23Aug2015

The SKA Wants Young Aussie Scientists

An artist impression released by the dishes of the future Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope

Karen Andrews recently visited the Murchison Radio-astronomy observatory in regional Western Australia, the future Australian home of the world’s largest telescope, the Square Kilometre Array or SKA.

As a mechanical engineer I was in awe of the scale and vision of the project. It’s a great example of “moon shot thinking”. In 1961 the US president John Kennedy said he was going to put a man on the moon, but he had no idea how to do it. With the SKA we’re building the world’s largest telescope with no real idea of what we’ll find.

The SKA will comprise thousands of antennas that capture radio waves emitted from stars, galaxies, supernovae and black holes. Some of the radio waves will come from objects that are so far away they have since disintegrated. It will effectively provide us with a 3D Google map of the universe.

Australia and New Zealand Prime Ministers Praise Joint SKA Bid: International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research

The SKA is expected to produce five times 2015’s global internet traffic, requiring processing power beyond the capability of the fastest super-computers on Earth. Australian science institutions and businesses will be at the forefront in developing the technology for the SKA to process this vast amount of data.

One such scientist is radio astronomer, electrical engineer and inventor of Wi-Fi, John O’Sullivan, who is a key figure at CSIRO in developing the SKA. Given Wi-Fi was invented by a radio astronomer researching the theory of black holes, it’s clearly evident that work in this field, especially on this scale, holds enormous potential for applications across countless industries.

The recent discovery of gas from a galaxy five billion light years away by one of the two precursor telescopes, the Australian SKA Pathfinder, proves that the work being conducted is already world leading. The Square Kilometre Array: radio silence in Western Australia for most powerful telescope in history.

The world’s most innovative companies are also excited by the challenges and opportunities associated with the SKA. Breakthroughs in managing big data are one of those opportunities. This year Cisco announced its $15m Australian internet of everything innovation centre, which will promote collaboration with companies and scientists – including those involved in the SKA – who are producing big data sets and struggling with similar problems. These sorts of strong links between research, science and industry are vital for Australia’s ongoing economic prosperity.

Investing in mega-science projects such as the SKA helps Australia remain at the forefront of technology development, making our businesses stronger and giving birth to industries and employment opportunities. However, projects such as this also inspire the next generation of radio astronomers and science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates.

Optical fibres being deployed at the SKA Australia site. Credit: CSIRO

Research indicates that 75% of the fastest-growing occupations require STEM skills and knowledge, but student participation in “science” subjects has fallen to the lowest level in 20 years. Projects such as the SKA further highlight the need to encourage the next generation to be the radio astronomers or the electrical engineers of the future. The Australian government has introduced a range of initiatives to boost participation in STEM, but more work is needed.

As a nation, Australians are competitive. The Australian government’s investment in projects such as the SKA provides current and future Australian scientists – as well as industry – the edge they need to compete globally, but also affords access to a wealth of economic and technological benefits beyond the scientific discoveries they are designed for.

It’s an exciting time and I’m looking forward to the next discovery. Karen Andrews is the parliamentary secretary for industry and science, and is the federal member for McPherson

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