SKA surprise three-way win hailed by all

SKA telescope - artist impressionThe scientific community has plenty of cause for celebration now the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Organisation has finally announced the world's largest radio telescope will be shared between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

The $1.9m SKA telescope will enable astronomers to see the formation and evolution of the very first stars and galaxies after the Big Bang, investigate the nature of gravity, and possibly even discover life beyond Earth.

Once completed in 2024, it will comprise antennae and dishes spread over thousands of kilometres for a total receiver surface area of one square kilometre.

During the first phase of the project, most of the dishes will be in South Africa, with the rest in Western Australia.

The majority of SKA dishes in Phase 1 will be built in South Africa, as will all the dishes and the mid frequency aperture arrays, while the low frequency aperture array antennas for Phase I and II will be built in Australia and New Zealand.

Professor Sergi Gulyaev, head of AUT University's Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research, said there could be an opportunity for the institute's telescope to connect with the Australian part of the project and for New Zealand to design and build parts of the equipment.

The majority of the SKA members were in favour of a dual-site implementation model – a report from the advisory committee said both sites were well suited to hosting the SKA, although it identified Southern Africa as the preferred site.

New Zealand's representative on the SKA board, Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, told Radio NZ that although in the first phase of the project none of the dishes or antennae will be located in New Zealand, a data centre may be built.

That could attract other industry groups who might  build similar data centres here, she said.

Science and innovation minister Steven Joyce said the announcement was a significant win for science and astronomy research in New Zealand and Australia.

Professor Bryan Gaensler, director of the Centre for All-sky Astrophysics at Sydney University and formerly the International Project Scientist for the SKA, said engineers and scientists could now go back to collaborating rather than competing.

"What the SKA project has decided is to put different technologies in different places, playing to the strengths of each site," he said.

"The lowest frequency component, consisting of antennas that do not move or steer and that can collect signals from the whole sky at once, will be built in Australia and New Zealand. This capitalises on the superb radio quietness of the SKA core planned for Murchison in outback Western Australia - one of the few places on the planet that isn't polluted by FM radio and other artificial signals in this low frequency band.

"The higher frequency technology, consisting of more traditional steerable dishes like the one at Parkes, will be built in Africa. This naturally extends on the MeerKAT array of dishes already under construction at the SKA core site in the Karoo desert region of South Africa.

"The remaining piece of the puzzle are 'phased array feeds', the fish-eye lens technology being developed by CSIRO for their Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) in Western Australia. These will be further developed and expanded in Australia and NZ, and then possibly later installed on dishes in Africa. Aus/NZ technology on an African telescope is truly a win-win scenario."

Pictured: Artist impression of the SKA by Swinburne Astronomy Productions, design data provided by CSIRO