Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Is there anybody out there?

In the remote Australian Outback, scientists are about to build the largest telescope the world has seen. Jamie Morton went to Western Australia to talk to the stargazers hoping to discover what lies beyond the final frontier.
The SKA will uncover unseen giant gas clouds, black holes and magnetic fields. Photo / AP
The SKA will uncover unseen giant gas clouds, black holes and magnetic fields. Photo / AP

It's morning in the Murchison, a desolate, sunbaked corner of the midwest of Western Australia, and a trio of wedge-tailed eagles are circling.

Crows are competing for a dead kangaroo on the roadside as our convoy rolls by, churning up clouds of red dust. In this part of the Outback, about 600km from Perth, just 100 people live in an area the size of the Netherlands.

Instead of humans, you'll find termites, kangaroos, a few thousand head of cattle, the odd goanna, and an endless expanse of wattle trees, thorny scrubs and cracked red earth.

Over summer, temperatures can climb to the high 40s and there's a fire ban in place for half theyear.

Strange, then, that this barren, hostile land is the setting for a project poised to revolutionise the world of big data-and transform what we know about the universe.

"You just look around and there's nothing," Western Australia's chief scientist, Professor Peter Klinken, told the Herald on Sunday.

"The isolation, the quietness, would never, ever have occurred to me as something thatwould be of great scientific significance."

As it happens, there couldn't be a cosier home for one of the first pieces of the largest scientific instrument in theworld.

This is one of two major sites that will host the gigantic Square Kilometre Array radio telescope.

Already here are two impressive "precursors" - the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, a cluster of 36 towering dishes that jut out above the bush, and the nearby Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), a small army of hundreds of spider-like dipole antennas that study the sun, the heliosphere and the Earth's ionosphere.

Once operational, the SKA, as it is known, will harness the power of more than a million antennae and dishes sprawled across the remote back country of Australia and South Africa.

In far-off "radio quiet" areas like Murchison, and with stunning views of our galaxy - the Milky Way - the SKA will be in a prime position to do its extraordinary work, capturing faint radio waves, often billions of light years from our planet.

Professor Melanie Johnston-Hollitt. Photo / University of Adelaide
Professor Melanie Johnston-Hollitt. Photo / University of Adelaide


To us, these signals would sound like the harsh fuzz between radio stations - only in this case, they're whizzing about in the dark, freezing expanses of outer space. They're a form of electromagnetic radiation and are at the centre of an increasingly important branch of astronomy.

Many cosmic objects don't give off light and therefore can't be picked up by opticial telescopes found in observatories, but can be spotted by radio telescopes that detect the radiowaves they emit.

Because radio waves penetrate through view-blocking cosmic dust, astronomers can use them to look into regions like the centre of the Milky Way.

But the SKA, the biggest telescope ever dreamed of, will be able to peer well beyond our galaxy, probing 10 times deeper into space than is possible now, with a resolution 50 times more sensitive than today.

Capturing millions of square metres of the Southern night sky at once and feeding the data back to researchers, the SKA will uncover unseen giant gas clouds, black holes and magnetic fields.

Such is its power, if there was an airport radar on a planet far across the galaxy and it began firing radio waves, the SKA and the combined muscle of its array could zero in on it.

Exciting as the discovery of new planets is, there are much bigger breakthroughs to be made with a tool as mighty as the SKA.

Cosmologists who for decades have been confounded by the constraints of technology might be able to find out what drove the evolution of the universe, or what makes up the mysterious dark energy propelling its expansion.

This is because the SKA could capture signals produced by sources that could be traced as far back as 13 billion years ago, when the first galaxies began appearing.

We could now really ask how the first black holes and stars were formed and what generates the gigantic magnetic fields in space.

And then there's that other tantalising question: are we alone in the universe?

Earth's radio wave output is largely generated by human activity - our TVs and radars-but the SKA will be able to detect signals similar to these from terrestrial transmitters at up to 50 light years from Earth.

When astronomers picked up brief, intense pulses of radio waves from outer space, some giddily speculated these strange "fast radio bursts" could have originated from distant alien civilisations.

Others suggested they could be the faint traces of a neutron star catastrophically colliding with a black hole, but further observations suggested neither explanation was likely. Settling debate on what causes these enigmatic bursts is something else the SKA could take care of.

Beyond what benefits we could come up with today, scientists say it's likely we cannot even dream of predicting today the biggest discoveries the SKA will make. It is partly why the SKA will have a life span of at least 50years, first taking shape with 200 dishes in South Africa and about 130,000 in Australia, all of which will be in place by 2023.

