Square Kilometre Array to go under the microscope

Parliamentary standing committee opens public consultation process to assess SKA

Ilana Feain, Tim Cornwell and Ron Ekers (CSIRO,ATNF). Photo of the ATCA and Moon Shaun Amy, CSIRO.

Ilana Feain, Tim Cornwell and Ron Ekers (CSIRO,ATNF). Photo of the ATCA and Moon Shaun Amy, CSIRO.

A parliamentary standing committee on public works is set to assess the value of a supercomputer that will support Australia’s Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Australia and New Zealand made a joint bid in August last year through the Commonwealth Scientistic and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to host the SKA in Western Australia along a 5000km baseline. Australia and South Africa have been short-listed to host the array, while the SKA program has the support of a consortium of institutions from 19 countries.

The $66 million Pawsey High Performance Computing Centre will house one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers that will support the massive SKA, along with research in nanotechnology, biotechnology, and geoinformatics. It includes a $5 million Linux-based high performance computing system, funded by the CSIRO.

The Committee is conducting an inquiry into the SKA program and has opened a consultation process to gain public feedback.

Committee Senator Jan McLucas said the facility will significantly boost Australia’s scientific research capability.

“It is the committee’s role to ensure that the project will achieve its goals, while being environmentally responsible and sensitive to local resident’s needs,” she said.

“The committee encourages interested individuals to contact the secretariat and consider making a submission to the inquiry.”

Submissions close 9 April and the hearing will be held on 16 April in Perth.

SKA developments

The SKA will have a discovery potential 10,000 times greater than any existing telescope. Scientists hope to use the array to determine the presence of Earth-like planets and intelligent life; discover what happened after the big bang and before the first stars and galaxies formed; determine how magnetism affects the formation of stars and galaxies; whether Einstein's theory of general relativity is the last word on gravity, and to explore how galaxies are born and evolve.

More than 3600 antennas will be distributed across a single tight cluster and in some 150 groups with a diameter of 100 metres.

On 17 March, the CSIRO announced an agreement to develop an ultra-high-bandwidth (600Mhz – 1400 MHz) device that could replace fridge-sized radio astronomy receivers with a 5mm square chip.

The world-first chip will be tested on the radio cameras within each of the 36 antennas that will form the Australia SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) — the precursor to the full SKA. It will take about two years to develop using researchers from the CSRIO, Sapphicon Semiconducter, and La Trobe University.

Also in March, the first ASKAP antenna to go live received initial radio signals as of current testing to ensure the dishes have a prefect shape.

The ASKAP will be operational by next year and is due for competition by 2013.

Last year, scientists used the a locally-developed algorithm to map the Centaurus A galaxy for the first time. The galaxy contains a supermassive blackhole with a density 50 times greater than the Sun.

The algorithm resolved imaging issues caused by a massive differential between the “brightness” of the radio waves emitted at the core and edge of the Centaurus A galaxy, based some 14 million light-years away.

An educational SKA web site was also launched in December last year.

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