NZ helps with world's largest telescope

WORLD'S LARGEST: The Square Kilometre Array will be spread across three countries and made up of 3000 dishes.
WORLD'S LARGEST: The Square Kilometre Array will be spread across three countries and made up of 3000 dishes.

New Zealand will be one of the hosts of the world's largest telescope - a $2.5 billion project designed to uncover secrets of the universe such as the existence of intelligent alien life.

The Square Kilometre Array will be spread across New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, and when it's finished, will be made up of 3000 dishes, each 15 metres wide with a receiver surface area of one square kilometre.

It will have 50 times the sensitivity, and 10, 000 times the survey speed of the best current-day telescopes.

Five of the eight nations belonging to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Organisation (Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) voted on the decision yesterday (local time) in Amsterdam.

New Zealand and Australia had put forward a joint bid in competition with a bid from South Africa. It was expected there would only be on outright winner and the South African bid was emerging the favourite. The nations that put forward a bid did not vote.

The SKA will be one of the biggest science projects ever undertaken and SKA Organisation interim director Dr Michiel van Haarlem said it was expected to be able to show scientists what happened in the moments directly after the big bang.

The SKA's colossal field of antennas will sweep the sky, testing Einstein's theory of gravity, even searching for intelligent alien life forms. The data transmitted back to earth in a single day is said to take nearly two million years to play back on an iPod, and the telescope itself will encompass a combined collecting area of more than one million square metres.

In choosing the three countries as the joint sites, the committee had to be sure of space which would allow for the long-term sustainability of a "radio quiet zone" with minimal radio interference and little human interference.


Victoria University Radio Astronomy Group leader Melanie Johnston-Hollitt said the announcement was a "huge deal".

"This is an international project which New Zealand scientists will be at the forefront of, and we will be able to showcase New Zealand science to the world and educate as well as hopefully inspire an entire generation to have an interest in radio astronomy."

Johnston-Hollitt is also the New Zealand science representative on the international board of directors for the SKA project.

She said the telescope would enable scientists to look back in time.

"Because light travels at a finite speed what we'll be seeing is old light, but it will actually show what happened in those moments [after the big bang]."

She said one of the most exciting parts was that existing infrastructure in New Zealand and Australia would be able to be used, "allowing us to do more science, faster".

AUT Institute of Radio and Space Research director Sergei Gulyaev said although international discussions about the telescope began in 1991, yesterday's announcement was just the beginning.

"This is the beginning of the process really for us, so we will start the design phase along with the other groups and that will take four years, and then we will begin building phase one which will take another four years.

He said the telescope would not only be able to look into space, but would be able to provide never-before seen data on the movements of New Zealand's tectonic plates.

"So we would be needing to put in a business case for that, but it can be done and the other countries don't have so much a need for it."

The Russian-born scientist is a radio astronomer at the Auckland University of Technology. He said most of the dishes would be built in Australia, but some would be built at the top of the South Island and he also hoped to seen one built at the very bottom of the South Island.

He said the radio telescope could use "quasars" - stable points on the edge of the universe - as points of reference to measure change on Earth.


Australian Science and Research Minister Senator Chris Evans and New Zealand Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said it was a great outcome.

"This is an outstanding result for the Australia-New Zealand bid after many years of preparation and an intensive international process," Evans said.

"Importantly, it will give us the opportunity to showcase to the world our ability to successfully deliver scientific projects at this scale."

He said sharing the project meant researchers could capitalise on the infrastructure and strengths of both sites.

Joyce said the announcement was a "significant win for science and astronomy research" in New Zealand and Australia.

"The SKA presents an excellent opportunity for New Zealand science and business to benefit from involvement in a project of such international scale and significance."

Speaking at a news conference after the announcement, SKA board chairman Prof John Womersley said the decision to use both the South African and Australasian sites would increase the costs and complexity of the project, the Daily Mail reported.

He said its targets would be radio sources in the sky that radiate at centimetre to metre wavelengths.

These included the clouds of hydrogen gas in the infant Universe that collapsed to form the very first stars and galaxies.

The SKA would map precisely the positions of the nearest billion galaxies. The structure they traced on the cosmos should also reveal new details about "dark energy", the mysterious negative pressure that appears to be pushing the Universe apart at an ever-increasing speed.

South Africa's site is in the Northern Cape, while the joint New Zealand-Australian section will be in Western Australia and the top of the South Island.