Sunday, May 27, 2012

SKA Decision ....its a tie!

Image Credits (c) SKA Organisation/Swinburn Astronomy Productions

(Subject to Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 un-ported licence).

Australians all let us rejoice for we are girt by Science!!!!

Well Finally!!!! Its done, the site selection decision for the SKA was announced by the operations working group in a meeting on the 25th May. The committee jointly awarded the Australian/NZ and South African bids with the right to host the worlds largest Radio Telescope and divided the science goals between them.

Already the key players are celebrating with drinks suggestions buzzing around twitter. Phil Diamond (@casschief) suggesting Sambucca, Kalua, Amaretto with lemonade on the rocks but Brian Boyle (@brianboyleska) preferring a line up of 3 single malts from the houses of Scapa, Knockando, Ardmore. Its good to know they, haven't lost their sense of humor and can still spell after all the hard work!!!

As an outsider with no specific knowledge of what was going on, but a keen follower of the details of various discussions, it seems that the bids were both of such high quality, that if some of the key aspects differentiating each bid were lost the overall project might have suffered.

From an Australian perspective it appears that the brilliance of the CSIRO research into the concept of the "phased array" might have kept us in the hunt.

The site selection committee always said they would make the decision based on the best science, what they have essentially done is divided the science goals between each site, yet still fund the full development of the Telescopes at each site. The fear was that if a so called "Compromise solution" was found that, it would be a lose/lose and mean a scaled down telescope at each site - this seems not to be the case in the commentary I have seen so far.

This excellent article by Bryan Gaensler discusses why the SKA is a win/win for everyone.

Also worth a read, is this article by the project scientist Lisa Harvey-Smith who worked tirelessly on the project.

Esssentially the science goals have been divided according to the strengths of both bids: Australia/NZ will perform the surveys and go after the Low Frequency targets (the high red shift galaxies) and the South African's will target the mid spectrum frequencies projects and more individual observations of galaxies. In layman's terms - The Australians will look at the oldest galaxies and survey the dark matter, the South African's will look at the characteristics of individual galaxies and would be more likely to find the "airport radar" on a planet with intelligent life.

[Updated: over lunch my 13 yr old daughter protested this strategy is fundamentally flawed as "everyone knows the most intelligent life will be found in the oldest galaxies" - however she glazed over when I started to explain the difference between wideband and narrowband imaging]

There is a stunning list of science goals that will be enough to keep everyone busy for two decades and beyond.

The bids seemed inseparable on the following criteria:

- Radio quietness and remoteness

- Governmental support and commitment

- Strong science communities

- Significant investment in Fibre and Pathfinder projects

The proximity to Europe and the lofty (and worthy) contribution to raising Africa out of poverty was a "non-scientific" but often discussed factor. Also the South African bid team gathered a lot of respect for how they had mobilised and built a radio astronomy community.

Remembering the work of John O'Sullivan, the Australian Radio Astronomer who created the codec that lead to the wireless internet (and earned the CSIRO $400m), the Australian bid team played to their strengths and relied on their skill and expertise in ground breaking research. The concept of a "phased array", where different observers can "zone in" on different parts of the sky at the same time was the "Zinger" that seems to have kept them in the game. Whilst I am sure there is probably much more to it than that, from what I have read from the commentators closer to the action, it was a key factor.

So happy campers all round!

The work begins on the design of the instruments, don't expect anything amazing to show up in your twitter feed next week, this is a 20 year project!!!!

Congratulations to every single person involved in this great win for Astronomy in Australia and New Zealand.

Science doesn't cost - it pays!


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