SKA influence spreads further than the skies

This week I visited the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in regional Western Australia, the future Australian home of the world’s largest telescope, the Square Kilometre Array or SKA.

As a mechanical engineer – I was truly in awe of the scale and vision of the project.

It’s a great example of ‘moon shot thinking’.

President JFK said he was going to put a man on the moon but he had no idea how to do it.

With the SKA we’re building the world’s largest telescope with no real idea of what we’ll find.

The SKA will comprisethousands of antennasthat capture radio waves emitted from stars, galaxies, supernovae and black holes.

Some of the radio waves will come from objects that are so far away, they have since disintegrated. It will effectively provide us with a 3D Google map of the universe.

The SKA is expected to produce five times the global internet traffic in 2015, requiring processing power beyond the capability of the fastest super-computers on Earth today.

Australian science institutions and businesses will be at the fore-front in developing the technology for the SKA to process this vast amount of data.

One such scientist isradio astronomer, electrical engineerand inventor of Wi-Fi, John O’Sullivan, who is now a key figure at CSIRO in the development of the SKA.

Given Wi-Fi was invented by a radio astronomer researching the theory of black holes,it’s clearly evident that work in this field, especially on this scale, holds enormous potential for applications across countlessindustries.

The recent discovery of gas from a galaxy five billion light years away by one of the two precursor telescopes, the Australian SKA Pathfinder, proves that the work being conducted is already world leading.

The world’s most innovative companies are also excitedby the challenges and opportunities associated with the SKA.

Break throughs in managing big data are one of those opportunities.

This year Cisco announced its $15 million Australian Internet of Everything Innovation Centrewhich will promote collaboration with companies and scientists – including those involved in the SKA - who are producing big data sets and struggling with similar problems.

These sorts of strong links between research, science and industry are vital for Australia’s ongoing economic prosperity.

Investing in mega-science projects like the SKA,helps Australia remain at the forefront of technology development making our businesses stronger and giving birth to new industries and employment opportunities.

However projects like this also inspire the next generation of radio astronomers and science, technology, engineering and maths or STEM graduates.

Research indicates that 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations require STEM skills and knowledge; however student participation in ‘science’ subjects has fallen to the lowest level in 20 years.

Projects like the SKA further highlight the need to encourage the next generation to be the radio astronomers or the electrical engineers of the future.

The Australian Government has introduced a range of initiatives to boost participation in STEM but more work is needed.

As a nation, Australians are competitive.

The Australian Government’s investment in projects like the SKA, providescurrent and future Australian scientists as well as industry the edge they need to compete globally, but also affords access to a wealth of economic and technological benefits beyond the scientific discoveries they are designed for – it’s an exciting time and I’m looking forward to the next discovery.