Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Super-scope huge for NZ - expert

Participant says work on world's largest telescope could help sell us as big data hub.

A square kilometre Array telescope will boast image resolution quality 50 times that of the hubble. Photo / SKA
A square kilometre Array telescope will boast image resolution quality 50 times that of the hubble. Photo / SKA

A leading software entrepreneur says New Zealand's role in building the world's largest radio telescope could lead to the country becoming a global hub for big data.

Nicolas Erdody's Otago software company, Open Parallel, is helping build the brain of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, the global project which will ultimately reveal new information about the origins and history of the universe.

Next month, a conference in Auckland will host some of the world's leading technologists, including the project's computing head, British scientist Dr Tim Cornwell.

"One of the goals of the conference is to create awareness of the technologies employed and their potential applications for New Zealand industry and business," he said.

Mr Erdody said work by his team and that of other Kiwi experts on the multi-billion dollar project could pave the way for New Zealand to become a world leader in the burgeoning big data industry.

Kiwi scientists and engineers are strongly represented among the more than 350 scientists and engineers working on the telescope, which will be 100 times as sensitive as the biggest present-day telescopes.

Nicolas Erdody.
Nicolas Erdody.

Dr Andrew Ensor, of AUT University will lead the design of its survey correlator, combining the signals from all of its receivers, and Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, of Victoria University, will lead a team of researchers working on data processing.

The Government and New Zealand institutions are investing more than $2 million in the project, which Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce has described as an "unprecedented opportunity" for the country to showcase its expertise in ICT and software development.

Open Parallel was the only New Zealand company leading a work package for the telescope's central signal processor, the "brain" that converted digitised astronomical signals detected by the telescope's receivers.

The computing power required - a trillion times more than was needed to send a man to the moon - did not yet exist.

"It's an ICT project - the biggest in history - and will challenge the existent knowledge and technologies in processing power, storage, algorithms and systems."

But many other industries had unprecedented volumes of data and needed it to be rapidly processed.

"While the computer hardware exists, the software for such hardware is at a very embryonic stage - and some of the discussions will see where this is heading."

Where specialised, high-performance computing was once the realm of huge companies in large countries, it could now be done from anywhere in the world, he said.

"And if we can bring together our talent in New Zealand, with our networks abroad, we can position ourselves as a global hub. We could become the Fonterra of IT," he said.

"Our country has the opportunity to ride the new wave around parallel programming, and another desired outcome is the establishment of an Australasian centre of excellence to provide some focus for Downunder efforts."

Professor Shaun Hendy, co-author of the book Get Off the Grass: Kickstarting New Zealand's Innovation Economy, believed Mr Erdody's dream could be realised.

Successful cloud accounting software company Xero was already showing the way, he said.

"It's something we can export here and import here, with relatively little cost."

The SKA telescope

* Will be the world's largest, most sensitive radio telescope, costing more than $2 billion and involving 350 scientists and engineers.

* Stationed in Australia and Africa, the telescope will consist of dishes and millions of dipole radio receptors.

* With an effective collecting area of 1 sq km, will be 100 times as sensitive as the biggest present-day telescopes and have image resolution quality 50 times the Hubble telescope's.

- NZ Herald

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