The world’s largest radio telescope hit a milestone this month as 15 countries, including Malta, met in Rome to set up a global intergovernmental body that will oversee and operate the gigantic Square Kilometre Array.

Spanning three continents, the SKA’s goal is to answer the more pressing questions of how the universe came to be in its present state, how galaxies formed and evolved over the past 10 billion years, and whether humans are the only intelligent life we know of.

The treaty, which establishes the SKA Observatory and moves the concept closer to reality, was signed in Rome by Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the UK.

Malta — which holds observer status through the Malta Council for Science and Technology, which appointed astrophysicist Kristian Zarb Adami to sit on the board — was represented at the ceremony by Malta’s Ambassador to Italy Vanessa Frazier.

Reacting, Education Minister Evarist Bartolo said Malta was honoured to have played a role in what was undoubtedly a historic moment for astronomy.

“The formation of this intergovernmental organisation highlights the importance of collaboration between different countries to develop the world’s leading technology and scientific programmes,” Mr Bartolo said.

Prof. Zarb Adami said: “The SKA heralds a new era in radio astronomy, but more than that, it is a dawn of a new type of international collaboration between countries all over the world, who are coming together to design the world’s largest instrument.”

When completed in 2025, the SKA will be the largest scientific instrument on the planet producing vast amounts of data for scientists to analyse.

Maltese scientists have been involved in the design of the SKA since 2007 through Prof. Zarb Adami. His role is to lead the digital signal processing part of the telescope to ensure the signals collected by the instrument are processed in a way that ensures the best scientific data is extracted.

Through his post at the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy (ISSA) at the University of Malta and his position at the University of Oxford, Prof. Zarb Adami and his colleagues have already installed the first prototypes of the SKA in the Australian desert.

Over the next few years, the team of scientists will be focusing on understanding how best to deal with the data deluge the SKA will produce.

So large are the data rates, that the SKA is building the world’s largest supercomputer and employing cutting-edge Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence techniques to filter this information and spot patterns that might lead to the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence.

The SKA is expected to operate its telescopes over the next 50 years, imaging parts of the universe with unprecedented clarity and speed. Prof. Zarb Adami has already been selected to lead the design of the next generation instruments that will be installed on the SKA.

“We don’t know what the telescope will find, but what we are sure of is that it will open up a new window on the universe and undoubtedly lead to discoveries that will inspire the scientists and engineers of our future.”


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