Kiwi astronomer’s small steps pay off with $2.5b leap (for mankind)

The billion-dollar Square Kilomatre Array radio-telescope project takes a giant leap forward this week with a major annoucenment in Banff, Canada.
AUT's 12m radio telescope at Warkworth

It’s six years since we first profiled stargazin’ AUT professor Sergei Gulyaev in Idealog #2. Back then he’d just spent a series of wintry nights with his team pointing a portable telescope at a plasma disc and black hole 4.5 billion light years away while Tasmanian astronomers were studying the same thing across the ditch.

Gulyaev, his colleagues and the Aussies were vying for a role in the Square Kilometre Array, a $2.5 billion-dollar initiative set to create a network of radio telescopes with the ability to see further into the universe than ever before.

This week the Kiwis’ joint bid with the Australian team to host the international SKA radio telescope has taken a giant leap, with the commissioning of a working optical fibre link between AUT University’s radio telescope and others across Australia. The achievement is being announced at the 2011 International SKA Forum, taking place this week in Banff, Canada.

Last week the radio astronomers used six telescopes—AUT’s in Warkworth, one in Western Australia, three more in NSW and another at the University of Tasmania—and combined them to observe a radio source that appears to be two black holes orbiting each other.

The ability to link the satellite dishes over such great distances made the project possible in our area of the globe, giving the team the winning bid.The  SKA telescope, once completed, will have several thousand antennas up to 5,500 kilometres apart working together as a single telescope. Linking antennas in such a manner allows astronomers to see distant galaxies in more detail. Pretty clever, huh?

Gulyaev says SKA’s thousands of dishes will produce such a huge volume of information that recording the images for later use would be impossible.

Sergei Gulyaev“Instead we will have to stream and process vast amounts of data in real-time. This is 21st century technology and we are proud that New Zealand is at the very forefront of this development,” he says.

In the trial last week, the astronomers targeted a quasar named PKS 0637-752, a massive celestial body more than twelve thousand million light years away. The quasar emits a spectacular radio jet with a string of bright spots, which some astronomers suggest is created by two black holes in orbit around each other.

Australian astronomer Dr Tasso Tzioumis says viewing the celestial object was the equivalent of viewing a 10 cent piece from 1000km away.

“It’s a fascinating object, and we were able to zoom right into its core, seeing details just a few millionths of a degree in scale,” he says.

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