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Wednesday, October 13, 1999 Published at 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK


Plans hatched for giant telescope

Not a Magritte but a telescope concept

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Astronomers are planning to build the world's largest radio telescope sometime in the next decade and one team of astronomers hope that it will be built in Australia.

Their proposal for the new telescope would look like an army of "eggs on legs" according to the director of Australia Telescope National Facility, Professor Ron Ekers.

Astronomers from several countries are competing to house the telescope. Professor Ekers says that if Australia is chosen to host the telescope it will have huge financial and scientific benefits.

[ image: Move over Arecibo, the world's largest radio telescope]
Move over Arecibo, the world's largest radio telescope
"A preliminary study has found that the telescope would add around A$65 million in local business for infrastructure, contracts related to the technology at around A$20 million, maintenance at around A$18 million a year and benefits from tourism and international travel associated with the telescope," he says.

The telescope will have an area of at least a square kilometre and be far more powerful than existing radio telescopes but Professor Ekers said that neither the telescope's site nor its exact design would be decided for a few years yet.

International designs

China wants a set of radio dishes each 300-500 metres in diameter, set in natural depressions in the ground.

Canada has suggested large telescope dishes that are almost flat. They would reflect incoming radio signals to equipment held high above them by balloons.

The Netherlands is backing a telescope made out of flat patches of 'tiles'. The radio signals caught by each tile would brought together and processed by computer.

And a group in the USA is proposing an array of small dishes like the ones used to receive satellite TV signals. India is suggesting a similar concept.

Voice of space

But the Australian concept is perhaps the most unusual, tens of thousands of 5-metre spheres laid out in patches across the landscape.

"These spheres are called Luneburg lenses. They're actually quite an old design, developed many decades ago for other purposes," says Professor Ekers.

"By a bizarre coincidence, they look a lot like a painting by Magritte, the surrealist painter," he says. "That painting was done in 1928, and it's called 'Voice of Space'!"

"Western Australia has some big advantages, especially in having lower levels of man-made radio signals than many other parts of the world," explains Professor Ekers. "That is critically important to this telescope, which is going to be a hundred times more sensitive than our current telescopes."

Meanwhile other teams of astronomers are preparing their sales pitch for the new telescope. But none of them will look as peculiar as the "eggs on legs" concept.

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