Mighty telescope begins scouring universe

Scientists will be on the lookout for intelligent life in the outer regions of the universe when they embark on studies into the origin of life on Earth using the world's most powerful telescope system.

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder,  comprising 36 dishes in remote Murchison, 315 kilometres north-east of Geraldton, Western Australia, was officially opened today.

The $400 million project has already been booked out for its first five years by 350 international researchers, who will conduct projects including a census of galaxies within  several billion light years of Earth, and studies of magnetic fields and black holes.

CSIRO SKA director Brian Boyle said part of the science program would be the search for intelligent life.

''It's almost as a parallel activity to all the survey work that is being done,'' he said. ''Because as you're surveying the sky, particularly over wide areas of sky, looking for other objects, you are also increasing the search volume for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. So it's not a primary goal of many of these surveys but it is certainly a secondary goal that you almost get for free.''

Scientists had so far documented almost 1000 planets beyond our solar system, he said, ''so it looks like the universe is certainly teeming with planets''.

''It is very unlikely that we'll detect any  [but] the impact if we do is pretty high.''

The Australian SKA Pathfinder project has been made possible by about $400 million in federal government and Western Australian government funding. Its 36 dishes will in time be joined by 60 more, all of which will be incorporated into phase one of the international SKA project, hosted jointly by Australia-New Zealand and South Africa.

The  project is capable of detecting low and middle-level frequencies, while a sister project in South Africa will focus on high frequencies.

Dr Boyd said the Australian SKA would be able to detect 40 gigabytes per second, equivalent to 2000 Blue-ray DVDs being streamed simultaneously.

''In the first full day of operation, ASKAP will generate more information than exists in the US Library of Congress,'' he said. ''In fact, that is more information than all the radio astronomy archives around the world today ... In one day the SKA will generate more information than the equivalent of all the words spoken by the human race.''

Hailing the official opening of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, where the telescope system is located, Dr Boyle said: ''I think many people believed we couldn't do it. But I think we have now demonstrated to the rest of the world that we can.''

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