NZ bids for super telescope role

Prof Gulyaev is heading New Zealand's bid for the Square Kilometre Array Projec. Photo / Supplied
Prof Gulyaev is heading New Zealand's bid for the Square Kilometre Array Projec. Photo / Supplied

Earthquake prediction will be a step closer if New Zealand wins a bid for the largest radio telescope ever built.

A joint New Zealand and Australian consortium is bidding against a southern African group for the right to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a $3.1 billion cluster of radio telescopes dubbed the "biggest science project in the world".

The initiative is equivalent in scale to the Large Hadron Collider in Europe.

Next week a group of high-profile international scientists will meet in Auckland to discuss the project's huge potential ahead of the final bid decision, expected in March or April.

Sergei Gulyaev, head of AUT University's Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research, said one of the tantalising prospects of the radio telescope would be its ability to give a "bird's-eye view" of the tectonic plates deep under New Zealand.

The Russian-born scientist said the radio telescope could use "quasars" - stable points on the edge of the universe - as a frame of reference for measuring the most minute changes on Earth.

"By observing quasars on the border of the universe, we create a fundamental reference frame in which we can study all the irregularities of the rotation of the Earth, ocean, tides, and solid earth, and the way an island like New Zealand is breathing."

Using these distant reference points, radio astronomers could measure the rate at which two satellite stations on each tectonic plate moved, to the millimetre.

"If this rate is constant and stable, and the plates just keep moving, that's fine. But if they slow down, it means there is some obstacle. If they stop it means tension starts accumulating, and at some stage it will overcome this obstacle, and slip, and that's when major quakes happen."

There is one radio telescope in Warkworth, and New Zealand will need to build another in Southland so there is a satellite station on both sides of the tectonic divide, which runs down the spine of the South Island. The Southland site has been earmarked for its remoteness and quiet radio space.

Knowing the precise movement of the plates does not tell scientists where and when earthquakes will occur, but it is a cornerstone of the prediction process.

Radio astronomers will have to combine their observations with GPS technology, geology and seismology to attempt a prediction.

Professor Gulyaev said this step was at least 50 years away, and the person who pulled together the strands from all these scientific fields would win a Nobel Prize.

Regardless of whether New Zealand wins the SKA bid, he says, a dish should be built immediately. It would cost around $1.5 million.

Tectonic measurement is only a fraction of the SKA's mind-boggling capability, according to Professor Gulyaev. He said the plan was to make a telescope so powerful it would not only peer into distant galaxies, but into the past, and to the emergence of the universe.

"It's like working with a time machine. Basically the telescope brings us the story about this object as it was seven billion years ago."

So what is the limit of the world's largest telescope?

"We can't see further than 13.7 billion years," he said. "Only because this is the age of the universe."

- NZ Herald

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