Monthly Archives: May 2014

Me & the Time Travelling Astronomers



Against all expectations and probability, I have become a time traveller.

Unfortunately my body is staying firmly rooted in the 21st Century but my eyes are being taken to the beginnings of time.

That journey starts in a very unusual place. Deep in the semi desert Karoo area of South Africa they are building a machine which can look back further into the past than ever before.

When finished in 2028 the Square Kilometre Array or SKA will be 50 times bigger and have 10,000 times the capability of any other radio telescope. This project will generate an Exabyte of a day; that is a billion gigabytes. And if you are still none the wiser, that is 100 million USB sticks. It would take enough power to run a small city just to transmit the data from the site, back to the head office.

This very special telescope doesn’t look like a telescope at all. In fact had my parents brought one back for my Christmas present – I’d have howled. That’s because this telescope looks like a bunch of satellite dishes. Not only does it not look like a telescope, it doesn’t act like one either. It doesn’t “see” anything, instead it picks up radio waves. That’s not where the oddness ends because this special telescope isn’t just describing the heavens, it’s enabling us to look back in time. Scientists can watch a moment near the literal beginnings of time, 16 billion years ago. Looking back into time may not sounds as exciting as physically transporting me there – and to be honest it isn’t – but it’s still very exciting.

Radio telescopes can discover things which we can’t even see. Tim O’Brien is one of the scientists behind the project. He told me: “When we first built these sorts of radio telescopes we got a completely different view of the universe. In fact it completely expanded our horizons in terms of what the universe contained. We realised that in the radio sky we don’t see stars, we see the stuff between the stars, which we otherwise wouldn’t see if we weren’t using these special telescopes. We even see the fading glow of the big bang, so the radiation that’s left over from the origins of the universe itself.”

In other words, radio astronomy, as this science is known, lifts the lid on an unseen universe.

One of the problems with radio astronomy is that the signals they are trying to receive are incredibly weak, and that means that anything man made can interfere dramatically with what scientists are doing. Interference comes from cell phones, radios and microwaves. So you need to get away from modern society and all its electronic trapping.

That far-away place is a two hour flight away from Cape Town in the Karoo desert. It’s here they have started construction of the precursor to the S K A – a project called MeerKat.

Not that it’s relevant but I was told several times that wireless Internet was an invention of radio astronomers trying to pass information around the lab – and of all the facts I was given – that is the only one I can remember off the top of my head.

So the S K A is set to exponentially increase our knowledge of the universe – but let’s face it there’s one question more than any other that people will want answered – is there anybody out there? So if there was some other form of life somewhere in the universe, what would that look like from a radio astronomy perspective? And that’s the question I put to the Associate Director of S K A South Africa – Justin Jonas.

He says: “Well one of the things we can do with radio telescopes is go looking for molecules and particularly the molecules that are associated with life, so things like oxygen, if a planet’s got oxygen, it normally means that there has perhaps been life on that planet.”

So to be clear, you can search millions of miles in to space and not be able to find something as large as a new planet, but you might find sometime as tiny as a molecule which reveals the presence of life

“There’s lots of alcohol for instance in the galaxy.” Justin tells me and alcohol is necessary, not just for a good night, it’s necessary for life.

So to answer the question of whether or not there are aliens out there – Justin says:

“I think there are. I think it’s going to be very challenging, probably impossible to really find the answer to whether there are but that’s a good reason to go looking.

But it might be a while before we find those signs of life because the S K A won’t be fully functioning until towards the end of the next decade. Never before have the words “Watch This Space” been more apt.



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