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The sky’s the limit


23 April 2014


The sky’s the limit

Victoria University has strengthened ties with Chinese astronomers, as part of the University's participation in one of the world’s largest science projects.

A memorandum of understanding has been signed between the Chinese National Astronomical Observatories and Victoria University, which will see staff work together on a number of projects. One of them is the establishment of a summer school programme in China that Victoria students will be able to attend.

The partnership has been developed as part of Victoria's involvement in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project. Anticipated to be the world's largest, most sensitive radio telescope, the multibillion dollar project will allow scientists to shed new light on the origins and history of the universe.

The project is in the first year of a three-year design phase, with researchers and companies from all over the world contributing to the development. It will result in three different types of telescopes being built over two locations in Australia and South Africa.

Victoria University's Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, leader of the Astrophysics group in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, as well as the New Zealand scientific representative to the SKA Board of Directors, is directing a team of researchers who will contribute to the Science Data Processor work package.

“The SKA will be more than ten million times more sensitive than Grote Reber's 1937 radio telescope, and a 100 times more sensitive than the tools we're working with now,” says Dr Johnston-Hollitt.

A team from Victoria which includes Dr Johnston-Hollitt and staff and students from the Schools of Chemical and Physical Sciences, and Engineering and Computer Science, is working alongside other New Zealand and international experts on the “significant data challenge” the project presents.

“The computational requirements for this project are extreme. Take the entire content of the internet—the SKA project will be collecting that amount of information in one day. That's enough data to fill over 15 million 64GB iPods per day.”

The project is staged, with a progressive roll-out meaning some precursor telescopes are currently operational. Dr Johnston-Hollitt is a primary investigator on the precursor Murchison Widefield Array radio telescope in Western Australia which became operational in 2013, and says as well as helping to develop the larger SKA project, it has also led to some discoveries.

“The MWA was built by a consortium of 13 universities, including Victoria. It's currently producing massive amounts of data, and here at Victoria we’ve recently been looking at finding new giant radio galaxies. We’ve found several galaxies that are much larger than previously thought and, working with a staff member at Curtin University in Australia, we’ve even detected one giant radio galaxy that was totally unknown.”

Once the SKA design phase is completed, construction is expected to take between four and five years.

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