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Switzerland agrees to join giant radio telescope project

A prototype demonstrator at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Obervatory in Western Australia.
The Aperture Array Verification System 2.0 (AAVS2.0), a prototype demonstrator at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Obervatory in Western Australia. Credit: Michale Goh/ICRAR-Curtin

The Federal Council has given the green light for Switzerland to join the “Square Kilometer Array Observatory” (SKAO) – an international project to build the world’s largest-ever radio telescope.

The government agreedExternal link on Friday that Switzerland would join the SKAO, following parliament’s decision to approve the necessary funding (CHF24.7 million ($27.4 million)) to extend its membership up to 2030.

Last September, parliament approved an initial budget of CHF8.9 million for Switzerland to join the SKAO.

The “Square Kilometer Array Observatory” (SKAO) is one of the most sensitive radio telescope’s ever built. The international project involves 13 countries and should allow researchers to study the formation of the first stars and galaxies.

Other areas of research will include the role of cosmic magnetism, the nature of dark matter, dark energy and gravitation. The project is expected to cost a total of €1.9 billion.

The telescope will be built in the coming years on two sites. South Africa will raise 130 antennas of a diameter of 15 metres, while 130,000 TV-style antennas will be erected in Australia.

The SKAO, which is managed and funded by the UK, Australia and South Africa, is designed to detect radio waves emanating from celestial objects, the same type of emissions used for example by smartphones. It is thus distinguished from most telescopes which are based on detecting visible light.

The telescope will collect unprecedented amounts of data, which will require the world’s fastest supercomputers to process in near real time, before turning these into science projects for distribution among partner countries. 

The Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) is coordinating contributions from the Swiss academic community. More than 50 scientists across Switzerland are participating in the endeavour.

Swiss academic institutions are helping through R&D in the field of distributed high-performance computing (HPC), machine learning and artificial intelligence. Swiss firms are assisting with data processing, system control and supervision, antennas and radio receivers, in addition to precise time management through the use of maser atomic clocks.

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