Over the next 12 years, thousands of antennas will be built and installed across a 5,000-kilometer stretch of the southern hemisphere. Satellite dishes, tripod-like dipole antennas, and tiled circular stations will dot arid savannas and comprise the world’s biggest, most accurate radio telescope ever constructed: the Square Kilometer Array.
The ambitious project, which brings 67 scientific teams from 20 countries together, is the next big thing in global scientific collaboration. (To clarify, the antennas cover continent-wide distances, but it’s the signal-collecting area that is one square kilometer, the equivalent of a single dish with a square kilometer of surface area.) Like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the SKA is a multi-year, multi-billion dollar enterprise aimed at answering some of the most fundamental questions about deep time and the very nature of the universe. According to Ronald Luijten, a senior manager at IBM’s Zurich Research Lab, “SKA is very similar to the CERN project in terms of the complexity of project itself, the size of the scientific community, and the global nature of the operation.”
Despite these structural and cultural similarities, the SKA represents a new step in terms of data management and the complexities of project coordination. The instrument will generate an exabyte of data every day – that would be 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes – more than twice the information sent around the internet on a daily basis and 100 times more information than the LHC produces.