A scientist leading a Kiwi contribution to the planet's largest radio telescope says New Zealand has been "punching above its weight" in getting the massive Square Kilometre Array (SKA) built.

Around 600 scientists around the world have been working against tight deadlines to complete the first phase of the SKA which, once operational, will reveal unprecedented information about the nature and origins of our universe.

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.

It's expected the vast radio telescope network will ultimately be able to capture signals produced by sources that could be traced as far back as 13 billion years ago, when the first galaxies began appearing, and detect radio activity up to 50 light years from Earth.


New Zealand, one of 10 nations with a key role in building the network in the deserts of Australia and South Africa, is contributing a team of university researchers and industry partners.

They've been helping design the SKA's Central Signal Processor (CSP), acting as a brain that converts digitised astronomical signals detected by the telescope's receivers, and its Science Data Processor (SDP), which will combine the processing power of 100 million computers.

NZ SKA Alliance director Dr Andrew Ensor, of Auckland University of Technology, said much of the engineering work was uncharted territory, given the computational grunt the SKA would demand.

Its dishes will eventually 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.

"No one has ever seen these data rates before, so the big challenge is being able to crunch our way through all of the data, move the data around, and then be able to process it within the computing power limitations we've got now."

The Kiwi team had grown to the point that there was equivalent 15 people working full-time on it.

"About six per cent of SKA is being designed by New Zealanders, so that's actually about three times more than our membership."

The team was six months away from a critical design review of the CSP, but remained "quite stretched" in getting through work on the SDP.

At this stage, construction of the billion-dollar first phase of the SKA is set to begin at mid-2019 at the earliest, with completion scheduled for some time between 2023 and 2024.

By that time, the SKA would comprise 200 dishes in South Africa and about 130,000 in Australia, with the network scaling up to 2000 dishes and one million antennae in the respective countries by 2030.

Meanwhile, the Government, which has invested more than $2 million and has now included the project in its Strategic Science Investment Fund, was negotiating to be part of the intergovernmental organisation to run the SKA.

"It's a bit like trying to negotiate to be a member of the UN Security Council," Ensor said.

But he added New Zealand could be proud of its part in the project.

"We are really punching well above our weight now.

"I wouldn't say we are comfortable at the moment, because there is so much work that needs to be done, but I think we've got a good reputation in the project."

Big data commitment 'big news' for science

The head of a high-speed telecommunications network powering New Zealand's research community says a new $21 million Government investment is "big news" for Kiwi science.

Science and Innovation Minister Paul Goldsmith this month announced the REANNZ network, connecting New Zealand's universities, research institutes and polytechs, would receive funding through to at least 2024.

The new funding, through MBIE's Strategic Science Investment Fund, would allow REANNZ to offer a range of services that enable its users data-intensive research and high-performance science applications.

It meant researchers could push ahead with future data-hungry research projects, knowing that the infrastructure was going to be in place to support them, REANNZ chief executive Nicole Ferguson said.

"Globally, research is becoming increasingly data-intensive," she said.

"This strategic investment will assist us to ensure New Zealand can not only participate, but remain at the competitive edge of science and research.

"This has important implications for us as New Zealanders, as the work done by our science and research communities leads to innovations in areas such as healthcare, agriculture and the environment."

Last week, the Government also announced it would also commit $380,000 for a trans-Tasman collaboration to develop and test an operating system for managing enormous amounts of science data in real time.