The darkness is light enough
What do radio waves mean to you? They allow us to listen to Chris Evans while we run around the house in the morning, headless chicken-style as we attempt to give that old haste vs speed theory another test.
For astronomers, radio waves allow them to peer into the deepest recesses of the universe and pull objects from the darkness that would be invisible and unknowable otherwise.
Like visible light, radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum and are emitted by any energyproducing (or reflecting) object – such as a star. But unlike visible light, radio waves can penetrate opaque objects – such as clouds of gas or the walls of your house. That allows astronomers to illuminate areas of the cosmos whose visible light long since ran out of puff.
Now work is under way to design the mother of all radio telescopes, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which, at 100 times more sensitive than existing instruments, will penetrate the darkness like never before. It will help answer fundamental questions about the universe, such as: what is the nature of dark energy? Why is the universe magnetic? And is there life out there?
Everything about the SKA will be colossal. Made up of more than 4,000 dishes, it will span a continent. When operational in 2020, it will be able to scan the sky 10,000 times faster than is currently possible and will generate more than ten times more data than the whole of the internet does today.
In fact, today’s computers won’t be up to the task. So its designers are relying on Moore’s Law (which predicts that computer power doubles every 18 months) to come up trumps and that, by 2020, computers will be sufficiently powerful to cope.