New Zealand will remain involved - but to a lesser extent - in a global, multi-billion dollar project to build the world's largest radio telescope.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), being built in the deserts of Australia and South Africa, has been a key project funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE's) Strategic Science Investment Fund.

Despite missing out on a joint bid with Australia to host part of the telescope, New Zealand has invested several millions of dollars in its development, contributed teams of researchers to develop its capabilities, and been among 10 member countries driving it.

Recently, several well-known astronomers questioned New Zealand's ongoing commitment to the SKA - with one labelling it a "zombie project" whose schedule and scope kept shifting.


Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods has now announced New Zealand would remain part of the SKA Organisation, but as an associate member.

"Associate membership will allow New Zealand to make an investment that is proportionate to the size of its astronomy community," MBIE said in a media statement.

"It will also allow New Zealand to maintain engagement with the development of the cutting edge ICT tools required to handle the massive amounts of data the telescope will generate."

The director-general of the SKA Organisation, Professor Philip Diamond, who met Woods this week, answered some of the big questions.

What is the SKA and how will it change radio astronomy as we know it?

The Square Kilometre Array is an international project to build a radio telescope tens of times more sensitive and hundreds of times faster at mapping the sky than today's best radio astronomy facilities.

Simply put: the world's largest radio telescope.

The SKA isn't actually a single telescope, but an array, a collection of various types of antennas spread over long distances in two countries: Australia and South Africa.


The SKA telescope will be powerful enough to detect very faint radio signals emitted by cosmic sources billions of light years away from Earth, those signals emitted in the first billion years of the universe, more than 13 billion years ago, when the first galaxies and stars started forming.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), being built in the deserts of Australia and South Africa, will eventually be the world's biggest radio telescope. Photo / File
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), being built in the deserts of Australia and South Africa, will eventually be the world's biggest radio telescope. Photo / File

This is a period of the universe we cannot study with even the biggest optical telescopes on Earth because the light from those first stars and galaxies is just too faint to detect.

In such areas, radio astronomy and the SKA can make a unique contribution to our knowledge of the universe.

The SKA will be used to answer fundamental questions of science and about the laws of nature, such as: how did the universe, and the stars and galaxies contained in it, form and evolve?

Was Einstein's theory of relativity correct?

What is the nature of "dark matter" and "dark energy"?

What is the origin of cosmic magnetism? Is there life somewhere else in the universe?

Because of its sheer size and pristine environment in outback Australia and South Africa's Karoo, the SKA will be able to contribute in a fundamental way to all of these questions and reveal things other facilities haven't been able to do.

What is "SKA 1" and "SKA 2"?

The SKA is to be constructed in two phases: Phase 1 (SKA1) in South Africa and Australia representing a fraction of the full SKA; and Phase 2 (SKA2) expanding into other African countries, with the Australian component also being expanded.

Phase 1 consists of 197 dishes in South Africa and 130,000 antennas in Australia, and is now reaching the end of its design phase.

During 2018 we are having the critical design reviews for each of the key elements of the SKA – it's the final engineering step before we can proceed to construction. SKA2 will be a future, massive expansion of Phase 1.

What is the SKA Convention and what does it mean for a country to sign it? What will the Convention actually pay to build?

The SKA Convention is an international treaty, ratified by governments, that will form the basis of a new intergovernmental organisation called the SKA Observatory, created to build and run the SKA telescopes.

This is directly analogous to the structures established for CERN, ESA, ESO or ITER, to name a few.

Just like any international treaty, signing it means that a country is making a long-term commitment to a project.

The convention itself is the treaty that establishes the SKA Observatory.

The first step following that establishment is for the partner nations, through the SKA Observatory Council, to approve the construction and operations of SKA Phase 1.

What is the likely cost of SKA membership to New Zealand?

The cost of membership will be determined through negotiation but is based on a measure of a country's scientific capacity.

This makes sense as countries essentially pay for access to the telescope.

The proposal to join the SKA has been the subject of controversy among some New Zealand scientists, with several astronomers and astrophysicists saying publicly that it is a poor fit with their most of their research interests. What would you say to the doubters to get them excited about the project?

We see strong support from the New Zealand Government and most of the astronomy community in the country.

This high-resolution image of the Centaurus A nebula too six years to produce. The Square Kilometre Array could produce a similar image in 20 minutes. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
This high-resolution image of the Centaurus A nebula too six years to produce. The Square Kilometre Array could produce a similar image in 20 minutes. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

We hear the concerns, but we need to remember the SKA is not an experiment, it is a facility.

It is designed to be flexible, in order to do a wide range of science, and will constantly be upgraded.

We are therefore confident it is of huge relevance to many fields of not just radio astronomy, but astronomy as a whole.

Modern astrophysics research requires access to facilities which observe across the electromagnetic spectrum, from gamma rays, through optical, infrared to the radio; only with such panchromatic capabilities can we understand the nature of the universe we live in.

Not only that, but the involvement of industry is crucial in delivering the SKA.

In New Zealand, this translates into the involvement of companies such as Nyriad and others.

This represents millions of dollars of investment and, hopefully, will lead to the development of new, disruptive technologies in the same manner as WiFi, which was invented by radio astronomers.

What other big science projects do you see as being competitors of the SKA? Why should New Zealand look to be involved with the SKA, and not one or more of the alternatives?

In radio astronomy, there are none.

The full SKA will be the biggest facility by far, and will thus provide unprecedented capability to study many of the hot topics of astronomy such as pulsars, gravitational waves, cosmic magnetism, cosmology and others.

There are of course, many big astronomy projects in the planning, such as the Extremely Large Telescopes – TMT, GMT and ESO's ELT – as well as international collaborations in gravitational waves like LIGO, VIRGO, and upcoming space telescopes like the JWST.

What is important to remember is that all these facilities work together.

Science is not one or the other.

Each of these facilities provides us with a unique capability in a certain window to observe certain phenomena, but you need to others to get the full picture.

Increasingly, science is inter-connected and international, and we talk about synergies between these facilities.

It is truly a wonderful time to invest in science and reap the benefits of it, not just in terms of knowledge, but in terms of technological developments, jobs and spinoffs.

The SKA has been a long time in development and the timetable seems to have changed repeatedly. At one point it was hoped to have the full telescope finished by 2022, but now not even the first phase will be done by then. What confidence should we have in getting the project completed to schedule once construction gets under way properly?

Major projects like the SKA are difficult. JWST, TMT, the LHC, the international space station – there are many examples of delays and difficulties.

It's because what we do has never been done before.

We are pushing the envelope and that takes time.

But it's important to remember the end goal and what we will achieve with such facilities.

That is what matters.

Once the convention is signed and ratified – and this is a matter for the governments – we'll be able to get the new observatory started and to present a construction proposal to our member countries.

Once contracts have been issued, we'll be on our way.

The good thing is, we will start doing science before the full telescope is delivered, as more dishes and antennas get integrated.

This flexibility will allow us to start doing meaningful science before too long.

What are the benefits to NZ's ICT industry?

New Zealand punches above its weight in the ICT field.

Within SKA, New Zealand is contributing software expertise to the design of the digital signal processing systems and to the science data processor.

It must be remembered that SKA will generate truly enormous volumes of data, greater than almost all other scientific facilities.

The software to handle, calibrate, images, process and visualise this data will be highly sophisticated and state-of-the-art.

It will, undoubtedly, have applications in many other areas of science and society.

New Zealand's ICT participation will enable that industry to be at the heart of these exciting and innovative developments.