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Australia to share in world’s largest telescope

Artist's impression of SKA dishes

Artist's impression of the section of the Square Kilometre Array that will use traditional dish-shaped antennae. Other parts of the SKA will use different antennae technology.

RESEARCHERS AT THE International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) are celebrating today after hearing that Australia will share in hosting the world’s largest telescope – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

ICRAR – a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia – has been working towards the $2 billion SKA since its launch in 2009.

“We’ve been working very hard to make SKA a reality and we’re glad to see the project reach this major milestone. ICRAR is looking forward to taking part in the next stage of the SKA through our expertise in Engineering, Information Technology and Astronomy,” says ICRAR Director Professor Peter Quinn.

Two candidate sites have been bidding to host the SKA, one in Southern Africa and one in Australia and New Zealand, since 2005. It was announced earlier this evening by the International SKA Organisation that the SKA would be split between both sites.

Professor Quinn said sharing the SKA between Africa and Australia allows the project to benefit from the best of both sites, building on the substantial investment in infrastructure and expertise that already exists in both locations.

Shared strengths

The new plan to share the SKA will see Australia’s Mid West hosting two key components of the telescope: a group of dishes equipped with Australian-designed multi-pixel radio cameras; and the ‘Aperture Array’ portion, made up of innovative, non-moving, antennae designed to collect lower frequency radio waves from the whole sky.

This part of the SKA will be optimised to survey large portions of the sky quickly, a particular strength of Australian astronomy.

South Africa will host a complementary group of dish-shaped telescopes designed to observe smaller sections of the sky in more detail, following up on regions of interest discovered using the survey portion.

“This model for splitting the SKA closely follows the workings of other observatories around the world; often separate instruments will survey the sky and inform where another telescope should look closer,” says Professor Quinn.

The divide also plays to the strengths of each country’s site, relying on Australia’s expertisedeveloped during the design and construction of radio astronomy survey instruments, such as the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA).

MWA antennae

Unlike traditional "dish" antennae, the Murchison Widefield Array uses strange-looking antennae space out on the ground. The SKA will field a huge network of such antennae.

Western Australia to benefit

ICRAR’s Curtin University node is the Lead Organisation of the MWA, the only low-frequency Precursor to the SKA, and as a founding member of the predominantly European ‘Aperture Array Design and Construction’ consortium, ICRAR is applying its expertise to the SKA’s new-generation Aperture Arrays.

“Curtin University is proud to be involved in the SKA project through our joint venture partnership in ICRAR. In particular, we are pleased that our early initiatives in the Aperture Array domain and towards the MWA have proved important in bringing the SKA to Australia. We congratulate everyone involved in the decision, and look forward to the future of this inspiring project,” says Curtin Vice-Chancellor Professor Jeanette Hacket.

ICRAR’s node at The University of Western Australia has been working with international institutions to cost and develop a design for the SKA’s extremely powerful computing systems.

The Vice-Chancellor of The University of Western Australia, Professor Paul Johnson, said UWA welcomed the opportunity to play a key role in this historic quest to advance human knowledge of science and the Universe. “Hosting part of the Square Kilometre Array in Western Australia will enable researchers at ICRAR’s UWA node to make a significant contribution to this ground breaking telescope project. Their work on high performance computing systems for astronomy and sky surveys will help lead a dramatic advance in international astronomy using new-generation telescopes around the world.”

World-leading facilities in place

Professor Quinn said that ICRAR is a world leader in survey science and technology in both radio and optical astronomy, and is looking forward to playing a major role in SKA surveys.

Due to the investment already present in both sites, a split SKA will be able to achieve its scientific goals without substantial added costs.

“Placing a major part of the SKA here shows international recognition of Australia’s strength in radio astronomy and the high quality radio-quiet site Australia has developed in WA’s Mid West,” says Professor Quinn.

It also recognises the significant investment made by the WA Government, the Australian Federal Government, CSIRO, and the ICRAR joint venture partners, to turn Western Australia into a hub for world-class science and engineering. Before the SKA starts observations in 2019, the MWA and ASKAP projects, together with iVEC’s new $80 million Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, and ICRAR itself, will produce excellent science on the path to the SKA.

“These global science endeavours will continue to benefit Western Australia and the international scientific community long into the future. The effort Australia and WA has made in infrastructure, legislation and policies will make the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory a significant centre for global science for decades to come,” says Professor Quinn.

“As an International centre, we’re eager to continue our work with colleagues in Africa and the rest of the world to build the SKA and use it to explore the Universe in 10,000 times more detail than ever before.”

Adapted from information issued by Curtin University. Images courtesy SPDO / TDP / DRAO / Swinburne Astronomy Productions; Photography by Paul Bourke and Jonathan Knispel (supported by WASP (UWA), iVEC, ICRAR, and CSIRO).

