for key answers and transform science

  • The project is building capacity in astronomy and engineering in Africa

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[CAPE TOWN] South African astronomers are gearing up to join international experts to undertake a survey that will create the biggest map of the universe ever made.

The survey, which will generate a three-dimensional (3D) map of the universe, is part of the world’s largest telescope project — the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The initial phase SKA's first phase was granted a budget of €650 million (about US$735 million) in 2013, according to the SKA Organisation, which is responsible for coordinating the project.

“Knowing what to expect, having simulations of what should be observed and developing tools for the data analysis are crucial if we want to use the SKA in an optimal way and produce world-leading science with the SKA in South Africa.”

Mario Santos, University of Western Cape, South Africa


The SKA Organisation’s 11 country-members, made up of Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, are contributing towards the preconstruction phase which lasts until 2017.

The SKA will be constructed in Western Australia and in the Karoo, South Africa, with outstations in other parts of Africa, and is expected to unravel how the universe has evolved over 14 thousand million years and how stars and galaxies have changed over time, notes SKA South Africa.

The project is aiding Africa’s capacity building in astronomy and engineering through opportunities such as grants to students and teaching of astronomy in African countries involved— Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia — which will host SKA satellite stations.

Members of the SKA community published a series of papers on the telescope last month (19 January) in an online archive called arXiv.org.

Mario Santos, an astronomy research professor at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa involved with the SKA Cosmology Science Working Group — one of eight different science working groups — says a huge survey over most of the visible sky will provide a 3D movie of the universe across cosmic times using hydrogen atoms as the source of light.

Santos adds that this is one of the main projects the scientists want to carry out with the SKA, noting that the survey will allow them to tackle fundamental questions in cosmology, such as whether the nature of dark energy is correct on a large scale.

disk-dark-matter.jpgPercentage of dark matter. Credit: Quantum Diaries

According to Santos, the scientists will tackle two interconnected issues: suitably design the SKA to address key questions facing scientists and how well the SKA will be able to probe available models of the universe and produce transformational science.

“Knowing what to expect, having simulations of what should be observed and developing tools for the data analysis are crucial if we want to use the SKA in an optimal way and produce world-leading science with the SKA in South Africa,” Santos tells SciDev.Net.

The actual construction of the SKA is due to start after the current preconstruction phase, in 2018 and early science is expected in 2020, he adds.

Radhakhrishna Somanah, an associate physics professor at the University of Mauritius, notes that a more engaged scientific discussion could help improve the project.

Link to abstracts of papers in arXiv.org

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.
 

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