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The world's biggest radio telescope project.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Government support is crucial to help Australia and New Zealand win their bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), says the scientist driving New Zealand's role in the world's biggest radio telescope project.

The US$1 billion SKA project will let scientists probe radiation sources so distant that they must have originated about 13 billion years ago, near the beginning of the universe.

AUT University Professor and radio astronomer Sergei Gulyaev is delighted with today's announcement [subs: embargoed to midnight Sept 28 NZ time] that the Australia-New Zealand consortium has beaten off bids from China and Argentina/Brazil to host SKA. The only rival remaining is Southern Africa.

Announcing its decision, the International SKA Steering Committee said both the Australasian consortium and Southern Africa could meet the full range of requirements for the SKA.

But Professor Gulyaev says New Zealand may have to pull out of the project without government funding to build and maintain a radio telescope with sufficient collecting area.

"It would be a disgrace if the SKA finally lands in Australia without New Zealand being part of it," he says.

"We have the knowledge and technology, we have the right conditions – all we need now is the financial backing to make it a reality."

Professor Gulyaev is director of AUT's Centre for Radiophysics and Space Research, the New Zealand partner in the Australasian SKA Consortium.

"The consortium has worked hard on this for two years and now we have made it to the final two. For a relatively small investment, New Zealand has an unparalleled opportunity to be part of what will be one of the world's biggest science projects. It will give the country huge international prestige."

Professor Gulyaev says the Centre needs about $3 million to install a suitable telescope. At the moment, it is using a 6m dish belonging to Auckland amateur radio operator Brent Addis.

SKA will study, among other things, the centre of our Galaxy – the Milky Way – and the most powerful sources of energy in the Universe, the nuclei of active galaxies and quasar systems.

The core site of the Australasian bid will be in Western Australia, with satellites spread across Australia. Two/three sites in New Zealand are proposed – Warkworth and Ardmore in the North Island and Awarua and Rangiora in the South Island.

Sir Ian Axford, Chair of SKANZ (New Zealand SKA Committee) and former head of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Aeronomics, backs Professor Gulyaev's call for government support.

"SKA could be the most important project of this kind ever undertaken in New Zealand, and it would bring us to the forefront of international research and development in a very exciting field," he says. "The opportunity should not be missed."

The final site decision is expected by 2010.


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