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Researchers reaching for the stars

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The University of Calgary is collaborating with institutions in 20 countries to create the world's largest radio telescope to answer big questions about the universe.

The U of C is the lead Canadian institution on the Square Kilometre Array, a collection of 10s of thousands of radio antenna receiving stations that will collect radio waves from the universe.

It will also work with other institutions from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The project started after head of physics and astronomy and director of the centre for radio astronomy at the U of C Dr. Russ Taylor organized a meeting of the world community of radio astronomers in the mid-'90s.

"The purpose of the meeting was for the world community to get together and decide what it is that we need to do to answer the big questions that are facing us in our understanding of the universe," said Taylor, who was the chair of the radio astronomy committee for the Canadian professional society for astronomers at the time.

They decided at the meeting that they needed a large radio telescope.

Taylor then organized an international committee to secure the project in 2000.

The SKA will be 50 times more powerful and able to scan the universe 10,000 times faster than any existing telescope.

One of the goals of the SKA is to observe the period in the history of the universe between the big bang and the first appearance of stars, known as the dark ages.

"Before there were stars, there was no light," Taylor said. "The whole time between the point of creation, the big bang, and the formation of the first stars is called the dark ages. . . . That part of the early evolution of the universe should be full of radio waves."

Taylor added that the radio waves aren't destroyed and still propagate around the universe.

He said that being involved in processing the data to answer the questions is exciting.

"It's also really interesting to be involved in a world community like that; to bring together lots of countries to work with and to create this wonderful thing we're creating as a globe," he said.

The final site decision for the telescope will be made in 2011 and construction will begin in 2012.

Analysis of the two short-listed sites, the Australian Outback and South Africa, is currently taking place to make sure there is little interference from radio emissions.

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