Last week saw the final pitches delivered by the two consortiums bidding for the SKA: Australia and New Zealand, and South Africa. These pitches were delivered at the SKA2011 conference in Canada and provided the final opportunity for each consortium to convince the selection panel that their region was the better site for the SKA to be situated. With anzSKA Project Director Dr Brian Boyle describing the SKA as a “Megascience project”, this is the largest, arguably most complex scientific apparatus every planned, and will be a massive boon not only for the hosting country but for science as a whole.
The two most critical aspects of the success of this project is the development of information technology, and energy generation, according to Professor Peter Quinn, Director of The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. The SKA will be at least 10,000 times more capable than any telescope before it, and as a result will generate unprecedented amounts of data. In fact, a single day of operation of the SKA will generate more data than the entire world generates in an entire year, which will be stored in a single, central, storage site. This makes the software developed for the SKA arguably the most critical component of the entire project, as it must be able to analyse and compile these monumental amounts of data. In fact the IT requirements of this project are so large that, according to Prof Quinn, the SKA will drive the IT industry for the next 10-15 years.
Green energy is another critical aspect of the SKA project and the Australian bid. The power requirements of the SKA telescopes, of which there will be around 3000, and central computing facilities will be considerable. Additionally, the SKA telescopes will be scattered throughout Australia and New Zealand, raising difficulties for the distribution of energy to the telescope sites. This makes it unviable to rely on regular electricity supplies, and if dedicated power generation facilities are developed, they must be sustainable to limit the effect of the SKA on the environment. This means that the development of innovative energy solutions is a critical step to bringing the SKA to fruition, as will technology to improve energy management, control and efficiency.
Senator Kim Carr, Australian Federal Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, was present in Canada for the final pitch. “This is a project of immense international significance” he told media, highlighting the government’s support of the SKA bid. In particular, he was excited by the benefits this project could have for technological advancements developed during the project which could flow through to everyday life. “In terms of high speed computing, advanced engineering, ICT, in terms of development of green power, there are a range of new technologies I believe will flow from this, as we have seen in the past new technologies flow from astronomical research.”
Senator Carr continued, “The Australian public will receive huge benefits from a project of this type.” He points that there will be “enormous employment opportunities…. and this is a project which will go for 50 years”, and also pointed to technological flow on effects from previous astronomy projects such as wireless networking, now used in nearly every computer in the world.
Australia and New Zealand’s bid has several strengths which should place it in a favourable position. The radio quietness – that is the extremely low level of background radiowaves – found in the Australian outback is a vital feature to maximise the sensitivity and accuracy of the SKA. In fact, a 500km ‘radio quiet zone’ has been established around the SKA sites to ensure that this radio quietness is protected and maintained. Australia’s land mass also provides flexibility in the siting of array stations, allowing the absolutely perfect location to be used for the telescopes. Dr Boyle also suggests the National Broadband Network is a particular strength in the ANZ bid, providing infrastructure for the transmission of data from the SKA outstations to the central data facility. Finally, Australia and New Zealand’s strength lies in its people, with a large group of very strong and reputable astronomy researchers already existing and able to take full advantage of the project.
According to Brian Boyle, the week provided “positive progress” for the Australian bid, and that both bid parties were satisfied that the decision making process in selecting the site was very robust and would lead to an outcome in the best interest of the project as a whole. Following these final bids, an independent expert committee is considering the two sites, and a final decision will be made in February 2012. Whichever site is selected, the SKA project will provide considerable opportunities to all countries involved, and will provide scientific discoveries which literally change the way we see our place in the universe. The building, management and operation of the SKA will also provide technological advancements which will potentially change day-to-day life, making this a scientific project which will have outcomes far beyond astronomical.
For more information about the SKA and the scale of this megascience project, see the previous articles: