August 15th, 2011
11:21 AM ET

No U.S. role for now in building world's biggest radio telescope

Washington (CNN) - In 1985, astronomer Carl Sagan wrote the novel "Contact" about a vast U.S. radio telescope that receives the first communication with extraterrestrial life. The best-seller became a 1997 film starring Jodie Foster that opened many eyes to how humans might first encounter space aliens.

Now, planning is under way for what will be the world's largest radio telescope, an array of 3,000 antennae set up in remote regions of the Southern Hemisphere that will have at least 50 times more capacity than anything before - including the Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) that was the setting for the "Contact" film.

Called the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), it will bring closer the mind-boggling possibilities explored in the book and film, with new information on the origin of the universe and the formation of galaxies and black holes. The expanded reception of SKA might even capture that first extraterrestrial contact.

However, unlike in the book and film, the United States won't be a main player, at least for the next decade.

Tight funding in the budget-cutting environment of Washington and the uncertain final cost of the Square Kilometer Array have combined to kill U.S. government funding for it through 2021.

In the world of huge international astronomy facilities, that doesn't preclude any U.S. participation. American technology may well be vital in getting SKA built and operating, and U.S. funding for research conducted at the facility is likely.

For now, though, as the multinational project to be based in either South Africa or Australia moves from planning to construction to initial deployment in coming years, U.S. astronomers will be relegated to observer status.

"Demands for money in astronomy far exceed what's doable," conceded Jim Cordes, a Cornell University astronomer involved in radio telescope research. "You can't have everything. But on the other hand, my concern is that we're missing the boat ... on things that are going to be implemented 10 years from now."

For example, Cordes said, the SKA facility could be the first to detect gravitational radiation by using the radio signals from pulsars - rotating neutron stars - to reveal the distortions in space-time predicted by Albert Einstein.

The National Science Foundation decided against funding SKA for now, based on a review it commissioned with NASA and the Department of Energy examining priorities for the next decade. Titled "New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics," the decadal survey said there wasn't enough money to do everything desired.

While future opportunities involving new-technology systems are "considerable," U.S. participation in projects such as SKA "is possible only if there is either a significant increase in NSF-Astronomy funding or continuing closure of additional unique and highly productive facilities," the decadal review concluded.

Overall, SKA is projected to cost about $2 billion to get set up over the next eight years or so, along with more than $200 million a year in operating costs once it is operational. Organizers originally planned on the United States contributing a third or more of the total, or about $700 million to get it going and $70 million a year after that. The European Union is expected to be a major funder, with other participating countries also contributing.

However, the cost of the expected U.S. share was too much for an NSF division with a budget of about $250 million a year that is expected to increase to as much as $500 million a year by 2020.

James Ulvestad, the director of the NSF's division of astronomical sciences, explained that his decision to follow the decadal review's recommendation was based on several factors, including limited funds and a projected cost overrun for SKA.

An analysis of SKA completed as part of the decadal survey estimated a 70% chance that the project would end up costing up to $6 billion, or three times more than the initial price tag, Ulvestad said.

If that happened, he said, the United States might well lack the money to maintain its commitment down the road.

"Despite the unqualified enthusiasm for the science that this facility could deliver and the recognition that it represents the long-term future of radio astronomy, the committee encountered a major discrepancy between the schedule advertised by the international SKA community and the timescale on which the NSF could realistically make a significant contribution to SKA's construction and operating costs," the review said.

In addition, Ulvestad noted that SKA will depend on technological advances still being developed, such as increased computer speed and capacity, as well as cheaper electricity generation.

For example, the huge amount of data collected by the telescope will be 50 times greater than any similar facility in existence now, he said. That will require computers with a speed and capacity that don't exist today in what will amount to a leap in technology, according to Ulvestad.

Rather than jumping in now and paying the premium price for such advanced technology, he said, the decision was to focus on continuing research at existing facilities while incremental technological advances occur.

Facilities in the United States and elsewhere are developing some of the new technology now. The Expanded Very Large Array in New Mexico has increased working bandwidth by a factor of 80, Ulvestad said, which will contribute to the computer capacity needed to deal with the information collected by SKA.

He also said that politically, it would require "a really good reason" for going against the recommendation of the decadal review that was partly paid for by the NSF.

In the end, Ulvestad said, his decision puts off SKA to continue funding thousands of research projects at the EVLA and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile that are conducting what he called "forefront science."

It was either that, or having to halt research and perhaps decommissioning what are relatively new facilities such as EVLA for "the promise of a big future project," he said.

"Before you went down the road for this really expensive telescope, you have to think about what you're going to have to give up to get there," Ulvestad said.

Despite the government's decision, technology businesses such as IBM are discussing possible consortia with SKA to help develop some of the needed advances in computing and low-cost power generation.

Such private sector involvement would maintain a form of U.S. participation until a time when the government could step in, said Cordes, the Cornell astronomer.

"That's one of the lessons about big projects in astronomy, is that you have to be thinking in terms of multiple decades," he said. "It's pretty sobering."

The next big step for SKA is deciding where it will be based. The two finalists competing for host status are South Africa and Australia, both of which offer vast expanses of remote, semi-arid territory suitable for such high-tech radio antennae.

Both proposals include placing antennae in other nearby countries in order to achieve the full square kilometers of reception for the radio telescope. A final decision is expected in 2012.

When completed, the huge SKA telescope could provide a view of how the universe formed by collecting light waves, gamma rays and radio waves emitted millions, and even billions, of years ago that continue traveling through space, explained Bernard Fanaroff, South Africa's SKA project director.

Through those captured rays, scientists will see events such as stars and galaxies forming, Fanaroff said, adding: "Astronomy is unique in that it can look back in time."

Such achievements are still years off, though. At a recent meeting in Banff, Alberta, in Canada, the SKA original steering committee voted to disband as planned to make way for the next step in the project's leadership: forming a founding board to complete planning and launch construction of the project in coming years.

Fanaroff expects the United States to eventually assume a role in SKA, saying: "I don't think anyone would want to create the world's largest telescope without the United States being involved."

For now, U.S. involvement is limited to observer status on the founding board, which Cordes fears could amount to lost opportunity.

"My concern is that you look around at the meeting in Banff and you see a lot of young people from other countries, a lot of activity going on," he said. "The United States does look like it's bogged down in some respect, at least in that arena."

He paused slightly, then continued in a softer voice.

"It's not like things have halted; it's just that things have very much slowed down," Cordes said. "There's just a fear that if you slow down too much, you might have a lost generation."

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soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Andrew

    The SKA concept sounds great, but the NSF's rationale also seems sound. Even anticipating a doubling of budget in the next decade the NSF can't afford it without sacrificing capabilities that are already valuable and productive. This appears to be especially true because NSF doesn't believe the cost estimates.

    Also important is the current Western economic downturn which may also drain EU support for the SKA (this could delay the SKA). The West is at the end of a long cycle. An strong upturn is coming, especially in the USA, but it isn't coming quickly. It time for a paradigm shift, and it's time to stop expecting government to fund everything. That's what has brought us to this economy. Instead it's time to look in the mirror and decide to provide value ourselves. Then we'll rebuild to the point where we can build the SKA.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
    • fimeilleur

      I'll agree to much of what you said but this: "it's time to stop expecting government to fund everything. That's what has brought us to this economy." It's not government funding that crippled the economy, it's the government's refusal to tax the rich and regulate the banks and insurance companies that are crippling the economy. They are killing the middle class and the poor. If 90% of the population can't afford to spend what little money they have, it doesn't matter how much the country produces... they'll have to export it all to make ends meet.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
  2. ajd041

    I agree with everybody who said its a great idea and it really is it helps us learn more! But i also agree with those who say we can't support this now because we dont have the money normally im liberal on matters like this but the debt needs to be shrunken

    August 16, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
  3. Oscar Silva

    Have any of you heard of the newest radio-telescope deployed in orbit? it will make new discoveries rendering the scopes here on Earth almost to no use. Hopefully the system will discover new objects in space.

    August 16, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • fimeilleur

      That sounds really cool. I hope they get the project in full swing. The possibilities for discoveries are endless.

