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Steven Joyce

26 May, 2012

SKA decision a breakthrough for Australia-New Zealand science

Australia and New Zealand will remain at the forefront of global radio astronomy after it was announced that the hosting rights for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope will be split between Australia-New Zealand and South Africa.

A majority of member countries of the SKA Organisation last night agreed that both sites were excellent for radio astronomy and capitalising on the strengths of each location was the best result, scientifically and financially, for the SKA project. Member countries include Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, Italy, China, Canada and the Netherlands.

Australian Science and Research Minister, Senator Chris Evans, and New Zealand Minister for Science and Innovation, Steven Joyce, today welcomed the decision as the best outcome.

“This is an outstanding result for the Australia-New Zealand bid after many years of preparation and an intensive international process,” Senator Evans said.

“Importantly, it will give us the opportunity to showcase to the world our ability to successfully deliver scientific projects at this scale.”

The SKA is a $1.9 billion (€1.5 billion) radio telescope which, when complete, will allow astronomers to survey tens of millions of distant galaxies and collect vast quantities of new data about the universe - providing answers to age old questions concerning the very beginnings of the universe and the nature of dark matter.

“A significant amount of funding has already been invested into developing first class research facilities like the CSIRO Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) in Western Australia” Senator Evans said.

“Sharing the project means researchers will get the best possible results by capitalising on the respective infrastructure and strengths of both sites.”

The SKA Organisation has agreed that phase one of the SKA project should be split between South Africa and Australia-New Zealand, with any aspect of phase two to be dependent on satisfactory performance in the first phase.

In phase one, Australia will build 60 dishes equipped with Australia’s innovative phased array feed technology, which will work in conjunction with ASKAP, as well as an array of low frequency antennas, which will allow researchers to look further back in time than ever before.

The SKA Organisation’s Site Options Working Group has determined that splitting the project between both sites is beneficial both scientifically and financially, and maximises the significant investment in infrastructure already made at each site.

Minister Joyce said the announcement was a significant win for science and astronomy research in New Zealand and Australia.

“The SKA presents an excellent opportunity for New Zealand science and business to benefit from involvement in a project of such international scale and significance,” Minister Joyce said.

“Australia and New Zealand have worked hard, in partnership, to get to this point and we have established a solid foundation to continue our successful collaboration as we enter the next phase of the SKA project.”

Senator Evans said the significant investment in SKA infrastructure at the Western Australian site, as well as Australia-New Zealand’s proven capacity to deliver on the science, was a lead factor in the SKA Organisation’s decision.

“The Murchison shire, 350 kilometres north-east of Geraldton, provides the perfect radio-quiet conditions for the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and for the SKA – it is the perfect combination of Australian outback and high science,” Senator Evans said.

“Time on ASKAP is already booked out for the next five years by Australian and international astronomers, working in collaboration.

“This is the kind of project that demonstrates Australia’s world class capability to successfully deliver significant science infrastructure.”

The Commonwealth and Western Australian governments have jointly invested more than $400 million in research infrastructure for ASKAP and the Murchison Radio astronomy Observatory, which will be fully operational in 2013.

“We have made a significant investment, delivered on our commitments, and we are continuing to develop technology that has the potential to further revolutionise radio-astronomy,” Senator Evans said.

“Australia and New Zealand are looking forward to playing a leading role in delivering the SKA telescope and working with the international community to bring this exciting project to fruition – a project that will redefine radioastronomy and transform science as we know it.”

The full statement of the SKA Organisation on the SKA site decision is available online at www.skatelescope.org