Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder - Welcome to the Dead Zone
News Com, Australia
News Com, Australia
Welcome to the Dead Zone.
I was one of the very last people to take my mobile phone onto the site which Australia and New Zealand hope will become the epicentre of the world's largest radio telescope array.
Not that my phone was very much use. You'd be better off with a carrier pigeon eight hours northeast of Perth, at a place called Boolardy Station in Murchison Shire.
There are already six radio dishes here, of a total of 36 which will form the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder. The other 30 dishes are due to be built by the end of the year.
However authorities hope the site will also become the epicentre of a much larger project - SKA, the largest array of radio telescopes ever built, with 3000 dishes stretching 5500km from Boolardy to New Zealand.
"about a billion PCs", the SKA hopes to play the central role in unlocking the mysteries of how our universe came into being - from the nature of gravity to the evolution of our galaxies.
On Thursday I joined a gaggle of journalists, stakeholders, indigenous leaders and CSIRO scientists - along with their video cameras, phones and digital recording devices - to visit Boolardy Station.
On Friday a radio lockdown went into effect meaning that, for up to 260km in any direction, there is to be no mobile phones, no Wi-Fi, no CB radio, no TV antennas and no microwaves - no technological devices of any kind that could disrupt the dishes' work - except in case of emergency.
Dr Brian Boyle, the man heading Australia and New Zealand's effort to land the SKA project, said Australia's vast tracts of empty land provided part of its appeal for radio astronomers.
"You can go to Antarctica and get something that's really pretty quiet, but in terms of developed spots on the world, inhabited countries, Australia is one of the quietest," he told news.com.au.
"We call it a radio quiet zone, not a radio silent zone. We could never be radio silent."
"There's always planes, there's satellites, and the radio interference we generate ourselves. We've got equipment there on the site, so we have to make sure we shield all of our equipment from radio noise as far as possible... in order to study the heavens."
The research is important enough for the Australian Communications and Media Authority to issue licensing to ensure the 260km radio quiet zone is enforced, despite the fact that most of the data received by the antennas will be processed remotely.
Now all that's left to do is win the SKA project.
Australia is one of only two countries in the running to build the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, which will be 50 times bigger than the world's current largest radio telescope array.
The other contender is South Africa and a final decision will be made next February.
If Australia is successful, the SKA will collect and transfer data from 3000 radio dishes based mainly in Western Australia but stretching to every other state and the Northern Territory. Even New Zealand will get a share.
The decision to place the epicentre at Boolardy Station was made because it was relatively quiet - in radio terms - while also not being too far from civilisation.
"You could put it in the middle of the Simpson desert, but it's too expensive to get fibre and power out there," said Dr Boyle.
"This represented an ideal concurrence between a really radio quiet spot on the planet and somewhere that's not too far away from infrastructure."
Potential sites throughout the rest of Australia and New Zealand are still being examined for radio frequency interference in order to find optimal conditions for the 25 remote stations to be built if Australia does land the SKA project.
"We're also characterising the ionosphere and troposphere, looking at the cost of infrastructure and various other issues like climate security and working conditions," Dr Boyle said.
Welcome to the 21st Century
The radio quiet zone in the shire of Murchison was so quiet that the small communities and townships in the area had never even been connected to the internet.
Despite its relative closeness to the proposed SKA site, in many ways the Murchison community - whose population ranges from 70 to 110 - were still very much cut off from the outside world.
In fact, the CSIRO had to lay its own fibre-optic cable, as part of AARNET's network, to run all the way to Geraldton on the coast - the nearest major city.
On the way, the fibre passes the town of Mullewa to the east. So, welcome to high-speed broadband, people of Mullewa? Not quite.
"The fibre isn't lit yet," Dr Boyle said, adding that no decision had been made on whether to help provide internet access to the community.
"The CSIRO is not a telco and therefore can't run cable and cannot charge for it.
"We want it to be affordable. We want to ensure that the people of Mullewa have affordable access to the broadband superhighway."
If Australia does win its bid to host the SKA, the Mullewa community could have internet access at gigabits per second as early as 2012.