Kiwis and Aussies united for good of SKA

Even if New Zealand doesn't win the bid to provide sites for the telescope, the team will still fully support the project

New Zealand and Australia’s “propensity to collaborate” internationally as an outcome of the relatively small size of their own scientific communities is a strength for the two countries’ joint bid for the international Square Kilometre Array radio-telescope project, says John Humphreys, head of the Australasian SKA Industry Consortium (ASKAIC).

He was introducing a day of discussion on SKA in Wellington as part of the Rutherford Innovation Showcase.

Even if New Zealand doesn’t win the bid to provide sites for part of the telescope itself, the team here will still fully support the project, says New Zealand project leader Jonathan Kings. In keeping with the scientific focus of the endeavour “we will not be overt lobbyists in the crass political sense of the word,” he says. New Zealanders should not be misled by an apparent low profile for promotion, however; “we will be working in the back rooms,” he adds.

The SKA is an array of radio telescope dishes which will have a total effective area of one square kilometre, but will be spread across the two countries, giving observations the necessary long baseline, which allows a more accurate fix on the distance of astronomical radio sources. For Australia and New Zealand’s bid, the baseline – the distance between the easternmost and westernmost dishes — will be 5500 km.

For investigations into gravity, testing the validity of the theory of relativity, half of the aggregate dish area will have to be within a core area of 5km in diameter. The Australia/NZ bid puts this core in Western Australia.

The instantaneous field of view of the telescope will have to be 10 square degrees – ten times as large as any current radio-telescope on the planet, says Boyle. The frequencies of radiation detected run up into the gigahertz range but much observation will be around 100 MHz, a frequency range used by commercial radio channels. This demands that the dishes be sited in areas away from such broadcasting.

The chief objectives of the project are to look at the oldest stars in the universe and the process of cosmic evolution, as well as searching out clues to the origins of life; but equally important for New Zealand science and technology will be the infrastructure needed to handle the huge data flows – as much as 100 terabits/second – and the powerful computers to extract and analyse the meaningful parts of the exabytes of data that will be generated.

The electrical power requirements of the array will likewise be huge, opening an opportunity for research into more efficient renewable energy sources, where New Zealand already has a significant base of knowledge.

Already, Humphreys says, the consortium has forged strong links with researchers in the other countries participating in the SKA project, particularly in the Netherlands, Canada, Italy and the UK.

Other parties to the SKA project are Germany and South Africa. The latter leads a group of African countries which has its own bid in to host the telescope.

Canada, Korea and Japan are also taking an interest in becoming active partners in the project. The conspicuous absentee – “the elephant not in the room”, says SKA Australia director Professor Brian Boyle — is the US, which has said it will not participate, owing to “funding problems”. Financial troubles potentially threaten European participation, but those countries look likely to stay in at this stage, Boyle says.

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