NZ backs Aussie bid for huge telescope

New Zealand has teamed with Australia in a trying to build a massive radio telescope capable of discovering the building blocks of the universe.

Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee today announced New Zealand would join the Australians in a bid for the $3.1 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.

New Zealand and Australia were last year named as the shortlisted rival to South Africa to build the massive collection of up to 5000 antennae with a combined area of a million square metres.

By electronically linking them to operate as one giant telescope, the array will become what Mr Brownlee touted as a top global science project of the 21st century, funded by 19 countries.

"It is a truly mega science project which has a discovery potential 10,000 times greater than existing instruments," he said.

Final decisions on who will host the SKA will be made in 2012 by an international panel of radio astronomers, with politics likely to play a role alongside science.

South Africa is already spending millions of dollars on building a pilot project, MeerKat, in the Karoo desert, expected to be completed in 2012.

It is using the construction of 80 radio dishes, fibre-optic links between them and a 33kV powerline shielded so that it does not "leak" static to interfere with the telescope as a stepping stone to SKA.

Australia has budgeted A$80 ($99.3) million for a SKA science centre in Perth.

The main SKA array will take six to eight years to construct - wherever it is built. If it is constructed in South Africa, array-stations may have to be built in Namibia, Botswana, and Madagascar.

Made up of antennae spiralling out from a 5km-wide cluster in radio-quiet, sparsely-populated desert, the array intended for Western Australia could be extended from a baseline of 3000km to 5500km through New Zealand's participation.

That baseline - the distance between the furthest-apart antennae - would mean that the trans-Tasman project would be able to offer greater resolution than the South African proposal, as well as fewer problems with politics, corruption, and infrastructure.

If the trans-Tasman bid is accepted New Zealand would likely to have at least two array-stations with 15 to 20 dishes at each site. Proposed sites include Warkworth, Ardmore, Awarua and Rangiora.

To achieve similar resolution, the South African telescope would have to build array-stations in Ghana.

The SKA may help cosmologists pin down not only the geometry of the universe but measure the positions of a billion galaxies to work out where "dark matter", thought to make up most of the universe, is clustered.

Radio astronomy researcher Professor Sergei Gulyaev has compared the scale of the project to the Apollo mission or the Hubble Space Telescope, with significant spinoffs not only for the economy but for scientific infrastructure with innovations in computing technology, mechanical and electrical engineering, and data transport and data storage.

Prof Gulyarev leads work in radio astronomy and VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) at the centre for radiophysics and space research at AUT. He has already built a $1m 12m telescope in a valley near Warkworth, for the centre to collect and process data from space.

Questions the SKA could help answer include whether there is intelligent life beyond Earth, and what happened after the Big Bang at the start of the universe, and questions of gravity and magnetism, and how galaxies were born and evolved.

- NZPA

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