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Will Australia join the world league in optical astronomy? -

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Robyn Williams: This is the music I've wanted you to play every time I walk into the room:

[Music: Excerpt from Also Sprach Zarathustra, Richard Strauss]

Also Sprach Zarathustra, Richard Strauss. And last Wednesday, June 11, would have been the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth. And you'll recall if you are as old as Zarathustra and me that that was the music theme for the Apollo missions to the Moon, the TV coverage in the 1960s and '70s. So, happy sesquicentenary Richard Strauss. And welcome to a Science Show in which we look at the next generation of telescopes, the chances that animals may be musical, and that there may be a vaccine for cancers, all cancers.

In the early '70s we got the Anglo Australian telescope at Siding Spring Mountain in New South Wales. 40 years later we have what? Well, possibly not much. This is Peter Quinn from the University of Western Australia.

Peter Quinn: All of astronomy goes through these revolutions in technology and changes where you build a new generation of facilities. So optical astronomy went from the age of the AAT, the four-metre telescopes, and there were a number of them around the world, to the eight-metre telescopes and the 10-metre telescopes, and that transition happened in the early 1980s, and by the 1990s it was well on its way.

Australia had the four-metre telescopes, and obviously it's astronomers who were aspiring to the eight- and 10-metre telescope class astronomy. The Americans did it, they built the Keck telescope in Hawaii, which was very much a private facility of the University of California. The Europeans realised that they were behind the Americans in many ways and decided to outdo them in some sense and build the world's largest facility in Chile. So that was eight-metre telescopes, four eight-metre telescopes, they were commissioned in the late 1990s, early 2000s, called the VLT. So I was fortunate enough to work on the VLT project, I worked for ESO for 11 years and helped build that facility.

Robyn Williams: That's the European Space…

Peter Quinn: European Southern Observatory who built the VLT array, €1 billion worth of telescopes in the northern part of Chile. So Australia had some chances to actually join that group of nations and give Australian astronomers access to that very large facility. Unfortunately we couldn't quite raise the money or the will or both at the time, and so Australia kind of missed that boat. And it has been trying to catch up ever since to find ways of accessing these eight- and 10-metre telescopes, and various universities have done it individually. But in general Australia as a community has not had good access to what is now actually the workhorse class of optical astronomy and infrared astronomy is these eight- to 10-metre telescopes, just like the workhorse was at the four-metre level, at the AAT level, in the 1970s. And thereby Australia astronomy is not perhaps being as successful in optical and infrared as it could be if it had more access to these kinds of facilities.

Right now the next generational change is being planned in optical telescopes, so we are now talking about 30 and 40 and even larger in diameter. So this is a big transition, a big step up, factors of 10. There are two big schools building these telescopes, again the US are building two projects in the United States, one in Hawaii and one facility in Chile, and the Europeans are building another large facility in Chile.

Australia stands some chance of missing out again on these projects, unless it has ways of joining those clubs, in joining the clubs of the people who are building these large telescopes. There is a little bit of access to one of the American clubs, but I think the community of Australian astronomers feels that ESO, the European Southern Observatory, that suite of instruments, both the workhorse instruments, and they actually have radio telescopes too, and this new generation of optical telescopes represents a fantastic opportunity to grow our community into the future, to stop missing the boat in some sense but joining it.

Now, it's very expensive, it takes a lot of political and economic will and energy to do that, but I think the Australian community as part of their thinking about this decadal plan period we are in right now want to think about that future.

Robyn Williams: So that good news is we might be there in the club. What if we're not?

Peter Quinn: I think there will be fairly serious consequences for Australian astronomy. I think these big telescopes are not only instruments for doing science, they are also innovative instruments for new technologies and new mathematics and new data and large data and all the other things which go around doing astronomy. So Australia misses out on firsthand opportunities to get involved with those things. So I think it will be a real disaster, to be honest with you, if we don't have a significant involvement with one of these large projects, particularly, as I said, I think ESO represents the most attractive option because it presents facilities on many fronts; these workhorse instruments, these future large telescopes, and also, as I said, some radio telescopes as well.

Robyn Williams: Are you getting helpful smiles from ministers at all?

Peter Quinn: Look, I think the government, both past and present, have been very supportive of astronomy as an Australian science because it has historically done extremely well. It's something we should be proud of in Australia, and I think the government has recognised that through the funding of things like the AAO and also more recently of course the SKA. So these are things that Australia sees as beneficial to the community, as strengths of the community, and thinks we can basically go forward with. So I think the government in general has been supportive because of the collateral benefits as well as the scientific benefits, but I think they are going to require a lot of convincing to come up with the funds to push us into this next domain.

