Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Universe of Benefits

CSIRO's ASKAP antennas at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory

CSIRO's ASKAP antennas at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, March 2013. Credit: Neal Pritchard

By David Luchetti

The Square Kilometre Array will not only bring new insights about the universe but also provide technological advancements and opportunities for industry and the wider public.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is an unprecedented scientific and technological venture that will bring far-reaching benefits to Australia that go well beyond the transformational discoveries it will make. The scale of the SKA will boost Australian industry, raise public awareness of astronomy and inspire education and career choices in science and engineering. It will help to lift the international status of Australia’s science and industry capabilities and encourage further collaborations with our Australasian and global partners.

Together, Australia and South Africa are inviting other SKA partner countries to begin negotiations to establish an SKA Treaty that will provide the structure for future funding and development of the project. Alongside this, the international SKA Organisation, together with a series of international consortia, is working to finalise the design of the first phase of the project, paving the way for construction to begin in Western Australia and South Africa in 2018.

Beyond its expected transformational scientific discoveries, the SKA will also produce technological and economic spin-offs in a range of industries, thanks to anticipated advancements in electronics, big data management, information and communication technology (ICT) and digital receiver design.

A range of Australian companies and research institutions are involved in the international consortia that are currently undertaking design work for the construction of the SKA. Some have already been directly involved in designing and building infrastructure for the Australian SKA Pathfinder and the Murchison Widefield Array, two SKA precursor telescopes operating at Australia’s SKA site. These instruments have already delivered some exciting early results.

The SKA requires highly innovative solutions for ICT challenges in the capture, communication, storage, analysis and distribution of the massive volumes of data to be generated. These developments can lead to positive spin-offs in other industries – after all, the research for technologies to detect weak signals in space was the stimulus for the development of wi-fi capabilities in the 1980s. Similarly, mass data processing advances could have many new applications, such as the computer modelling of geological structures for resource exploration.

Already, broader industry–science collaborations have emerged from the Australasian SKA Industry Cluster, such as an industry-led alliance between major companies and universities on big data challenges. Out of this engagement, Cisco Systems has committed to open a US$15 million Internet of Everything Innovation Centre in Australia, with locations in Perth and Sydney.

The SKA project is a great opportunity for Australia to play a leadership role in an exciting international endeavour, opening the door to international partnerships and investment. In the long term we expect the project will influence study and career choices and raise public interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and encourage further international collaboration and exchanges of scientists and engineers across Australasia and the world.

David Luchetti is the Project Director of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Office in the federal Department of Industry and Science.