By 2030, the project will have been scaled up to 2000 dishes in South Africa and one million antennae in Australia.

It won't come cheap. Just the first phase of the SKA's construction - kicking off in 2018 and accounting foronly10per cent of the telescope-will cost more than$1billion.


Its development is being driven by the Manchester-headquartered SKA Organisation, a union of a dozen countries, among them founding member New Zealand. It's far from the first contribution we've made to radio astronomy.

Seventy years ago, Elizabeth Alexander, one of the field's pioneers, was studying the sun at low frequencies at Leigh and Piha, albeit with simpler technology.

Artist impression of the first phase of the Square Kilometre Array at night. Photo / SKA Organisation / Eye Candy Animation
Artist impression of the first phase of the Square Kilometre Array at night. Photo / SKA Organisation / Eye Candy Animation


New Zealand joined this project in 2011. A year later, staff and students at Victoria University, led by Associate Professor Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, began processing its data.

They're still exploring algorithms to fish out the important pieces of information from the deluge of data that the instruments will feed back.

It has never been done on a scale of such complexity and volume, but scientists are talking in exabytes.

This is still in the realm of the hypothetical, so there's not much it can be equated to, but an exabyte is a quintillion bytes and it has been said five exabytes could hold all the words ever spoken by mankind.

Johnston-Hollitt considers the work as a possible blueprint for wrangling the world's exploding proportions of big data.

"SKA is, in a sense, a prototype for what the world of data analytics will look like in the future," she says.

"Looking for patterns in complex data sets is what is needed for the SKA and it's what will be needed for finance,health,meteorology, the internet and pretty much everything where humans will have to deal with big data."

The SKA's dishes will produce 10 times the amount of today's global internet traffic, spitting out enough data that just one day's worth would take nearly two million years to play back on an iPod.

Under an earlier proposal, New Zealand and Australia made a push for the SKA infrastructure to be based in the two countries.

When New Zealand missed out in favour of South Africa, many saw this as a big blow, given the direct pay-offs that would have come with having some of the enormous dishes in our backyard.

But Auckland University of Technology's Dr Andrew Ensor feels we will still reap benefits in another way.

"My observation is that a lot of South African and Australian resources are caught up in infrastructure as host countries - such as roads, fibre, buildings and accommodation - whereas New Zealand is free to focus much more on the high-IP generation from computing design," he says.

"When it comes to construction, rather than pouring concrete we'll be writing software."

Professor Lister Stavely-Smith, a science director at the Australia-based International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, agrees.

"It didn't really make much difference that New Zealand was no longer a host country of the actual facility, because they know it will be host country of quite a bit of the supercomputer architecture, and designers, builders and contributors to the overall project."

We can expect a trove of technology spin-offs, a long-term academic-industry partnership, a bigger profile on the global stage and a new way to attract and retain talent.

The Government and institutions have invested more than $2 million, but there is debate about how much New Zealand should chip in for the next phase.

It has been suggested New Zealand could have to front up with as much as $20m - a huge amount for such a small country to invest in a single international science initiative.

Auckland University's Head of Physics, Professor Richard Easther, says the SKA is almost certain to yield important results, but our cash contribution is a different matter.

"As to whether New Zealand should get involved, for $20m, this would be by far the biggest single investment in astronomy and fundamental astrophysics New Zealand has ever made," he says.

"So for that kind of investment, I would expect a transformative, sustained impact on astronomy and fundamental astrophysics in New Zealand - if it doesn't do that, it is not good value for money."

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce expects our share of the construction cost will be "significantly lower" than the $20mfigure.

Also unclear is what access New Zealand astronomers will get to the telescope, given our comparatively small investment.

Joyce couldn't comment on these details, but said involvement in the SKA science collaborations was an "important objective" for New Zealand.

It has been pointed out that the SKA isn't the only big show in town - the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) being built in northern Chile has scientific ambitions that are just as lofty.

What makes the SKA the right horse to back?

Physicist and innovation commentator Professor Shaun Hendy says New Zealand can't be involved in every big global project, and every scientist will have their own favourite.

It is tough to anticipate the economic benefits of particular science projects, even though we know the benefits from science as a whole are very large, he says.

"This is partly because the really valuable science is also the riskiest, where the pay-offs are highly uncertain.

"If you are confident about the economic benefits of your science then you should be talking to your bank manager, not the Government." Most important, however, isn't the investment in our economy, but in the bright minds of tomorrow.

"It's major projects like the SKA that can capture imaginations and inspire the next generation of scientists," Hendy says.

"Aotearoa was discovered and settled by stargazers, so I am glad to see that we haven't lost the urge."

- Herald on Sunday

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