Western Australia is one of two sites short-listed to house the world's most advanced radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which could answer some of the big questions fundamental to our understanding of the universe. UWA's School of Physics is at the forefront of the bid to win this international project.
To strengthen Australia's bid, the WA Government has awarded Premier Fellowships to eminent astronomers Professor Lister Staveley-Smith, of the CSIRO Australian Telescope National Facility, and Professor Peter Quinn, of the European Southern Observatory in Germany. Their task, in the School of Physics, is to build research teams, raise the profi le of radio astronomy in WA, and help bring the SKA to Australia. Each fellowship provides $1 million over four years, matched by the same amount from UWA.
According to Professor Staveley-Smith, the SKA radio telescope "will give us insights into the formation and evolution of the first galaxies. It will allow us to use pulsars to test Einstein's theory of general relativity in extreme cases, such as the edge of black holes; to better understand magnetic fields, their origin and evolution; and to gain insights into the formation of planets and life in the universe."
Four countries submitted site bids; Australia, South Africa, Argentina and China. Australia and South Africa were short-listed in September 2006. "If we are successful, the entire SKA will be sited in Australia, with perhaps an extension to New Zealand. We expect funding and site decisions to be made in a couple of years," says Professor Staveley-Smith.
If approved, work on the SKA by an international consortium will begin in 2011. Australia's proposed site is in the shire of Murchison, between Geraldton and Meekatharra. "It's a beautiful site because of the extremely low population density. There is very little frequency interference, and it is not too far from existing infrastructure."
"It's so good that, even before a decision has been made, two fully funded, world-class radio telescopes are to be built nearby in the next two years," says Professor Stavely-Smith. The first is the US$10m, MIT-led Low Frequency Demonstrator (LFD), construction of which will start this year. The second, the CSIRO-led eXtended New Technology Demonstrator (xNTD), has survey capabilities beyond any existing radio telescope. Today's radio telescopes are no longer the single-dish instruments we are familiar with. "If you want a detailed picture of the sky, it's much easier to get signals from a combination of small dishes," says Professor Staveley-Smith.
"The xNTD comprises 30 dishes ranging across 2 km, but the SKA will be much more ambitious. Its core will be only a few kilometres in diameter, but it will have an outer region of over 100 km, and more distant spiral arms extending up to 3000 km across Australia."
Professor Quinn said the SKA was a fantastic opportunity for Australia to be a major player in a global science project. "The SKA will have an operational lifetime of more than 50 years and will be the world's leading radio astronomy facility for most of the 21st century. With a construction cost of AUD$2 billion and an annual operational budget of AUD$100 million, the SKA will bring significant industrial development, research, education and employment opportunities to WA, particularly in the high performance ICT sector."