n international group of astronomers is on a quest to
probe the origin and evolution of the universe. All they need
is a radio telescope comprising perhaps 1,000 antennas spread
over 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) at a cost of U.S. $600
"In the world of astronomy, bigger is always better," said
Frank Drake, president of the Search for Extraterrestrial
Intelligence Institute in Mountain View, California. "This one
is a lot better."
Drake and more than 60 other radio astronomers from the
United States opened discussions in February at the Arecibo
Observatory in Puerto Rico about making their dream - the
Square Kilometer Array - a reality.
The concept is to build a radio telescope with sensitivity
and resolution capability of seeking answers to questions
about galaxy formation, the nature of dark matter, and the
existence of life on other planets.
Objects in space from quasars to black holes emit radio
signals. Radio telescopes collect those signals and assemble
them into images. The proposed Square Kilometer Array would be
at least 30 times more powerful than instruments in use today.
It would require a listening area of 1 square kilometer (250
acres) to achieve the desired sensitivity.
The concept of a massive radio telescope has been bouncing
around for eight years, but enthusiasm for the idea lay
dormant until 1997. Now the United States, Holland, Canada,
Australia, and China are working on telescope designs, said
Donald Campbell, an astronomy professor at Cornell University
in Ithaca, New York.
LOCATION OF THE TELESCOPE
A location for the telescope has yet to be selected, but
astronomers are looking for a site relatively free of manmade
radio interference. Other factors include political stability,
weather, and the area of the sky to be observed.
"The ideal is south of the equator, such as Australia,
South America or South Africa," said Drake. "The most
interesting objects are in the southern sky. Astronomers know
that if you want to get at the juicy stuff, you go south."
The Upper Gascoyne-Murchinson region of Western Australia,
which has very few people and a lot of space, is at the top of
some astronomers' lists, said Campbell.
Who pays for the proposed telescope, which may have a price
tag of more than U.S. $600 million, will be a major factor in
determining its location. "Countries that put in money as a
whole would want the telescope in their country," said
The project is the brainchild of an informal group of
astronomers. Once they have agreed on a design and location
for the telescope, they will approach government agencies for
funds, said Drake.
"There is some fantasizing that one of the extra wealthy
high-tech guys might fund the whole thing," he said. "But in
the real world, it will take contributions from a number of