In pictures: AUT radio telescope goes live, begins $4 billion megascience bid


Chris Keall

(Updated) AUT's radio telescope will go live at 4.15pm today (the science minister's absence notwithstanding). The $1 million dish will collect radio signals from deep space, looking back toward the birth of the universe. It will also be deployed for more down-to-earth science, such as measuring ozone in the atmosphere, and tectonic plate movement.

The dish is a proof-of-concept scheme, designed to boost an Australia-New Zealand bid to build a $NZ4 billion megascience project to be known as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). 

A South African consortium is also on the shortlist to build the project. The winner will be chosen in 2011 by an independent scientific community panel called the International SKA Site Advisory Committee (ISSC). The panel has already cut two of the original four contenders: China and Argentina / Brazil. 

The 12m dish, sitting on an 8-tonne pedestal, was built by Michigan's Patriot Systems, then shipped across the Pacific before being assembled at its new home at the Warkworth Satellite Station, north of Auckland.

The Australian-led ANZ bid, being vigorously championed by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, would see 5000 such dishes built across Australia and New Zealand, working as one, virtual super telescope (with a total physical collection area of one square kilometre; hence square kilometre array). In Australia, 44 dishes will soon go live in a $A150 million trial. It's Big Science; a project that would only be equalled in scope and ambition by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the Franco-Swiss border. 

If the ANZ bid is successful, the aim is to have the dishes operational by 2020. Rudd has been very proactive on the project, putting the SKA on the agenda  somewhat to our government's surprise  for his first talks with Helen Clark. Clark has issued a statement saying "New Zealand will offer strong support" for the SKA.

National's shadow science minister Dr Paul Hutchison has been following the bid closely, and the Hon. Lockwood Smith (the local MP) represented the party at the launch. Like Labour, Smith is broadly supportive but wouldn't be drawn on any specific financial commitment.

I suspect both parties are wary of the New Zealand public's reaction to such an outlay on a science project, even as it stomachs the appalling middle-class welfare of stadium-building subsidies (while Australia and 18 other countries that would share SKA data would shoulder the lion's share, around $NZ20 million would probably come out of our coffers before the next election). It could be sold. Just imagine: if we find life on other planets, we could play them at rugby (though maybe that's bad news for those who think the Super 14's already too big).

The project's New Zealand lead, Professor Sergei Gulyaev, director of AUT's Institute for Radiophysics and Space Research, says the longer the baseline of your virtual telescope, the more sensitive it is to radio signals, and the further it can "look" into space, and back in time.

The SKA will be at least 50 times as senstive as any radio telescope in existence today, allowing astronomers and to look back billions of years, close to the birth of the universe. 

Current radio telescopes can observe objects 2 billion light years away, Gulyaev says. A square kilometre array could look back 10 billion years. (Recent, more precise measurements of the cosmic background radiation produced 1000 years after the big bang put the age of the universe  for a long time a matter of furious conjecture  at 13.7 billion years, the AUT prof. tells me.)

With 5000 dishes, an Australia-New Zealand square kilometre array would have a radius of 5000km to the South Africans 3000km, says Gulyaev. The Russian ex-pat says the difference in resolution is like pitting a 20 megapixel digital camera agains a 5 megapixel model. 

At the heart of AUT's dish will be a $300,000 atomic clock (still on its way), necessary to provide the most accurate possible time-stamps as it corrolates its observations with those of other radio telescopes already operating around the world, and its possible companions to come if the SKA gets the go-ahead.

The terabytes of data a day produced by the dish will soon be pumped over KAREN, the ultra-broadband fibre optic network that links supercomputers at tertiary institutions around the country. But initial test data was manually transported to Wellington, where it was analysed on the blade server farm run by Weta Digital.

For later data transfer and crunching efforts, Kordia, IBM, Sun and others are circling. A bit of digging up the valley could be needed: after the launch, Kordia CEO Geoff Hunt told me he couldn't say off the top of the head what quality fibre optic cable was laid around Rodney, only that he was sure it would be up to the 1 gigabit per second spec requested by Gulyaev.

As welling unlocking mysteries of how the early universe worked, the SKA  deploying the same technology as SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), but on a far vaster scale  may answer another fundamental question.

"Every human being asks, 'Are we alone?'" says the SKA's New Zealand project lead, Prof. Sergei Gulyaev.

The Russian academic emigrated to New Zealand 10 years ago, and has helped drive AUT's four-year-old SKA project. Beyond the SKA, Gulyaev offers masters and PhD courses at AUT's Institute of Radio Physics and Space Research.

Forget the All Blacks, this is the team that really needs to beat South Africa in 2011 (left-to-right): Mark Godwin, engineer; Prof. Sergei Gulyaev, director AUT Institute for Radiophysics and Space Research; Bob Cato, engineer from Patriot Systems, Michigan, US; Lewis Woodburn, Radio Telescope Project Manager, AUT; Tim Natusch, Senior Lecturer and radio astronomer, AUT; Martin Steinbach, AUT postgraduate astronomy student.

Gulyaev, incidentally, is a direct descendant of Alexander Popov, now widely seen as the inventor of radio (he and Marconi made similar breakthroughs in 1895).

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