On Friday 21st July we had a real treat. It was one of those talks that just kept making me think ’Wow, this is amazing’. Dr Hayden Rampadarath came to the observatory to tell us all about the Square Kilometre Array project. SKA refers to a whole bunch of radio telescopes that will be built in South Africa. Working together, these telescopes will create a massive interferometer that will be able to detect and analyse signals from space in such detail as has never been possible before. The objectives of the project are huge and far reaching. They’ve been working on this aspect alone for over 20 years.

Hayden gave a fascinating and enthusiastic talk about the current status of the project and touched on some of the results they want to get from it. Something that really struck home for all of us was the amount of data that SKA will collect. When it goes live for phase 1 it is expected that the array will capture 2 gig of data every second. If you’re not familiar with gigabytes, one gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes which is 1,000 bytes. A movie might be around 5 or 6 gigabytes in size. And if you want to compare SKA to Apollo 11 (which had about 1300 times less power than an iPhone) then Apollo 11’s guiding system that got to the moon and back ran on just 2 kilobytes (1 millionth of the size of the data that will be received by SKA each second when it goes live in 2024). The sum of human knowledge plus all of our DNA put together would be less data than that which SKA will receive in just one hour. Phase 2 of the project will make this rate of data capture seem very small!

But there’s a problem with getting all this information – no computer in existence today will be able to analyse that much data quickly enough so tech companies are trying to come up with new solutions to increase computing power. What a challenge!

SKA is going to be one of the largest scientific projects on earth; it’s going to revolutionise our understanding of the Universe. Amongst the many objectives are an understanding of the Cosmic Dawn (the earliest stages of the Universe), greater analysis of gravitational waves (the ripples in time and space caused by black holes merging together) and maybe we’ll get some clues about the origins of life too. All these things are Nobel Prize winning possibilities!

Our thanks to Hayden for a very interesting and entertaining talk and we look forward to the day when the project goes live and hope that SKA delivers everything the project team are looking for.