Astronomers eye old satellite dish

BIG POTENTIAL: Converting the antenna into a radio telescope will strengthen  the Australasian case for the Square Kilometre Array.
BIG POTENTIAL: Converting the antenna into a radio telescope will strengthen the Australasian case for the Square Kilometre Array.

A 30-metre Telecom satellite dish south of Warkworth is about to be taken over by the Auckland University of Technology and converted into a radio telescope.

The refurbished dish, combined with AUT's 12-metre radio telescope close by, will make the research facility one of the largest and most advanced in the country, AUT Institute of Radio Astronomy and Space Research director professor Sergei Gulyaev says.

The university will hold a 20-year lease on the antenna and its accompanying buildings, with refurbishment estimated at around $1.5 million, plus ongoing maintenance costs.

AUT has been eyeing the dish and its potential after learning it was to be decommissioned by Telecom.

International radio astronomy engineers confirmed in February the Warkworth dish would have a good chance of being converted into a telescope.

It has a surface collection area over six times greater than the current radio telescope and New Zealand's only commercial quality dish.

If the conversion is successful the resulting facility would be world-class, Mr Gulyaev says.

There have been similar conversions of this class of antenna at other sites overseas, Telecom international planning and operations head Charles Jarvie says.

The Warkworth No 2 antenna – one of the last of its type and built in 1984 – is in "good nick", he says.

An older antenna was dismantled on the site two years ago.

The new radio telescope will strengthen the Australian and New Zealand joint bid to host the Square Kilometre Array.

The project could see a massive radio telescope made up of around 3000 radio telescopes all operating as a single unit.

Most of the telescopes would be in Western Australia but extending the array to two cluster sites in New Zealand would give an effective span of 5500km.

The Warkworth facility will be useful to test the science and for training for the array project, Mr Gulyaev says.

While the resulting telescope will be 50 times more sensitive than any current radio telescope, significant benefits are also expected for other industries in New Zealand, including information communication and technology with high speed networking and broadband.

Telecom International is a member of an industry consortium set up to look at the array's benefits for the country.

Other members of the consortium include IBM New Zealand and the NZ ICT group.

The other contender to host the array is a southern African group. The final decision is expected in 2012.

The official handover is on November 19.

Rodney Times