Anthony Doesburg: Giant telescope would bring a galaxy of opportunities

By Anthony Doesburg

Hopes of a huge international science project coming to New Zealand and Australia have been given a boost with the recruitment of a leading astronomer to the Canberra-based CSIRO.

He is Dr Phil Diamond, who will take over as head of the astronomy and space sciences division of the Australian Government research agency in June. Diamond will leave the post of director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Britain, a facility famed for its radio astronomy work.

For Dr Sergei Gulyaev of AUT University, the appointment raises hopes that the world's biggest radio telescope, the $4 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA), will be built in New Zealand and Australia.

Aside from the scientific opportunities, the project would have enormous economic spinoffs, say Gulyaev, who leads the New Zealand effort to bring the telescope to this part of the world.

On top of the $4 billion cost of building the telescope, there would be annual operating costs of about $400 million.

That would mean about 500 jobs and sales opportunities for radio receiving-equipment component makers.

With so much at stake, there's inevitably competition for the project, ironically from the same country that vies for world rugby supremacy with New Zealand and Australia - South Africa.

Gulyaev quotes a Maori proverb - "It is people. It is people. It is people" - in justifying his optimism that Australasia will win out. With Diamond's appointment and a number of others, Australia now boasts "the cream of the cream" of the radio astronomy world, Gulyaev believes. Northern hemisphere atmospheric conditions are less than ideal for radio astronomy, which is why the project's funders, who include the United States and Europe, are tossing up between two southern hemisphere locations.

Political stability and ability to come up with some of the funding are also factors in deciding where to build the telescope, putting the spotlight on South Africa's success - or otherwise - in staging the soccer World Cup. If the project goes to South Africa, however, seven neighbouring African countries with more questionable geopolitical circumstances will also be involved.

The SKA telescope would extend either over eight African countries, or all the way from Western Australia to New Zealand.

It will consist of 5000 satellite dishes, each a dozen metres across, in clusters of 25 to 30 spanning thousands of kilometres.

Rather than detect distant objects by the visible light they emit, it will do so by the radio signals emanating from them.

If Australasia gets the nod, just a couple of clusters, or stations, will be built in New Zealand, one in the North Island and one in the South. But Gulyaev says the country should still see substantial tangible and intangible benefits.

The intangibles include the opportunities for young New Zealand scientists, mathematicians and engineers to be involved with a project on their own doorstep of a similar scale to the Large Hadron Collider.

What will the telescope be useful for? It will bring its extraordinary sensitivity - 50 times greater than any other radio telescope - to bear on the very distant and the very near, peering as far back as the beginnings of the universe, while also measuring the movement of Earth's tectonic plates.

Gulyaev has already been doing groundwork for the project. AUT has installed a 12m dish at Warkworth of the type that will be used for the SKA, spending the past five months calibrating it. It includes a $300,000 atomic clock accurate to one second in 60 million years that will allow signals collected here to be correlated with those received by dishes in Australia.

Our two Governments joined forces last August to try to bring the project here and a New Zealand industry consortium, whose members include Telecom and Kordia, has been formed to make the most of commercial opportunities.

SKA has been in the planning for years and at least one deadline for deciding its location has already gone by. A decision is now expected in 2012 and the aim is for the telescope to be operational by 2020.

There's a crucial technology challenge to overcome before then. Gulyaev says the telescope will collect so much data that no existing computer could make sense of it. But he's confident a decade of computing developments will solve that.

That and other technical issues will be talked about at a conference in Auckland next week, which Gulyaev says is partly a flag-waving exercise for the Australasian project bid.

Space logistics

Why the "Square Kilometre Array"?

Because the area of all the aerials involved would total about 1sq km - 1 million sq m. If Australia is chosen, the central site would be near Geraldton, in Western Australia, with the most distant aerials in New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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