Watch the skies for new opportunities

Exploring the universe not only advances science, it also presents commercial opportunities, as Peter Jackson reports.

We don’t know what makes up more three quarters of our universe.

I learnt this disconcerting fact at a NETPark event `Watching the skies - £multi-million contract opportunities in telescope programmes’.

Carlos Frenk, Ogden Professor of Fundamental Physics at Durham University, said: “Stars are made of the same kind of material that you and I are made of- atoms and yet that normal matter made of ordinary atoms makes up only 4% of what the universe contains, 21% is something called dark matter, which is matter which does not emit any light or wave length. The rest is dark energy...we don’t know what it is, but it makes up 75% of the universe and we do know it’s causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.’’

Huge efforts are being made to fill in the gaps in astronomical knowledge and huge projects are underway to construct giant telescopes, which will not only unlock the secrets of the universe, but also present enormous commercial opportunities to UK businesses.

The first of these projects, is the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), a 42-metre diameter instrument which will be the world’s largest infrared telescope comprising 5,000 tonnes of structure to be built on top of a mountain in Chile.

It would be made using fragmented mirrors and, to correct defraction due to turbulence in the earth’s atmosphere, it would use adaptive optics. It would be able to view an area of four square metres on the moon’s surface.

ELT will be used to look at planets in near solar systems and at galaxies dating back to about one tenth the age of the universe. It is hoped that it will be able to look at planets up to 32 light years away from the Earth, a radius which would also take in 377 stars.

Critical technologies for the ELT include the segmented mirrors and control systems needed to align them to within 20 nanometers and control systems for about 70,000 inputs and about 30,000 outputs. It will also need adaptive optics, fast low noise detectors, high performance real time computers and other instruments, such as detectors and robots.

A North Wales company is already profiting from the ELT project. After submitting a proposal, this company won a 5m euro contract to apply new polishing techniques to the mirrors, which could lead to them winning a 200m euro contract for the production of the primary mirrors.

A second great telescope project is the Square Kilometre Array, SKA, telescope, which will detect radio signals from the universe to build up a picture of its make-up and nature.

SKA, however, will be fifty times more sensitive than any current instrument and it will not only be the largest radio telescope in the world; it will be the largest scientific instrument on the planet.

The telescope will be made up thousands of dishes and antennae for receiving radio frequencies. These will make up a total collecting area of one square kilometre, spread over a diameter of some 3,000 square kilometres from a central core. It is estimated that the data continuously coming out of the receivers will be the equivalent of the internet traffic of the western world.

More than 90 organisations are collaborating on this international project and the telescope will be cited in a remote region of either South Africa or Western Australia.

Construction should start in 2016 for completion in 2024.

The potential benefits to UK businesses from the project were emphasised by Professor Peter Wilkinson of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester.

He said: “My message at the beginning is that we did originate this idea and we can take a leading role in this big project, but, since this technology is new, we do need a very close technical collaboration with industry and we would like to become an exemplar of how science and industry can work together so money from pure science can develop technology in collaboration with industry and that technology can then be spun out into lots of other areas.’’

Some of the driving technologies that will be required include broadband antenna arrays, RF amplifiers optimised for low noise and RFI robustness and ultra fast digital signal processing.

He added: “Fundamentally it’s a piece of communications equipment, but on a massive scale and with requirements which are really very stringent and therefore very exciting, but, if and when developed, they are so obviously commercial.’’