NZ and Australia ready for next generation telescope
Radio astronomers in New Zealand and Australia have joined forces to link telescopes separated by over 2500km in
preparation for the next generation of telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
The combined telescopes, located in the North Island of New Zealand and north-west New South Wales of Australia, enable
astronomers to probe radio emission from the black hole, 4.5 billion light years distant from Earth.
This aids measurement of incredibly weak signals from a quasar (a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy,
expelling material at close to the speed of light, 300,000 km per second) one quarter of the way across the universe
(4.5 billion light years away), with a time accuracy of 5 billionth of a second (5 nanoseconds).
The experiment conducted in the centennial anniversary of Einstein’s relativity is a milestone for radio astronomy in
New Zealand. It ushers in a new era of cooperation between astronomers in New Zealand and Australia.
The initial trial is New Zealand’s first step toward participating in the largest radio astronomy project ever devised,
the SKA (http://www.skatelescope.org). It includes the possibility of over 100 large radio telescopes being hosted in
Australia and New Zealand.
Both countries are preparing a joint bid to the International SKA Steering Committee to host SKA in Australasia.
Representatives will discuss the bid at the annual international SKA workshop in Pune, India, this November.
The quasar observations took place on July 31 at the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research
Organisation) Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA), near Narrabri in north-west New South Wales and Karaka, 30 km
south of Auckland, where the telescopes are located.
The Karaka site is run by AUT University, supported by the New Zealand Ministry of Economic Development.
Observation data was processed on a supercomputer at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.
Professor Sergei Gulyaev, who heads the AUT team, says this is the first big technical step into radio astronomy.
“It showcases New Zealand’s ability in this field. We are now well-placed to become a significant contributor to the
Southern Hemisphere radio astronomy array, adding to the six telescopes in Australia.
“New Zealand’s geographic location complements Australia’s. We can start to develop more powerful telescopes in New
Zealand, to maximise this complementarity.”
He said the team was looking forward to participating in SKA over the next decade as it was “the most ambitious
international radio astronomy project ever embarked upon”.
AUT senior lecturer Tim Natusch was responsible for building the specialist radio astronomy equipment used on the New
Zealand antenna for the experiment. He says it is gratifying to show New Zealand as a strong player in radio astronomy
“Starting from nothing 18 months ago and with minimal resources, we have achieved something remarkable. Radio astronomy
has applications not only in exploring the universe, but in high precision fields like spacecraft navigation and in
measuring the movements of tectonic plates on Earth. This is, of course, of great interest for a geologically active
country like New Zealand.
“For the first time the direct distance between two locations in New Zealand and Australia, separated by more than 2500
km were measured with a centimetre accuracy. We could not have achieved our success without New Zealand’s Karaka
telescope, built and made available to us by Brent Adis.”
Dr Tasso Tzioumis is a member of the CSIRO team which conducted the observations at the ATCA. He says it is great that
New Zealand and Australia are actively collaborating in radio astronomy.
“Both countries have a lot to gain from each other. The addition of one radio telescope in New Zealand complements the
Australian telescopes and allows us to make even more detailed images of objects at great distances in our universe. The
combination of Australian and New Zealand telescopes is far greater than the sum of the parts.”
The successful observations were planned and the data processed by a team at the Swinburne University of Technology,
working closely with AUT.
Dr Steven Tingay, the team leader at Swinburne, said it was a significant achievement.
“The signals we were looking for were incredibly weak. All of the energy ever received by radio telescopes over the
50-year history of radio astronomy is not enough to raise the temperature of a teaspoon of water by one degree Celsius.
“In this experiment we had to look for the whisper faint signal by aligning the data from the Australian and New Zealand
telescopes with an accuracy of 5 nanoseconds, using a process known as correlation. We used a supercomputer at the
Swinburne University of Technology to perform this task.”
Swinburne PhD student Adam Deller wrote the correlation code for the supercomputer. He said correlation was the final
step in the process.
“Correlation on supercomputers is flexible, allowing the data to be fully searched for the weak signal. Seeing the
signal pop up in the data during correlation was a great feeling. It showed our experiment had been successful.”
The CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility director, Professor Brian Boyle, congratulated the New
“This is a great achievement for New Zealand astronomy and will significantly enhance radio astronomy in the Southern
Hemisphere. I’m glad that CSIRO could make its facilities at Narrabri available for this experiment and I hope that New
Zealand will be able to take this success and further develop their expertise in radio astronomy.”
He said this event marks an important step in the Australian-New Zealand bid to host the NZ$1.7billion SKA.