RESEARCHERS AT THE International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) are celebrating today after hearing that Australia will share in hosting the world’s largest telescope – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
ICRAR – a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia – has been working towards the $2 billion SKA since its launch in 2009.
“We’ve been working very hard to make SKA a reality and we’re glad to see the project reach this major milestone. ICRAR is looking forward to taking part in the next stage of the SKA through our expertise in Engineering, Information Technology and Astronomy,” says ICRAR Director Professor Peter Quinn.
Two candidate sites have been bidding to host the SKA, one in Southern Africa and one in Australia and New Zealand, since 2005. It was announced earlier this evening by the International SKA Organisation that the SKA would be split between both sites.
Professor Quinn said sharing the SKA between Africa and Australia allows the project to benefit from the best of both sites, building on the substantial investment in infrastructure and expertise that already exists in both locations.
The new plan to share the SKA will see Australia’s Mid West hosting two key components of the telescope: a group of dishes equipped with Australian-designed multi-pixel radio cameras; and the ‘Aperture Array’ portion, made up of innovative, non-moving, antennae designed to collect lower frequency radio waves from the whole sky.
This part of the SKA will be optimised to survey large portions of the sky quickly, a particular strength of Australian astronomy.
South Africa will host a complementary group of dish-shaped telescopes designed to observe smaller sections of the sky in more detail, following up on regions of interest discovered using the survey portion.
“This model for splitting the SKA closely follows the workings of other observatories around the world; often separate instruments will survey the sky and inform where another telescope should look closer,” says Professor Quinn.
The divide also plays to the strengths of each country’s site, relying on Australia’s expertisedeveloped during the design and construction of radio astronomy survey instruments, such as the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA).
Western Australia to benefit
ICRAR’s Curtin University node is the Lead Organisation of the MWA, the only low-frequency Precursor to the SKA, and as a founding member of the predominantly European ‘Aperture Array Design and Construction’ consortium, ICRAR is applying its expertise to the SKA’s new-generation Aperture Arrays.
“Curtin University is proud to be involved in the SKA project through our joint venture partnership in ICRAR. In particular, we are pleased that our early initiatives in the Aperture Array domain and towards the MWA have proved important in bringing the SKA to Australia. We congratulate everyone involved in the decision, and look forward to the future of this inspiring project,” says Curtin Vice-Chancellor Professor Jeanette Hacket.
ICRAR’s node at The University of Western Australia has been working with international institutions to cost and develop a design for the SKA’s extremely powerful computing systems.
The Vice-Chancellor of The University of Western Australia, Professor Paul Johnson, said UWA welcomed the opportunity to play a key role in this historic quest to advance human knowledge of science and the Universe. “Hosting part of the Square Kilometre Array in Western Australia will enable researchers at ICRAR’s UWA node to make a significant contribution to this ground breaking telescope project. Their work on high performance computing systems for astronomy and sky surveys will help lead a dramatic advance in international astronomy using new-generation telescopes around the world.”
World-leading facilities in place
Professor Quinn said that ICRAR is a world leader in survey science and technology in both radio and optical astronomy, and is looking forward to playing a major role in SKA surveys.
Due to the investment already present in both sites, a split SKA will be able to achieve its scientific goals without substantial added costs.
“Placing a major part of the SKA here shows international recognition of Australia’s strength in radio astronomy and the high quality radio-quiet site Australia has developed in WA’s Mid West,” says Professor Quinn.
It also recognises the significant investment made by the WA Government, the Australian Federal Government, CSIRO, and the ICRAR joint venture partners, to turn Western Australia into a hub for world-class science and engineering. Before the SKA starts observations in 2019, the MWA and ASKAP projects, together with iVEC’s new $80 million Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, and ICRAR itself, will produce excellent science on the path to the SKA.
“These global science endeavours will continue to benefit Western Australia and the international scientific community long into the future. The effort Australia and WA has made in infrastructure, legislation and policies will make the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory a significant centre for global science for decades to come,” says Professor Quinn.
“As an International centre, we’re eager to continue our work with colleagues in Africa and the rest of the world to build the SKA and use it to explore the Universe in 10,000 times more detail than ever before.”
Adapted from information issued by Curtin University. Images courtesy SPDO / TDP / DRAO / Swinburne Astronomy Productions; Photography by Paul Bourke and Jonathan Knispel (supported by WASP (UWA), iVEC, ICRAR, and CSIRO).
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