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World's Biggest Telescope Array, the SKA, Gets a Governing Body

Artist's illustration of the full Square Kilometer Array at night featuring all four elements. The low frequency aperture array antennas (bottom right), and precursor ASKAP dishes (background right) will be located in Western Australia. The SKA-mid (front left) dishes and precursor MeerKAT dishes (background left) will be located in South Africa, with some remote stations in other African partner countries.
Artist's illustration of the full Square Kilometer Array at night featuring all four elements. The low frequency aperture array antennas (bottom right), and precursor ASKAP dishes (background right) will be located in Western Australia. The SKA-mid (front left) dishes and precursor MeerKAT dishes (background left) will be located in South Africa, with some remote stations in other African partner countries.
(Image: © SKA Organization)

The largest science facility on Earth just hit a big milestone on the road from concept to reality.

Representatives of countries involved in the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project signed a treaty in Rome Tuesday (March 12), officially establishing the organization that will oversee and operate the gigantic radio-telescope network.

"Rome wasn't built in a day. Likewise, designing, building and operating the world's biggest telescope takes decades of efforts, expertise, innovation, perseverance and global collaboration," Catherine Cesarsky, chair of the SKA board of directors, said in a statement Tuesday. "Today, we've laid the foundations that will enable us to make the SKA a reality."

Related: 10 Biggest Telescopes on Earth: How They Measure Up

The SKA will consist of hundreds of radio dishes and thousands of smaller antennas installed across South Africa and Australia. The total collecting area of the dishes will be about 1 square kilometer, or 0.4 square miles — hence the name. 

When this network gets up and running — a milestone currently targeted for the mid-2020s — it will be the most sensitive and powerful radio telescope on Earth by a large margin, project representatives have said. Astronomers will use SKA for a variety of purposes, from studying gravitational waves to mapping hundreds of millions of galaxies to hunting for signs of intelligent alien life.

"Like Galileo's telescope in its time, the SKA will revolutionize how we understand the world around us and our place in it," Philip Diamond, director-general of the SKA Organization, the body leading the array's design, said in the same statement. "Today's historic signature shows a global commitment behind this vision and opens up the door to generations of groundbreaking discoveries."

The initial signatories of the SKA Observatory Convention.

(Image credit: SKA Organization)

The new treaty sets up the Square Kilometer Array Observatory (SKAO), which is tasked with building and operating the huge telescope network. Representatives of seven countries — Australia, China, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom — signed the treaty Tuesday, SKA project representatives said.

Those seven nations, along with India and Sweden, which are expected to sign the treaty soon, are the SKAO's founding members. Project headquarters are in the U.K.

The first SKA construction contracts are expected to be awarded late next year. These contracts are expected to be worth a total of nearly 700 million euros ($792 million at current exchange rates), project representatives said.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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