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Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Page: 6700

Senator MARK BISHOP (12:45 PM) —I rise in this matters of public interest debate to pass some comments on a project much favoured by the current Australian government: the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder project. Mr Acting Deputy President, you might be interested to know that we have an Australian Astronomy Decadal Plan 2006-15. The plan proposes a strategic vision for research and expertise in optical and radio facilities. But what does this mean, and what exactly is astronomy? Having asked the questions, let me proceed to try and give a response.

I will begin with a bit of background information to help those who are listening. Astronomy is a science that allows us to penetrate the mysteries of our universe. It allows us to piece together how the universe began. Astronomers use both light and radio waves to look into regions in outer space and deep space. Radio and light emissions from objects such as stars and galaxies tell us about their size, shape and composition. It is radio telescopes that measure the intensity of radio waves. These telescopes are not new to Australia. In fact, in 1939 CSIRO established a Division of Radiophysics.

Perhaps the most famous Australian radio telescope is the one located at Parkes, which was the subject of a humorous Australian feature film, The Dish. The Parkes telescope fired the imagination of a generation of scientists and engineers when it received television signals that allowed 600 million people to watch Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in July 1969. That telescope was commissioned in 1961 and is still the largest radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.

Australia’s position in the Southern Hemisphere provides an ideal location for this type of research, both basic and very advanced. As we all know, our relatively low population base is mainly confined to coastal regions. Large areas of our interior do not have the infrastructure and communications systems necessary to sustain modern communities and modern cities. It means, though, that we have a vast expanse of radio quiet environments essential for measuring radio waves by these telescopes.

This brings me to the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, Pathfinder project. It is the next-generation radio telescope and it will be 50 times more sensitive than any in operation anywhere in the world. It will comprise a number of dishes that will be formed in clusters. The clusters will be spread over an area of 3,000 kilometres in Australia, with a total reach of 5,000 kilometres, including New Zealand. These clusters will be linked to one huge telescope.

Imagining the possibilities of the telescope is much more difficult. We already know that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is 100,000 light years in diameter, with a circumference of somewhere around 300,000 light years. This new telescope will give us much more information on when and how this particular galaxy, and indeed all galaxies within reach of the telescope, were formed. The scope and range of the ambition is truly groundbreaking and breathtaking.

In 2006, Australia and Southern Africa were short-listed to host the SKA Pathfinder. I am very pleased that, should Australia’s bid be successful, my home state of Western Australia will be the site of the main telescope. Western Australia has provided an ideal location for the project which is relatively free from radio interference. The proposed site is approximately 300 kilometres inland from the north-western city of Geraldton, in the shire of Murchison. It is an unusual part of Australia in that it is a shire with no township at all. While it is approximately 50,000 square kilometres in size, the shire has only 29 stations, with a total population of around 160 people. The main income is from cattle, meat, sheep and fine wool. Not surprisingly, it is a very, very quiet place, and that ongoing quiet makes it an ideal location for the SKA project.

The SKA project is still in its research and development phase. However, the government is well aware of the significance of the project to our standing as a world leader in radio astronomy. It will enhance Australia’s engineering, technology and scientific capabilities. For this reason, the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research—who I see is in the chamber—recently launched a register of opportunities available to industry for the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, or ASKAP, project.

The ASKAP will be a collection of up to 36 dishes, each with a diameter of 12 metres. It will be the fastest survey radio telescope in the world. It will strengthen Australia’s bid for the SKA project by demonstrating prototype technologies, by demonstrating the success of remote radio astronomy operations in Australia, by demonstrating the radio-quietness of the region and, most importantly, by demonstrating the government’s commitment to our site bid for the SKA project.

The ASKAP will assist in training the next generation of scientists and engineers who will be absolutely fundamental to the SKA Pathfinder. The project will be a major engineering feat and will include high-performance computing. It will have a life span of more than 50 years. It also represents a commitment of $100 million to Australia’s bid for the SKA project.

The ASKAP is truly a nation-building project that will be constructed by the CSIRO on a site at Boolardy Station in the Shire of Murchison. The site has been provided by the Western Australian government. I am advised that construction is due to commence next year. When completed, it will be available to scientists from around the world. It will be home to researchers, technicians and postgraduate students. It will strengthen our international collaborations in engineering and scientific research by providing world-leading radio telescope technology.

Our curiosity about the evolution of our galaxy, as well as the origins of the universe, has seen the development of next-generation telescopes. The SKA Pathfinder project is one of the largest scientific projects ever undertaken. It brings together scientists from 50 institutions located in 19 different countries. It is an international collaboration between countries from Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Australia and New Zealand. The cost is estimated to be around $2 billion and will be borne by each of the member countries. This is a wonderful and exciting time for those interested in space and science. It will inspire innovation not only in the field of radio astronomy but also in allied sciences and engineering.

The ASKAP and SKA Pathfinder projects provide Western Australia and, more broadly, Australia with the opportunity to be at the cutting edge of that research. Space and its possibilities have been a fascination for generations of children, long before we took our first tentative steps outside the earth’s atmosphere. And I have no doubt that that fascination will continue well into the future. The establishment of the ASKAP will provide inspiration to the next generation of scientists and engineers by promoting the development of outreach and education programs. These programs will be an added incentive for students to engage in science and research. Some of that work has already started. The CSIRO have developed a radio science project in Geraldton and they are running a science education program in mid-western schools. The programs will encourage students to take part in further education at TAFE and university.

The SKA project may offer us the opportunity to glimpse the far reaches of the Milky Way or even the origins of the universe itself. But it will also offer us the opportunity to increase Australia’s technological progress in academic research, information and communication technologies, precision manufacturing, sensor technologies and maintenance and logistics. There will be opportunities to find new solutions to sustainable power generation.

To meet the scientific and technological challenges of the project, we will need to develop a unique and diverse workforce. That workforce will include training and employment opportunities for local Indigenous communities. I am advised that a final decision on the site of the SKA Pathfinder will be made in 2011-12. The success of our bid will be of great benefit to Australian scientists and engineers as well as Australian business and industry and the local community.

Having made those formal remarks, I should just put on the record a very sensible contribution to the debate which came across my desk this morning. It was a speech by the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Carr that was delivered yesterday to the Australian Square Kilometre Array Industry Consortium. In that speech to a group of industry professionals, the minister was clearly highly enthusiastic about the benefits of the project. He highlighted a whole range of industry opportunities and invited significant individual participation in the project. He said in his speech that he had spent over 12 months highlighting the benefits and opportunities of the project and that it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He concentrated on a forthcoming international preparatory study. The gist of the speech, which I have reviewed this morning, was that this project, if it comes to fruition, is going to have an enormous range of benefits for this country over a period of generations.

Finally, I should express my thanks to Mr Matthew L James, from the Science, Technology, Environment and Resources Section of the Parliamentary Library, who provided my office with some very detailed background technical information on this project.