      August 16, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  4. my name

    Aint nobody in the U.S got no money for nothin no more. Only folks with money and job security are thug nigga rappers, drug dealers, sports mega stars, strippers, and porn stars. These are the main growth industries in our new "service economy".

    Grade school children in South Korea are already more knowledgeable about the world than most adults in the U.S. They can't teach 'em fast enough over there!

    The entire United States is one big lumpy child who got left behind.

    August 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • caleuche

      There's still hope while there are shining examples, such as you, of what we could be.

      August 15, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • chikneychikn

      Obvious south korean is Obvious, and on US AID since the "peace" treaty. If US said F South Korea Today,N Korea would have it be smoldering ash by tomorrow. We are wasting our time putting our American Troops in Harms way for Obviously ungrateful Hubris like you. And on a side note.. I don't always kill my kid, but when I do, I get a tattoo and go party! Stay thirsty my friends!

      August 15, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • Aaron L.

      That's funny because we have all the money in the world for 2 10 year wars.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:54 am |
  5. larry

    With Obama in the White House the American absence from scientific efforts is moving toward White House policy. Obama sees America's role as a leader in the world as having no place in his new America.

    August 15, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  6. james stirk

    We need to stay away from things like this for a long time, searching the stars is not going to help the chaos on earth.

    August 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • fimeilleur

      Are you suggesting a "prayer rally" would be more beneficial? Just wondering what you suggest would be better off for the world "caos"

      August 15, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  7. Dave

    I don't believe this to be a wise investment since we are is such debt.

    However, at least we had some extra to spend determining if Gay men that are well endowed have better social lives....

    If our politicians don't waste it on onething, they will another........

    August 15, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  8. Captain obvious

    Why would we invest resources on knowledge and exploration when we could build a few F-35s?!?!

    August 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • DFence

      "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain." – John Adams

      August 15, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • DFence

      Also I must add to his credit "Great is the guilt of an unnessicary war." John Adams

      August 15, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  9. Norseman

    I suppose many will read this article and think "So What". However, what they fail to realize is that the participating countries will gain knowledge that will ultimately be taught in their schools and universities. Our brightest and most intelligent citizens will begin attending these schools and working in these other countries.

    August 15, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • fimeilleur

      Very astute observation.

      August 15, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
  10. condonate

    The vast majority of USA citizens do not concern themselves with deep and searching questions (at least not from a scientific point of view). They quickly gave up the lead on cutting edge particle physics to CERN and I believe the James Webb Space Telescope, slated to be the Hubble's replacement has also recently gotten the congressional axe.

    So sad America, your antiquated thinking will ultimately cost you your futures.

    August 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • standingwave

      Bottom-line thinking only leads you to the bottom.

      August 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  11. jill

    Leading from behind.

    August 15, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • fimeilleur

      Like trying to push a rope.

      August 15, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
  12. ScienceGod

    This article did a poor job of explaining that radio telescopes are chiefly used to study "how the universe formed by collecting light waves, gamma rays and radio waves emitted millions, and even billions, of years ago that continue traveling through space..." I really wish the article focused less on receiving calls from "ET" and more about the importance of earth-based astronomical study. Radio telescopes, in concert with breakthrough technology like Hubble, can help us "see" further into the cosmos than we ever have before. Hubble has already pierced well beyond what we thought was "knowable" universe – approx 13.2 billion light years. Radio telescopes can help us better understand the physical makeup and characteristics of celestial bodies all around us.

    August 15, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Amused

      I agree completely! Of all the important things being studied and revealed using Radio Telescopes, the search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence is the LEAST important and the least likely to produce any useful insights. In my opinion, Radio waves would be an unlikely source of evidence from a theoretical "advanced alien civilization". If such civilizations exist somewhere in the COSMOS, I think it would be VERY UNLIKELY that they would employ such crude and inefficient technologies as radio waves for communication. If such a civilization exists, they probably use much more efficient and sophisticated technologies that we have not even discovered yet! We probably would not even recognize their communications as intelligent signals since we have no idea what to look for!

      August 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm |


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