10/12/2008 - 22:00

Universities chase mega science venture

10/12/2008 - 22:00

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THE failure of one commercial venture could provide a boost for a new and potentially much larger venture at the University of Western Australia, which is the likely headquarters of a $20 million radio astronomy research centre.

THE failure of one commercial venture could provide a boost for a new and potentially much larger venture at the University of Western Australia, which is the likely headquarters of a $20 million radio astronomy research centre.

The research centre is part of a concerted effort by the state and federal governments to secure WA as the site for one of the world's largest science projects, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

WA's Mid West region is one of two locations globally, along with southern Africa, to have been short-listed for the SKA, which is backed by 50 institutions from 19 countries and has a budget of 1.5 billion euro ($3 billion).

SKA international project director Richard Schilizzi, visiting Perth this week from the UK, said the two locations would be subject to intense scrutiny for at least three more years.

"We're looking at early 2012 for site selection," he said. "We expect that will be at the same time as the decision on funding."

Professor Schilizzi said there would be many commercial opportunities if WA were selected, including in areas the areas of infrastructure and electronics.

"I think a helluva lot of work will come to Australia," he told WA Business News, but cautioned that nothing was guaranteed.

Professor Schilizzi attended the official opening of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy while in Perth this week.

The institute will be the first of its kind at any Australian university, combining physics and engineering in the field of astronomy.

CIRA joint head Peter Hall believes Australian business has yet to grasp the scale of the SKA project.

"Industry in Europe and the US is familiar with the concept of mega science but there hasn't really been any mega science in Australia," Professor Hall said.

To boost Australia's prospects of winning the SKA project, the federal government is spending $111 million on a new pathfinder radio telescope at Boolardy Station, 315 kilometres north-east of Geraldton.

It will comprise up to 36 dishes, each of 12 metres diameter.

The state government's major commitment has been the proposed $20 million radio astronomy research centre.

It is currently evaluating proposals from Curtin and UWA, which have identified radio astronomy as one of their big growth opportunities and have recruited internationally acclaimed researchers to boost their prospects.

WA Business News understands the research centre will be headquartered at UWA's Motorola building, which has been underutilised since March when Motorola closed its software development centre.

The local universities and CSIRO are expected to collaborate on the research centre, irrespective of its location.

The parliamentary secretary for science and innovation Barry House said the state government was moving quickly on a range of matters related to the SKA project, including the establishment of the radio astronomy research centre.

Mr House said the ICT sector would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the proposed radio astronomy projects.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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