Quiet, astronomers at work

Aus government cuts radio silence deal for SKA

Australia’s miners, usually famous for their shoulder-chipped sense of entitlement, have agreed to assist Australia’s bid for the international Square Kilometer Array project by not deploying new radio systems close to the proposed site.

Radio silence is a key plank of the lengthy SKA selection process, which is attracting the kind of attention in the astronomy community that sports-people associate with Olympic or World Cup bids (only without the corruption and cronyism).

The site selected for Australia’s bid, the Murchison region in Western Australia, balances remoteness with access to infrastructure. The “nearby” town of Geraldton – only a few hundred kilometers to the south-south-west of Murchison – has a fibre link to Perth built by Nextgen Networks under contract to the Australian government, and its sparse population means there’s only a handful of radio transmitters in the vicinity.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority, which manages spectrum licensing in Australia, had said there would be a 100 km exclusion zone around the site, in which no new radio licenses would be issued. This attracted the ire of the miners, who have said radio quiet would put their operations at risk.

Mining operations “near” (closeness is further in remote Western Australia than in most places) the site include a proposed mining rail link, and a magnetite project at Jack Hills, both of which fall within the SKA’s 100 km quiet zone.

According to The Age, the government has now negotiated a deal with Sinosteel, Crosslands and others to maintain Murchison’s radio quiet. The 50-year deal was announced at an SKA conference in Canada this week.

The agreement also preserves the government’s AU$40m-plus investment in the project, which includes a second site in New Zealand to give the SKA an effective baseline of more than 5,000 kilometers.

Australia and its competitor in the site selection shortlist, South Africa, are hoping to host the AU$2bn facility, which will scan frequencies from 70 MHz through to 10 GHz and will generate 10 Gbps of data when in operation.

While the core array will be located at Murchison, the design of the telescope includes further arrays 180 Km from the core region, and further antennas spaced at logarithmically-increasing distances (including the proposed NZ site).

The SKA will be designed to detect galaxies right out to the edge of the observable universe, allowing it to detect information about the period between 300,000 years after the “Big Bang” and about a billion years later, during which the universe first became transparent and gradually lit up as stars and galaxies formed.

More information on the project is here. ®

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