27 May 2012

NZ stake in telescope project 'a huge boost'

8:04 am on 27 May 2012

The Government and scientists are hailing New Zealand's involvement in a project for the world's most powerful radio telescope as hugely exciting.

New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are to co-host the world's most powerful radio telescope - the $NZ2.5 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.

When completed in 2024, it will consist of a vast configuration of antennae and dishes which, spread over thousands of kilometres, will give a total receiver surface area of one square kilometre.

The telescope will sweep the sky for answers to the major outstanding questions in astronomy such as what happened after the big bang and how galaxies evolved, and will attempt to uncover more about the universe's dark energy.

In the first phase of the project most of the dishes will be located in South Africa, with the rest in Western Australia.

New Zealand's representative on the SKA organisation's board, Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, says involvement with the project is hugely exciting.

She says that although in the first phase of the project none of the dishes or antennae will be located in New Zealand, a data centre may be built.

"It's basically a large super-computing facility which houses the massive amounts of data from the SKA project as a sort of central repository for scientists around the world to access it."

Dr Johnston-Hollit says that could attract other industry groups who may build similar data centres here, which would give this country a significant economic boost

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce says much of the huge amount of data generated will be analysed in Australia and New Zealand which will require broadband and storage infrastructure.

Mr Joyce says being involved in the project will give scientists a huge boost on the world stage.

Leading radio astronomer Sergei Gulyaev says New Zealand's involvement is a win-win.

Professor Gulyaev, head of AUT University's Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research, says there may be an opportunity for the institute's telescope to be connected with the Australian part of the project, and New Zealand industries may design and build parts of the equipment.

Project split between competitors

The announcement on hosting the project was made in The Netherlands on Friday by the Square Kilometre Array organisation and has been described as one of the great scientific projects of the 21st century.

South Africa and Australasia had put forward separate, competing bids, and the early indications had been that there would be one outright winner, the BBC reports.

But the SKA organisation decided both proposals should contribute something to the final design of the telescope.

Peter Quinn of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Western Australia says he's pleased at the decision.

"This is a game-changer for Australian science," he told the ABC. "It means that we'll be the centre of attention for major scientific infrastructure, major breakthroughs in science, so it produces something in Australia which we've never had before."

Australia's National Science Agency head of astronomy Professor Phil Diamond said it would be a huge leap forward from the best telescopes available at present.

The ABC reports that with thousands of antennae collecting information from the sky, the telescope will produce a torrent of data estimated at 10 to 100 times greater than the current global internet data traffic.

The massive supercomputer that will combine the data from each individual telescope to create an image will need the processing power of 1 billion desktop computers, it says.