Friday, 29 February 2008 14:01

Western Australia Govt pumps A$20m into star trek

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A journey through the stars, via ground based radio astronomy? That’s the WA Govt’s plan, with a $20m package to boost their chances of winning the A$2 billion ‘Square Kilometre Array’.

A statement from the West Australian (WA) Government has unveiled that Australia's largest state is in with a very big chance to become the home of a next-generation project in radio astronomy.

Australia is one of two international bidders shortlisted for the ‘Square Kilometre Array’, or SKA - an international project to develop a next-generation radio telescope capable of exploring the origins of the universe, with scientists and research organisations from 19 countries contributing to the project.

According to the official SKA Telescope website’s press materials, “The SKA science reach will be extraordinary, allowing new discoveries in astroparticle physics and cosmology, fundamental physics, galactic and extragalactic astronomy, and solar system science”.

An issue of Cosmos Magazine from 2006 said the SKA will cost A$1 billion to build (although the WA Govt’s statement says A$2b) and “is expected to be operational by 2020”.

Cosmos Magazine continued that: “The advanced array would consist of thousands of radio dish antennas spread across the continent to create a 'virtual' dish thousands of kilometres in diameter. Though spread over more than 3,000 km, half of the antennas in the Australian SKA would be in a central 5 km by 5 km region in outback Western Australia”.

WA Premier Alan Carpenter said in a statement that: “The SKA is considered to be the world’s biggest science project of the 21st century. Our logic is simple - we want to win the SKA project for Australia. We already have the best site in the world; now we want the best science in the world”.

Carpenter continued that: “We want WA to provide not only the site (the Murchison Radio-Astronomy Observatory in the State’s Mid-West), but also the infrastructure and the people doing the core science and engineering.”

Carpenter is clearly very keen to win, and expects to, with ‘The West Australian newspaper’ quoting Premier Carpenter saying that: “The decision should be a foregone conclusion”.

So, is a $20m package enough to win the bid? What precisely will the money be spent on, and where will nearly $10m more be spent in related projects? And can a ‘Carpenter’ really build the world’s largest radio telescope? Please read onto page 2.


Premier Carpenter clearly expects the $20m package to go a long way in convincing the SKA Telescope project organisers to choose Western Australia as ‘the’ SKA site – but Australia does have competition.

According to the official SKA Telescope website, there were four candidate sites in 2005 - Argentina/Brazil, Australia, China and Southern Africa.

In 2006 this was shortened by the International SKA Site Advisory Committee to just South Africa and Australia, with additional studies of the characteristics of the short-listed sites having been carried out in 2007 and to be continued in 2008, with a final decision of the location of the SKA due by 2012.

The $20m package will go towards establishing an International Radio Astronomy Research Centre in Western Australia, which will be up and running by 2009, with the initiative expected to be a collaborative joint venture and leverage significant contributions from research organisations and industry.

Specifically, the State Government’s $20million will contribute towards:

- the employment of up to 100 scientists and technicians to undertake radio astronomy research and development;
- purchasing and developing new software and technologies;
- developing radio astronomy-related industry capability in WA through employing scientists and engineers to work with local industry to design, develop and manufacture engineering solutions for SKA;
- undertaking public outreach and education programs; and
- creating domestic and international linkages and partnerships on SKA.

Premier Carpenter said the WA Government would ask research institutions and industry to work together to put forward proposals for the centre, and said the International Radio Astronomy Research Centre would add to WA’s already significant radio astronomy research capability.

Carpenter said that: “This will be a comprehensive centre that will do pure radio astronomy science as well as develop new ICT and engineering systems. The centre will involve The University of Western Australia, Curtin University of Technology, CSIRO, research institutions and industry”.

“We also expect significant involvement from other WA, national and international research institutions and industry partners. The centre will also be home to hundreds of researchers, technicians and post-graduate students”, continued Carpenter.

So, where will nearly $10m be spent on additional associated projects – and what are some final comments on the SKA project which Australia is yet to win? Please read onto page 3.


Premier Carpenter also announced almost A$10 million for five new major research facilities including the:

- Radio Astronomy and Engineering Centre of Excellence ($2.3million);
- WA Geothermal Centre of Excellence ($2.3million);
- Centre of Excellence for Climate Change and Woodland and Forest Health ($2.3million);
- Centre of Excellence in Ecohydrology ($1.5million); and
- Centre of Excellence for 3D Mineral Mapping ($1.5million).

These initiatives follow on from the Premier’s joint announcement with the Australian Government last September of the formation of a high level inter-government committee that would oversee Australia’s SKA bid.

University of WA Professor of Astronomy and Premier’s Fellow Peter Quinn was quoted by ‘The West Australian Newspaper’ as saying that: “It's kinda like doing what Galileo (the inventor of the telescope) did 400 years ago - but even 10 times more. It’s a wonderful opportunity for WA to become the centre of the universe literally for astronomy.”

He was further quoted saying that: “That 1% facility will already generate more data in the first six hours than we have ever collected in astronomy ever before so it’s already in its own right a wonderful facility. It just emphasises what the full 100% SKA will do.”

We don’t know if Alan Carpenter will still be the Premier of Western Australia in 2012 when the final decision is to be made – but it does look like a ‘Carpenter’ really could build the world’s largest radio telescope!


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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