Matthew Theunissen

Matthew Theunissen is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Our eyes on the edge of the universe

A mega-telescope to be partially built in New Zealand will provide our best chance yet to detect extra-terrestrial life as it maps the farthest reaches of the observable universe.

New Zealand, Australia and South Africa will co-host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a $3.1 billion radio telescope dubbed "the biggest science project in the world".

The 12m AUT University radio telescope in Warkworth has been adapted so it can be part of the project. Another telescope will probably be built in Southland.

Unlike optical telescopes, radio telescopes can reveal areas of space that may be obscured by cosmic dust.

The SKA will be made of up to 3000 dishes, each 15m wide, linked together, creating a total collecting area of about one square kilometre. It will have 50 times the sensitivity, and 10,000 times the survey speed of the best modern telescopes.

Sergei Gulyaev, of AUT's Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research, said the telescope might be able to tell us about dark energy - the hypothetical form of energy that accelerates the expansion of the universe and would provide us with our best chance yet of detecting life on other planets.

"It's a revolution in science. I can compare it only to the revolution that Galileo made when he first took the telescope and looked at the sky and made absolutely crucial discoveries."

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said the SKA presented an excellent opportunity for New Zealand science and business to benefit from involvement in a project of international scale.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2016 and is expected to be completed in 2024.

- APNZ

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