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Tasman link boosts “superscope” bid

AUT dishes at Warkworth

Nestled among the green hills of Warkworth, the Auckland University of Technology now operates a 12m dish (left) and a 30m dish (right) for radio astronomy.

  • Radio astronomy data sent from NZ to Australia over new link
  • Data transfer will be vital to the Square Kilometre Array telescope
  • New Zealand astronomers also get new, large radio astronomy dish

In a taste of things to come, data from a radio telescope dish in New Zealand has been transmitted at high speed to an Australian astronomy computer centre in Perth.

Australia and New Zealand are collaborating in a bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a vast network of radio telescope antennae that will give astronomers unprecedented data on the earliest evolution of the Universe.

The two countries’ bid is up against one from southern Africa. A decision on whether the SKA will be hosted in the Australia-New Zealand region or in southern Africa will be made in 2012. Construction will begin in the second half of this decade.

Artist's impression of the SKA

Artist's impression of the central part of the Square Kilometre Array, which will be a vast network of antennae for radio astronomy.

In this week’s test, data from the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research (IRASR) 12-metre-diameter radio telescope was sent at a speed of 1 gigabit per second to the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) at Curtin University in Perth.

It took less than one hour to transfer the 0.5 TeraBytes of data—observations of a “radio galaxy” called Centaurus A—from AUT to Curtin, a distance of 5,500 kilometres.

This was made possible by the recent upgrade of KAREN’s (Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network) international connectivity between New Zealand and Australia from 155 Mb/s to 1 Gb/s.

KAREN’s new international network went live on 15 November and provides the only research link between New Zealand and Australia.

The new, upgraded service provides 1 Gb/s capacity to both Sydney and Los Angeles, greatly enhancing the opportunity for KAREN members to communicate and collaborate with the global research and education community.

“For us New Zealand radio astronomers it opens up the opportunity for real-time operations and allows us to move from the technique of VLBI (very long baseline interferometry) to its real-time version, e-VLBI, the basic technique for future SKA,” says Professor Sergei Gulyaev from AUT University.

“This is a very important milestone towards Australian-New Zealand SKA development,” adds Professor Steven Tingay from Curtin University.

AUT 12m dish

The 12-metre-diameter radio telescope dish operated by the Auckland University of Technology.

“Electronic data transfer for the large data volumes generated in radio astronomy is an important technique that enables the maximum science to be extracted from our observations.”

“This milestone will allow a wide range of science to be jointly undertaken by Australian and New Zealand radio astronomers”.

New dish for New Zealand

Meanwhile, a former Telecom New Zealand 30-metre-diameter radio dish is getting a new lease of life after being handed over to AUT for use as a radio telescope—the largest in New Zealand.

Telecom has given AUT University the licence to operate the Warkworth 2 dish, based at Telecom’s Warkworth Satellite Earth Station north of Auckland, which until now has been used for used for satellite communications.

The majority of New Zealand’s voice and data traffic is now transmitted under the ground via fibre, and internationally through the Southern Cross cable, and advances in satellite technology over the years have resulted in improved transmission performance allowing dishes to be smaller.

As a result, Warkworth 2 has now been replaced by a newer antenna system, so Telecom was able to consider other uses for the antenna.

“This partnership will create a world-class national and international resource for radio astronomy research and will enable AUT’s Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research to significantly increase and develop the scope of their research programmes,” says Telecom chief technology officer, Dave Havercroft.

“And, importantly for New Zealand, will also build capability across other disciplines including ICT, physics, mathematics, and engineering.”

The dish, once converted into a radio telescope, will be used by AUT’s Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research (IRASR) to study star formation, the Milky Way’s centre and gaseous components of our Galaxy.

Professor Gulyaev says the 30-metre dish will have a collecting area six times greater than its 12-metre counterpart, which will mean much greater sensitivity and resolution.

Other uses for the new facility include the study of galactic nuclei other than the Milky Way, quasars, mega-masers, and cosmic molecules including organic molecules that may be indicators of extraterrestrial life.

The new radio telescope will be networked to its 12-metre counterpart and eventually will be linked to telescopes around the globe particularly in Asia and Australia. The IRASR already collaborates with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in the USA, ESA (European Space Agency), the Russian Space Agency and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency).

Adapted from information issued by Telecom NZ / AUT / ICRAR. Images by Sergei Gulyaev / ICRAR / CSIRO.

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