17 July 2011
If there are aliens on other planets, Australia could play a key role in making contact, the nation's leading astronomer Fred Watson says.
But it may depend on an area of Western Australia being chosen as the site for the square kilometer array (SKA), the world's most powerful radio telescope that will also reveal more about the origins of the universe.
The Murchison region in the WA outback is vying with a site in southern Africa for the SKA with a group of international scientists expected to make a final decision in 2012.
Some clues as to the location may be revealed after a meeting in Canada this week involving what has been described as a steering group taking the project forward.
Australia is considered the best location for the SKA but there are suggestions other factors could come into play, including political considerations.
Professor Watson, astronomer in charge at the Australian Astronomical Observatory at Coonabarabran in NSW, said the SKA would be involved in "big picture" science.
"It's about asking the big questions," he told AAP.
"The SKA will be by far the most sensitive radio telescope ever built.
"It will have the potential to reveal all kinds of things ranging from the possibility of picking up signals from aliens, if they exist.
"More seriously, it will look at the early universe, trying to work out how galaxies were formed."
Professor Watson said the SKA would also investigate the "mysterious stuff" called dark matter, which permeates four-fifths of the universe, and possibly reveal how dark matter helped the formation of stars.
"Insights into that are of extreme value to scientists for all kinds of reasons," he said.
"One of which is to confirm the picture we have of the origin of the universe and its early evolution is correct.
"But more especially to tell us things we simply don't dream about at the moment.
"Always with these things the most exciting discoveries are the ones that are completely unexpected.
"So who knows what a facility like this might produce?"
Professor Watson was in Adelaide on Tuesday for the annual scientific meeting of the Astronomical Society of Australia.
© 2011 AAP
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