Most of us were under the impression that Prime Minister Rudd was in New Zealand to talk about climate change, but there was no real mention of tackling greenhouse gas in the press conference yesterday. Instead Rudd and New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark paid lip service to Fiji, emphasised how much we love each other and rattled on about the importance of bilateral relations, until Clark dropped the bombshell.

New Zealand will support Australia’s bid to build the world’s biggest radio telescope.

The silence from the crowd was deafening (or at least it sounds deafening on the recording).

What is a radio telescope and why do we want the biggest one? Was this even on the agenda? What have telescopes got to do with climate change?

Most importantly, did anyone even know we were bidding to get the biggest telescope? (answer: only if you are big on astrophysics.)

Prime Minister Clark said the telescope would give both countries potential “almost beyond our imagination.”

Crikey suspected she might be talking it up until we spoke to the CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF) — who told Crikey this is true. According to the assistant director of Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) David Deboer, this telescope will be pretty darn amazing. Deboer told Crikey:

It will be the largest telescope ever built on the planet and will address the big science questions like the history of the universe. It will give us a big picture of who we are and where we are in the universe.

Deboer also told Crikey that this enormous radio telescope will collect radio waves from the afterglow of the big bang all the way up to our solar system using cutting edge technology. It will help answer “key science questions” like:

  • How the universe evolved.
  • What the process of creating planets is.
  • Where cosmic magnetism comes from.
  • What is in primordial soup.
  • How right Einstein was and,
  • Are there aliens?

The question really should be, why didn’t we know about this telescope before and how to we go about getting one?

Apparently getting New Zealand on side is great because it increases the size of the radio telescope — which is actually lots of telescopes all over the place transmitting information together. Without New Zealand we could only see 3000sqkm, with them we can see 5000sqkm. It is also better to have more scientists, as Deboer said, “The more smart people you have working on the problem the better.”

Australia and New Zealand will be competing with Southern Africa to host the telescope called the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the baby of an international community of astrophysics nerds. Australia is looking a bit better at the moment because there are a lot of countries in Southern Africa who would have to co-operate in order to get the telescope running, in terms of funding and information exchange.

Kevin and Helen make us look like friendly neighbours and we’re both first world countries with a ton of money to throw at technology. As Deboer told Crikey, “This is the first telescope that was born internationally, SKA is like a mini UN for astronomers. It’s a very big deal for Australia to be involved.”

Although it’s no big surprise, there were about five mentions of said telescope in the combined NZ/Oz media last night and this morning. The NZ Herald gave the most comprehensive coverage of SKA and how important it is. In fact, Helen Clark may have understated it.

“We only know what 5% of the universe is,” says Deboer. “We don’t know what 95% of matter is, but telescopes like SKA might help us find out.”

Peter Fray

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