A powerful radio telescope that will allow astronomers to probe deeper into space than ever before has been unveiled at a ceremony in the Western Australia outback.

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), located near the region of Murchison about 650 kilometres north of Perth, was officially opened Friday by Science Minister Chris Evans.

It's the first stage in a multi-billion-dollar radio telescope project that stretches across two continents.

"Today is about Australia celebrating this project, CSIRO's success, and all those who participated and making this possible," said Evans. 

'We're in a new era of mapping the skies.'—CSIRO Chief Executive Megan Clarke

CSIRO, or the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia's national science agency.

The sparsely populated Murchison region was selected as the site of the ASKAP because it is considered one of the quietest radio locations on Earth.

The observatory is made of 36 radio antenna dishes covering an area of 126 square kilometres. Signals from each antenna are electronically combined to simulate a dish much larger in size.

Mapping the sky more quickly

CSIRO Chief Executive Megan Clarke says unlike other radio observatories, the ASKAP will provide a much bigger view of the sky.

"With these dishes we can take panoramas, whereas before we could only take small pixels," she said. "For the first time we'll be able to map the whole sky [quickly]."

For example, Clarke says current radio telescopes take up to 1200 hours to image the galaxy Centaurus A.

"But with this telescope we can do that in 10 minutes. We're in a new era of mapping the skies."

According to CSIRO, the telescope will allow astronomers to investigate fundamental questions involving dark matter, dark energy, the nature of gravity, the origins of the first stars and galaxies, and more.

"We'll understand how galaxies work, we'll look back into the beginnings of the universe," said Clarke.

In 2016, a further 60 dishes will be built as part of the joint Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, which will extend into New Zealand and southern Africa, where several thousand antennas will be built.

"It's truly an international collaboration," said Evans. "One of the great things about astronomy is that it has no international borders. Astronomy is about the sky, the universe, which no individual country owns."

"This project has the capacity to inspire not only Australians, but many people around the world and inspire in our young   people an interest in science."