Too early to talk of massive telescope project leaving NZ, says board member

It ain't over until the SKA project board votes

New Zealand’s science representative on the board of the international Square Kilometre Array consortium refuses to be discouraged by a report in Australian media that the $2 billion project looks like going to a rival consortium of African countries, led by South Africa, rather than to the joint Australia-New Zealand site.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend, the panel of experts known as the SKA Site Advisory Committee made a confidential report last week, judging that the South African-led bid was stronger. If true, this is still not the final decision. That rests with a vote by board members from Italy, Holland, the UK and China, scheduled to take place in early April.

New Zealand’s scientific board representative, Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, at Victoria University, emphasises that, like other board members, she is prevented by a strict confidentiality agreement from discussing the SKA decision-making process; “but I will say the New Zealand team is still very much involved in the process,” she says. Asked if she’s prepared to say what factors might be swinging the decision Africa’s way, she says “it’s too early to talk of anything ‘swinging’ in any direction.”

A third possibility has been discussed – that of sharing the project between the two bidding teams, siting some equipment in Australia-NZ and some in Africa. However, Brian Boyle, project director for the Australia/NZ bid has dismissed this course as relatively expensive and “not supported by the SKA science case.”

The telescope is set to observe radio sources in the sky with an accuracy that will be unprecedented, through a widespread set of dishes and aerials. In the Australia-NZ plan, the core of the array is planned to be in Western Australia, but the receiving apparatus will be spread across the two countries, including sites in NZ’s Northland and Southland.

This plan gives a longer “baseline” – distance between the westernmost and easternmost dishes – than the African bid. Having a long baseline allows the same astronomical object to be observed from two fractionally different angles, hence arriving at a more accurate measurement of its distance from Earth. The Australian / NZ site, say local astronomy and science blogs, would also provide better radio quietness – that is, less interference from artificial radio sources - and is located in a more politically stable environment.

Among the aims of the SKA project are observations reaching into the most distant regions of the universe, providing information on galaxy evolution and possible life-bearing planets, as well as testing the theory of relativity, particularly with respect to gravity and investigating cosmic magnetism.

The $2 billion SKA project is one of the largest scientific endeavours ever undertaken and promises spin-off benefits at the cutting edge of ICT research and development, to manage and interpret the huge flows of data from observations. Researchers in energy generation have suggested the power requirements of the telescope could lead to new research work in clean energy generation from renewable resources. The state of knowledge and experience of such generation in New Zealand and Australia has been cited as another advantage of siting the telescope in this part of the world.

A spokesman for Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce echoes Johnston-Hollitt's views: "All parties to the SKA bid are bound by strict confidentiality," he says, in answer to a request for a Ministerial statement. "Australia and New Zealand are committed to seeking to host the SKA and are actively engaged in the current stage of Board deliberations. No vote for a final decision on the site is currently scheduled.

"Australia is taking the lead on the SKA proposal as the vast majority of it would be located in Australia," the statement concludes.

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