All set for the world's largest radio telescope. But what's in it for NZ?

As the $2.5bn-plus Square Kilometre Array project moves one baby-step closer to revealing the origins of the universe (well, maybe), New Zealand scientists and mathematicians prepare for a massive data analysis undertaking

Thousands of scientists and engineers in 11 countries are gearing up for the construction and launch of the Square Kilometre Array. The SKA is the world’s largest radio telescope, and the boffins hope it will bring humans a glimpse into beginning of the universe.

Sadly for us, there won't be any hardware on New Zealand soil, after our bid was rejected in 2012 in favour of Australia and South Africa. But it's still a huge thing for Kiwi scientists and mathematicians, says Steve Cotter, CEO of New Zealand’s research and education network Reannz.

As part of the SKA project, Reannz is helping Kiwi researchers prepare to receive and analyse the huge amounts of data that will be collected by the instruments. 

Idealog talked to Cotter about the history of the Square Kilometre Array project and what it means for New Zealand.

Steve Cotter

IDEALOG: What is the SKA?

Steve Cotter: A (really) big, distributed telescope, made up of thousands of dishes and millions of dipole radio receptors, with an effective collecting area of a square kilometre, spread out over Western Australia’s Murchison Shire and the Karoo Desert in South Africa.

The SKA will allow us to monitor and listen to radio waves, rather than optical light (as with traditional telescopes). It will be 100 times as sensitive – and provide image resolution quality 50 times greater – than the biggest present-day telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope.

SKA antennae. Photo courtesy of Astron

The goal of the project is to help answer questions about fundamental physics and the ways the universe functions. Some of the things the SKA hopes to understand are the origins of our universe, dark matter’s role in its creation and the origins of cosmic magnetism. 

Peter Quinn from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research has called the SKA an “enormous ear”, listening for signals from the first stars and galaxies born in the universe.

For example, the SKA will observe pulsars and black holes to test Einstein’s theory of gravity. It will also look for signals of extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the galaxy.

It’s a multi-billion dollar project that commenced in 2012 and is set for completion between 2020 and 2023.

Infographic courtesy of SKA

ID: Why is it interesting and why should we care?

SC: The SKA will allow us to look both far away and backwards in time to the beginning of the universe. We may even be able to answer one of those ultimate human questions – are we alone?

The project moved one step closer last month, when members of the SKA organisation decided negotiations should start with the UK government to establish a permanent headquarters at the University of Manchester. 

ID: Who is working on it?

SC: An international consortium of 11 nations, (comprising around 40% of the world’s population) is helping to fund the project. These include five European countries, China, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Other developing countries in Africa may join the project.

ID: Why work on this now?

SC: Science works towards a 20-year future. Big science is not an end or a means but more a realisation that thinking hard about something then developing capacity always returns interesting results.

The SKA will allow us to look both far away and backwards in time to the beginning of the universe. We may even be able to answer one of those ultimate human questions – are we alone?

ID: Are there Kiwis working on SKA?

SC: Yes, New Zealand is one of the main member partners. Apart from Reannz, there are a number of other Kiwi organisations, including AUT University. As New Zealand’s leading tertiary institute in astronomy, a number of AUT scientists and engineers have been involved across a number of aspects of the project. This includes the design of the Survey Correlator, which will combine signals from across the thousands/millions of receivers.

AUT has also led the majority of modelling/prototyping for the project.  In particular, all the data collected from the SKA telescopes will move through an algorithm or hardware being designed by AUT computer and mathematical sciences expert Dr Andrew Ensor and his team. Teams from four other New Zealand universities (Massey, Otago, Victoria and Auckland) will also be involved in a project to use data collected by the SKA precursors (MeerKAT and ASKAP) to test the data delivery and analysis pipeline, so that researchers will be able to access the SKA data once it goes live.

ID: What is Reannz's part?

SC: The telescopes are expected to generate around 960 Petabytes of raw data every day - the equivalent of streaming approximately 320 million hours of HD video on Netflix.

We will provide access to the Reannz’ advanced network, to test various methods for the movement of such high levels of data. We expect ultimately data will be downloaded/transferred in a matter of hours rather than weeks.

Reannz will be working behind the scenes, leveraging relationships with our peers in other countries, to build and maintain connectivity for data to pass from the SKA to New Zealand, allowing scientists to focus on their science, rather than worrying about the logistics of data collection and data analysis.

ID: Is this exciting for NZ science?

SC: It provides a range of PhD opportunities, via the NZ institutions involved in building the central processor that the super computer will use to collate the range of signals it receives from instruments into usual data. 

Any network technology improvements or discoveries made by Reannz, as it moves and analyses the SKA data will then become available to all New Zealand researchers and scientists, benefiting the whole science community.  These improvements and discoveries will also be shared internationally, helping position New Zealand as an industry innovator and key contributor to the SKA project.

New Zealand is a small country, but we are large participants in the SKA.  By Reannz getting involved in this project, it allows NZ universities and researchers to participate in SKA science without needing to be physically based at the telescope sites. 

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for New Zealand and the science community, enabling direct participation in the building of the largest scientific instrument in human history, as well as the opportunity to make their own discoveries using the data that is collected once the project goes live.

ID: What about any spin-offs for business and technology developers?

SC: The SKA project will use roughly enough optical fiber to wrap twice around the Earth, and the supercomputer being built will have the power of around 100 million PCs.

No doubt, this will result in a range of new technologies becoming available to the wider market, including new CPUs (central processing units) and more advanced green technology (cooling), as well as more complex algorithms to better manage code, leading to better cell phone reception, etc.                                                 

New Zealand is now in a prime position to take advantage of all of the advancements and discoveries made possible by the SKA.  It is up to New Zealand to step up, have the courage to invest in this area of science while actively supporting the imagination of our brightest innovators to commercialise these advancements in ways that will help New Zealand and the world.