Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, from Victoria University of Wellington, explains how modern astrophysics is a global science. This means it is easy to do cutting-edge research in New Zealand. Melanie also discusses how the peer review process is used to allocate the time researchers are given to use the telescopes.
DR MELANIE JOHNSTON-HOLLITT
I came to New Zealand because I think that there is a real opportunity for New Zealand to be involved in the next generation of radio telescopes. So the Australian Government is just building a 125 million dollar new radio telescope and, if New Zealand can be involved, I think that would be fantastic. And in the longer term hopefully we will have the SKA.
And there is no impediment to me being in New Zealand. You know I can still do cutting edge research in the radio and the X-ray and even the optical from New Zealand. I am actually really lucky because astronomy has changed fundamentally in the last 10 years. So you don’t have to be anywhere in particular to do cutting edge research. It matters not at all that I am in Wellington, New Zealand. I can still drive the telescope that I use in Australia, the Australian Telescope Compact Array. I can set up my controls over the internet and drive it from there. In fact I’ve driven it from the Netherlands. You can drive it from all over the world if you are rated as an expert user.
And the same will be true in future generations for telescopes based in space. You don’t go anywhere of course. You send the data co-ordinates to a place in Europe and they upload it to a satellite and your data comes back down so it doesn’t matter – you can be anywhere now and do cutting edge research. The world’s best astronomers are all over the globe, so no problem being in New Zealand.
To get time on these very expensive and high quality instruments requires you to apply for time. So we have a process called peer review, which means that you write a proposal to say I want to do this particular piece of science on my telescope. It goes to a panel of expert astronomers and they assess it and they make a judgement as to basically whether or not you can have the time. So the quality of your research and the potential scientific outcomes for radio telescopes - there’s usually twice as many people wanting time on them as there is time available in any given period. And for space based telescopes, like XMM, which I used recently, you have to be in the top 15 to 10% of applicants to actually get time on the instrument. It is extremely hard.
Antennas of the Australian Telescope Compact Array, J.Masterton, © CSIRO
SKA, Xilostudios, www.skatelescope.org