NZ revs up bid for new eye on the galaxy

New Zealand’s progress in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope “mega-science” project has stepped up several notches with announcements confirming the trans-Tasman bid for the $3 billion project, appointments of New Zealanders to the SKA founding board, and plans for new research at a site north of Auckland next month.

Members of the nation’s SKA consortium, researchers and business executives met in Wellington for the September 22-23 Rutherford “innovation showcase” gathering at Te Papa in the wake of the Government’s announcement that it has filed a formal bid, with Australia, for the project. At the same time, Victoria University radio astronomer Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt was named as New Zealand’s science representative on the international founding SKA board, and . Ministry of Economic Development executive Jonathon Kings also joined the board.

The new generation radio telescope will be 50 times more powerful than existing instruments and be built in the Southern Hemisphere for the best view of the galaxy with the least radio interference. A decision on whether it will straddle the Tasman or be sited across a series of African countries is expected to be announced in late February or early March, and an Australasian footprint would give New Zealand its biggest science project.

Dr Johnston-Hollitt said that regardless of where the new telescope was built, New Zealand would enjoy “significant benefits” from the project, because of its involvement in the $40 million Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope in Western Australia — one of three “precursor” SKA instruments — probing the low frequency end of the radio spectrum

PODCASTS of presentations from Dr Johnston-Hollitt,  Tim Natusch and Intel’s James Reinders are available below…

Intel’s James Reinders:

AUT’s Tim Natusch:

Victoria University’s Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt:

Research advances

Preparations for the 2012 “watershed year” — with decisions on site and pre-construction design — are being accompanied by acceleration of research linked to the project. Dr Johnston-Hollit noted that the range of science able to be tackled using the telescope over the next 50 years would depend on how it was constructed — particularly the extension of its baselines across the Tasman to sites in New Zealand: “We have to build a transformational telescope,” she said.

A demonstration of the trans-Tasman technology was shown at the fourth international SKA forum in Canada in July after Australia and New Zealand linked up five telescopes – one at Warkworth, 58km north of Auckland, one in Tasmania and one each at Coonabarabran, Parkes and Narrabri in NSW. Professor Sergei Gulyaev, director of AUT’s Centre for Radiophysics and Space Research told the Science Media Centre that the work involved Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) observations of a remote radio galaxy last year, and real-time (eVLBI) observations this year

More real-time observations are planned for October-November at six times the level of resolution in the earlier experiments. The deputy director of the centre. Tim Natusch, told the SKA showcase that the Warkworth 12.1m dish had worked in conjunction with the Australian long-baseline array and in the first observations had been able to produce high-resolution images only possible because of the long baselines used.

“This enhanced resolution does add quite considerably to the science that we are able to drag out of these images,” he said.

Industry matching

The second day of the Rutherford showcase focussed on alignments between research and NZ high-tech industry in sectors such as energy-efficient parallel computing. The deputy chief executive of business innovation and investment at the Ministry of Science and Innovation, Brett O’Riley, told guests at the opening of the Rutherford showcase that partnering and collaboration were crucial.

The SKA project showed the interaction of “incredibly smart” ideas, smart people and innovative companies. Work done so far on the project had given the government confidence — even in a tough economic climate — to maintain its involvement.

Dr Johnston-Hollitt said the SKA project could offer “a bunch of spin-offs” to provide benefits over the next 50 years. Already, access to Western Australia’s Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) — and a high performance computing facility donated by IBM — was helping researchers looking for diffuse radio emissions: “faint, large patches of universe wreckage from cosmic collisions”.

And computer scientists were developing new algorithms to interpret that data — programming which could also be used in medical imaging, such as for better detection of tumours in ultrasound scans.

Immense computing power required

A major aspect of the Square Kilometre Array project will be the computing infrastructure and processing power utilised to gather data from the arrays and analyse it. Multi-core processor computers employing parallel programming software will be used to undertake the numerous simultaneous equatations required to process the vast amounts of data in a timely fashion. Hence, IT vendors are heavily involved in the SKA project.

James Reinders, Director of Software, engineer and parallel computing expert, Intel comments:

“With the Square Kilometre Array, a fire hose doesn’t begin to describe how much data comes out of an antenna. Parallelism is the only way we can handle the deluge of data.

You use computers to sift through it, to try and find interesting data for humans to interact with and see if they discover something new. The same thing is true of the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. That thing creates a huge amount of data, most of it is completely useless because it is just space. Its where the interactions [between particles] happen that you want to study.

“Some people involved with SKA say it’s [data requirements] will eclipse everything else. Which statistic do you want to measure? If you start with the data flowing off the array, the fire hose may have more zeros in it that anything else.

“The array is so huge it is collecting an immense amount of data and data is hitting the array 24-7, you don’t turn the universe off.

“It’s not too hard to understand the benefits to big science.Weather predictions, climate prediction, drug interactions at a molecular level, viruses. There are scientists that know what the problems are that you need to solve mathematically. The problem is we are off four or five orders of magnitude the computing power the planet has to do these sorts of problems. It’s amazing to me we can start to describe the problems and in a sense if we had the computer power we could solve these problems – or at least we think we can.”