Robyn Williams: The square kilometre array, what stage…that's talking about 15 years off before it is fully working, isn't it. So what's under way so far?

Peter Quinn: So the square kilometre array is one of these transformational instruments, a generational change for the radio astronomy world, just like these optical telescopes with generational change. Just to put it in some perspective, large telescopes, the optical telescopes we are building now, these 30- and 40-metre telescopes, are factors of 10 and 20 larger and more capable of the ones we currently have today. The SKA represents a factor of 10,000 increase in capabilities over what we currently have in the radio astronomy domain. So it's a transformational change, it's not just a simple generational change, it's a transformational change in what we are doing.

The SKA at the moment is in the process of being designed. So that runs from basically last year through to about 2017. 2017, we expect to see the tenders put out for the start of construction on both sites, in Southern Africa and also in Western Australia. 2018, the first construction will really start, based on what is already there, over the last few years we have been putting in place observatory sites both in South Africa and Australia. There are precursor instruments on both sites. We will reuse some of that. But we will also build much, much more.

So the first phase of construction of the SKA will start in 2018, we hope to see some early science results probably 2020, 2021, and that will be only…that first phase of building which will be finished by about 2022 will only be about 10% of the entire SKA. That's the first phase of construction, and then the following 90% will start around '20, '21, '22, and probably go on probably to '25, '26, somewhere in that domain.

Robyn Williams: You've already got some sort of computer power set up, haven't you, in the west?

Peter Quinn: Right, we're very fortunate, as part of the build-up of resources in Australia for the SKA is the creation of the Pawsey Centre. So the Pawsey Centre is a supercomputer facility built here in Perth. It's top 20 sort of facilities in the world, it's a couple of petaflops, in the geek-speak.

Robyn Williams: That's huge.

Peter Quinn: That's huge, isn't it. So it's a significant computer centre, and it's going to serve the needs of radio astronomy and some geosciences as well for this first preconstruction phase, for the precursor experiments.

As soon as SKA1 comes online, we'll need a facility probably 10 times bigger. So SKA in general is the world's largest producer of data, bar none. We're talking about exabytes of data, so that's a billion-billion bytes, that's about the same data volume as the entire Earth produces per year, the SKA will produce in one day.

Robyn Williams: You're kidding!

Peter Quinn: Yes, so it's staggering, and it's exciting as well as being staggering, and this excitement spreads. So the excitement spreads to the scientific community with the opportunities that that brings for science, but also it spreads to the international ICT, information technology community. They are excited about trying to meet that challenge because it truly is a challenge which is Google class. Scientists haven't actually had to deal with these Google class challenges before, and how are we going to deal with it? So we have to talk to the people at Google and talk to Amazon and talk to the companies who are learning how to deal with these data volumes, and we need to inform them about what we're doing and we need to have a dialogue with them over this.

Robyn Williams: In fact the Vice Chancellor of this university, the University of Western Australia, has talked about perhaps the state being a centre for big data construction.

Peter Quinn: I would completely agree. In Western Australia we have two opportunities, we have the SKA which is coming with an enormous amount of data for doing science, and the volumes are unprecedented, they are exascale. Also in this state we have a resources and energy industry which is also generating significant and comparable amounts of data. So two of the biggest producers of data in the world are both here in Perth, so we've got a double-barrel opportunity here in Perth to actually maybe even merge and join those interests together to actually leverage off each other.

SKA will be a catalyst for new algorithms, new technologies, new architectures for computing, and that's of benefit to everybody who has big data. And vice versa the geoscientist guys when they explore the Earth, they've got a big chunk of rock, and in that big chunk of rock they are looking for something very small and very precious. Astronomers do the same thing, we've got a big chunk of the sky and in it we are looking for things which are small and precious.

Robyn Williams: When it takes off, who knows what you'll find.

Peter Quinn: Who knows what we'll find, exactly. But it's not just a story, the similarities are actually quite close. And so there is a synergy there between the two kinds of disciplines that we can hope to employ. As I said, I think you're right, and I think the Vice Chancellor is right, I think there is an enormous opportunity here, particularly in Western Australia, to leverage both of these interests together and make Western Australia a great centre for data science and big data studies in all sorts of ways.

Robyn Williams: A state of excitement, but still questions about Australia joining the big league of optical astronomy. Professor Peter Quinn is director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy at the University of Western Australia.

Peter QuinnDirector
International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research
The University of Western Australia
Perth WA

Further Information
Peter Quinn at The University of Western Australia

PresenterRobyn Williams ProducerDavid Fisher