DESLEY BLANCH: The Square Kilometre Array, that’s the massive radio telescope project that will explore the heavens beyond anything we’ve been able to do before and the decision on where it might be built is imminent.
Australia is vying for the rights to build that telescope and base it here in Australia.
Australia and New Zealand are competing – against South Africa – for the 2-billion dollar Square Kilometre Array telescope or the SKA.
The Australian scientific research institution CSIRO’s Doctor Brian Boyle is the Australia and New Zealand SKA Director and he spoke to ABC Radio’s Fran Kelly on the eve of the announcement of the site’s location.
DR. BRIAN BOYLE : We expect to know, I expect to know within the next few days. A recommendation is being made by an expert panel to the board of the SKA Organisation and then the board will then proceed to negotiate with the preferred site.
FRAN KELLY : Okay, it won’t be made public for some time?
DR. BRIAN BOYLE : No, no, that’s right. I mean essentially Fran, it’s a bit like a tender process, you know, we’ve hired an independent expert panel, review both bits against a series of well defined criteria and then carry out negotiations with the preferred site in a degree of confidence.
FRAN KELLY : So Brian, should Australia and New Zealand win this bid, what do you think gives our two countries the edge over the South African bid?
DR BRIAN BOYLE : Oh look Fran, I think we’ve got very many competitive advantages. I think that the Australia and New Zealand bid can maximise the science that we get out of the telescope while minimising the risk to rolling out what is going to be the world’s most ambitious piece of scientific infrastructure in the 21st. Century.
FRAN KELLY : And what are those risks?
DR. BRIAN BOYLE : Well obviously, we can provide a safe and secure working environment for the telescope, we can manage our costs well. Of course, we have a National Broadband Network that will support the tremendous data transport requirements of the telescope.
We’ve also got outstanding scientific characteristics of the site. The core site is in the mid west of Western Australia, the beautiful shire of Murchison, which is 50,000 square kilometres but only 110 people, so we’ve got far away from the radio noise that people generate and we’ve got really powerful legislation to ensure the telescope is protected for the next 50 years.
FRAN KELLY : That quiet, that sort of protection from radio interference, radio noise, that is critical for this project. Why? What is SKA going to, what is it trying to do?
DR. BRIAN BOYLE : So SKA is going to look out into space ten times further than any radio telescope. It’s going to look for the most distant galaxies and stars in the universe, consequently the ones that were born just after the Big Bang. Now these things are incredibly faint, so the SKA has to be incredibly sensitive. It’s 50 times larger than any other radio telescope ever built before.
It could pick up a mobile phone on Neptune. But, of course, it can also pick up signals from man-made interference on earth, so we’ve got to get far away from everybody in order to be able to pick up these signals from the distant cosmos.
FRAN KELLY : Could it pick up sounds of other life forms in space, is that one of the jobs?
DR. BRIAN BOYLE : Well, it is, as well as doing all the things like discovering dark energy and dark matter in the magnetic universe and all these fundamental questions in the 21st. Century, of course, it’s also going to be looking for perhaps one of the most important questions of all, you know, is there extra terrestrial intelligence out there?
FRAN KELLY : And, are you hopeful that question will be answered one day?
DR. BRIAN BOYLE : (laughs) I think it’s a braver person that I that would predict that Fran. No look, I think the SKA is going to discover, it’s going to make transformation discoveries in astronomy and I look forward to all sorts of discoveries that are going to be made.
FRAN KELLY : It’s a massive project, it’s not just building one antenna, it’s building a network of many hundreds if not thousands of them. What would that cost and what would the gain economic and scientific be to Australia?
DR. BRIAN BOYLE : The total cost, the construction cost is 1.5 billion Euros, that’s two billion Australian dollars and then, of course, operating the telescope for 50 years is a further 5 billion Euros on top of that.
In terms of what it means for Australia, it’s an iconic project, it’s think of the Parkes Radio Telescope, but many times over. We have 3,000 antennas spread over 5,000 kilometres into New Zealand.
In terms of industry, it’s going to be pushing the boundaries of technology. It’s been built with the world’s fastest super computer, not the world’s fastest super computer today but the world’s fastest super computer in 2020. So it’s tomorrow’s telescope with tomorrow’s technology and the uplift for industry, not just in Australia just, but also around the world is going to be tremendous. I just think the inspirational nature of the telescope as well, stimulating the next generation in science and technology.
FRAN KELLY : Well, talking about tomorrow. Tomorrow or the next day, you will know the recommendation from the Committee on whether SKA will be built in Australia-New Zealand or will go to South Africa. Is that recommendation final? Will the lobbying continue if Australia does win that recommendation, could South Africa still lobby and win it back? What’s the process?
DR. BRIAN BOYLE : Look for us in the Australia-New Zealand project, we’ve long supported this merit, this process for delivering a recommendation. We hope that that recommendation will be the predominant and overriding factor in deciding the telescope site. Obviously, I can’t speak for South Africa in terms of what they’re response will be or indeed what the nature of the recommendation is. It’s just I have to say we’re confident that the merit-based process is the best way to decide the site and we’ll continue to support and do whatever we can in order to ensure that Australia and New Zealand puts its best foot forward and it receives a recommendation through to the decision making process.
FRAN KELLY : Well, I’m sure you’ve been doing that already. Brian, good luck with it and thank you so much for joining us.
DESLEY BLANCH: ABC Radio’s Fran Kelly was speaking with Dr Brian Boyle, the Australia and New Zealand Director for the Square Kilometre Array telescope program as we all await the announcement.
Postscript: SKA announcement is now pushed back to April 4, or later.
Postcript 2: 5/4/2012 - Following the SKA Organisation's meeting on 4/4/2012 in the Netherlands a small scientific working group is to be established to report back to the SKA meeting in mid-May.
Postcript 3: 26/5/2012 - Australia will share the SKA - with Southern Africa and New Zealand which should bring benefits to both continents, so it could be seen as a good result for the world while complicating the lives of the astronomers and engineeers who now have to make it happen.