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Marion Rae

Vast array to unlock mysteries of universe

More than 130,000 antennas will be built in WA as part of the $3b Square Kilometre Array. (PR HANDOUT IMAGE PHOTO) (AAP)

One of humanity's biggest-ever scientific endeavours has begun in remote Western Australia.

Decades in the planning, construction of the world's largest radio astronomy observatory, the $3 billion Square Kilometre Array, was launched on Monday at official ceremonies in Australia and its partner installation in South Africa.

Some 131,072 antennas will be built at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, a place name that means sharing sky and stars, at the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory on Wajarri Yamaji Country, 800 kilometres north of Perth.

Each antenna will be two metres tall and shaped like Christmas trees, and will receive low-frequency radio waves.

Another 197 dishes will be built in the Karoo in South Africa.

Together, the telescopes will provide an unparalleled view of the Universe and be one of the biggest science facilities on Earth.

The observatory is expected to produce an average of eight terabits of data every second, challenging data scientists and engineers, and enabling scientists to watch the births and deaths of the first stars and understand how the earliest galaxies formed.

Sixteen countries are developing the observatory, which Federal Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic said was an extraordinary feat of astronomy, scientific infrastructure and international cooperation.

"Australia's membership of the SKA Observatory is not only good for industry today but will inspire generations of Australians to dream big and follow a career in STEM," he said.

"This first-of-its-kind technology will allow astronomers to tackle fundamental scientific questions, ranging from the birth of the universe to the origins of life," he said.

He announced contracts worth more than $320 million have been awarded to Australian business Ventia for on-site power and fibre networks, and the construction of buildings to house data processing equipment.

Telescope director Sarah Pearce said the new observatory would define the next fifty years for radio astronomy.

"The SKA telescopes will be sensitive enough to detect an airport radar on a planet circling a star tens of light years away, so may even answer the biggest question of all: are we alone in the Universe?"

The sheer size and number of antennas mean they will provide a significant leap in sensitivity, resolution and survey speed.

The telescopes will be able to see the sky more clearly, to reveal fainter details and see more of the sky at once than other state-of-the-art telescopes.

"We are truly grateful to the Wajarri Yamaji for agreeing to host the telescope on their land," SKAO Director-General Professor Philip Diamond said.

"We honour their willingness to share their skies and stars with us as we seek to find answers to some of the most fundamental science questions we face."

And the benefits are not be limited to astronomy.

"Much of the technology and engineering required for the telescope to work need to be developed for the first time," CSIRO's Professor Elanor Huntington said.

"We're all coming together to not only learn more about the Universe but drive advances in data handling and signal processing," she said.

Deputy premier and science minister Roger Cook said the project would provide jobs for large numbers of engineers, scientists, and technicians around the world, including in WA.

The SKA is expected to attract $1.8 billion over its first 30 years and create around 350 medium-term jobs.

"Data collected right here in Western Australia will expand our very understanding of the Universe and drive technological developments across the globe," Mr Cook said.

The array is expected to map the sky 135 times faster than comparable current telescopes.

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