Head of Business for NZME

Space to grow NZ science

The SKA telescope could help reverse our scientific 'brain drain', writes Fran O'Sullivan.

An artist's impression  of the square kilometre array.
An artist's impression of the square kilometre array.

Dougal Watt is getting on a roll as he enthuses about the potential for a successful Anzac bid to host the giant square kilometre array telescope (SKA) to transform the New Zealand economy.

"It will deliver far-reaching economic benefits to this country well beyond the obvious benefits to the education, science and research communities.'

The decision on whether Australia-New Zealand gets to host the $3 billion SKA - or whether it goes to rival bidder South Africa - is not expected until 2012. "But it is a perfect opportunity, we should seize this," says Watt who co-chairs an SKA industry consortium set up to drive far-reaching economic outcomes from the project for New Zealand.

He believes it will greatly enhance existing industries such as medical imaging, and has the potential to drive the creation of whole new industries utilising advanced analytical solutions to solve emerging resource problems including the effective management of water or agricultural emissions.

Among the key benefits Watt extols are: inward investment in research and development, employment, high-speed networking and broadband, advanced computing and analytical solutions and the enhancement of New Zealand's international research reputation - which itself could lead to further opportunities to for NZ to play a key role in other advanced science and research projects and help reverse the "brain drain" of skilled New Zealanders overseas.

The industry consortium includes IBM NZ (Watt is chief technologist); the NZ ICT group, whose chief executive Brett O'Reilly is the consortium's other co-chair; Telecom International, State-owned Kordia, Harmonic and Endace.

The "remarkably radio-quiet" Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO), in the Mid-West region of Western Australia, is Australia and New Zealand's candidate site for the central "core" of antennas that will make up the SKA. A full-scale hybrid solar storage and generation plant, coupled with sophisticated energy management systems, will be built to service the observatory. "When the SKA goes live it will take a colossal amount of power, "says Watt. "They can't have anything like phones or traditional motors because they all generate interference with the instrument."

"But it's pretty windy on the West Coast - you could put a huge number of turbines, generate hydrogen, pump it inland and then re-form it through a fuel cell into electricity at the other end. It would be fantastic technology and they could take that to the world stage as well as solve a problem for the SKA."

Renewable electricity options and software are two areas of expertise New Zealand is bringing to the project.

Already the ASKAP, or the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, is being developed by Australia's CSIRO. It will incorporate novel receiver technologies and leading-edge ICT systems. It will be made up of 36 identical antennas, each 12 metres in diameter, working together as a single instrument.

In May, Aussies and Kiwis "forged a cosmic connection" when six radio telescopes acoss Australia and New Zealand joined forces to act as one giant telescope linking up over a distance of 5500km for the first time. The link-up was the result of a collaboration between scientists working at the CSIRO, Australia's Curtin University, and AUT University in Auckland. The linked telescope will make images 10 times more detailed than from of the Hubble Space telescope and had already been used to peer into the heart of a galaxy called Centauras A.

But Watt says to successfully play on the world stage, New Zealand needs to address its digital infrastructure deficits.

New Zealand has steadily risen in the Digital Economic Rankings study (previously titled the "e-readiness rankings"), which are undertaken by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the IBM Institute for Business Value

The Government's move to ensure open access for the proposed fibre-optic broadband networks removes competitive barriers which is great and crucial to our economy's digital rankings, says Watt. "But we are lagging in investment in the infrastructure and on the government policy side."

Watt is perplexed that top business leaders are not focused enough on the need for good digital infrastructure. "Lightweight exports really is our future rather than digging up national parks," he says pointing to Orion Healthcare ("ultimately on track to be a billion-dollar business - very impressive") and Weta Digital.

"It's infrastructure for the future - rather than worrying about roads and mining which are yesterday's industries - we can spend a small amount of money wisely to leverage something much bigger."

In relation to the SKA, Watt is adamant Kiwis are smart and can leverage it in many interesting ways.

"The trick is to line all the right people up and get them to understand that if we build these networks here and software there, and renewables, we can take that globally and build our country."

The square kilometre

Array (SKA) will be a new generation radio telescope that has a discovery potential 10,000 times greater than the best present-day instruments. It will give astronomers remarkable insights into the formation of the early universe, including the emergence of the first stars, galaxies and other structures.

It will also be one of the largest scientific projects ever undertaken. It is a machine designed to answer some of the big questions of our time: what is Dark Energy? Was Einstein right about gravity? What is the nature of dark matter? Can we detect gravitational waves? When and how did the first stars and galaxies form? What was the origin of cosmic magnetism? How do Earth-like planets form? Is there life, intelligent or otherwise, elsewhere in the universe?

- NZ Herald

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