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Australia’s newest telescopes – bird’s eye view

Artist's impression of ASKAP dishes

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (artist's impression) is under construction in a remote part of Western Australia.

A NEW WEB FEATURE makes it possible to take a ‘bird’s eye view’ over the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) and see the construction progress of CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope.

ASKAP Live is an interactive map of the 36 antennae that will make up the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP). In addition to showing the location of each antenna, ASKAP Live gives pictures and status reports on the construction of each antenna.

Colour coding provides, at a glance, the construction status of each antenna: antennae indicated by green icons have already been completed, those currently being constructed are in blue, and the six antennae that will make up the Boolardy Engineering Test Array, or BETA, are marked with yellow or purple icons.

A screenshot from the ASKAP Live web site.

A screenshot from the ASKAP Live web site.

All 36 ASKAP antennae are being constructed at the MRO by their manufacturer, the 54th Research Institute of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (known as CETC54), with the assistance of CSIRO’s ASKAP team and local contractors.

The antennae are first built and tested in China by CETC54, with the antenna sections then disassembled and shipped to Australia. The antennae are then reassembled on site at the MRO, approximately 315 kilometres north east of Geraldton in the Mid West region of Western Australia.

Once built, ASKAP will operate as part of CSIRO’s radio astronomy facility for use by Australian and international scientists.

As well as being a world-leading telescope in its own right, ASKAP will be an important test-bed for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a future international radio telescope that will be the world’s largest and most sensitive.

Take a look at ASKAP Live.

You can also view the ASKAP Webcam.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO.

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Radio astronomy protected in Western Australia

Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope.

Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope.

ENHANCED PROTECTIONS are now in place for the Mid West Radio Quiet Zone (RQZ) in remote Western Australia (near Boolardy Station), around 200 kilometres east of Meekatharra…a candidate site for the proposed Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The RQZ was established in 2005 to provide an environment that protects highly sensitive equipment used for radio astronomy from unwanted radio communications signals.

These arrangements protect the radio telescopes currently in place at the Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory—such as the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) and the Murchison Wide-field Array (MWA)—as well as those proposed in the Australian-New Zealand bid to host the SKA.

ASKAP dish

One of the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) dishes.

“A clear regulatory framework to support radio quiet arrangements will further assist Australia to create the world’s best radioastronomy facility,” said Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) Chairman, Chris Chapman.

“This will provide a platform that should be ideal for future radioastronomy projects, including the €1.5 billion SKA project.”

Mr Chapman said the new protection measures provide greater clarity and certainty to the arrangements that protect radio astronomy services in the RQZ.

‘The new measures continue to provide for radio quiet while supporting the use of spectrum by other users and placing the lowest feasible burden on industry in the region,’ said Mr Chapman.

The introduction of the enhanced protections for the RQZ follows a very extensive consultation process in which the ACMA sought the views of interested stakeholders.

More information: ACMA Planning for the radio astronomy service

Adapted from information issued by ACMA. Images courtesy SPDO / Swinburne Astronomy Productions / CASS / Terrace Photographers.

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Dishes take shape in the desert

ASKAP dishes

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, or ASKAP, is under construction in the remote Western Australian desert.

THE CSIRO’S LATEST RADIO TELESCOPE—the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, or ASKAP—is now taking shape in the remote Western Australian desert.

When completed in 2012 it will comprise 36 dishes all acting in concert to produce the same result as one big dish. Cutting-edge receiver technology invented by CSIRO scientists will give it an extremely wide field of view. This, coupled with high-speed electronics and an ultra-fast optical fibre link to a dedicated computing centre in Perth, will make ASKAP arguably the best radio telescope system in the world.

ASKAP’s first five years of observations are already booked out by teams from around the world, and the science studies it will tackle are some of the biggest around—how did the earliest stars and galaxies form; how have galaxies evolved through time; what role has magnetism played in the cosmos; and can Einstein’s theories stand ever-more stringent tests?

Antony Schinckel

ASKAP Project Director, Antony Schinckel

ASKAP is also the Australian and New Zealand “pathfinder” for the ultimate prize—the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA. The SKA will be a vast collection of thousands of dishes and antennae spread across an area the size of a continent. A decision will be made next year by an international committee, as to whether the SKA will be hosted in Australia-New Zealand or southern Africa. The linked telescopes will make images ten times more detailed than those of the Hubble Space Telescope.

SpaceInfo.com.au wanted to get an update on progress with ASKAP, so we spoke to the man in charge—ASKAP Project Director Antony Schinckel, of CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division—to find out how things are going in the WA desert:

Can you give us a rundown on the state of construction of ASKAP?

We’re very happy with how things are going—we’re at the point where there is substantial activity on site. Major infrastructure construction commenced in May. The first phase of that was that the company doing the work needed to put in their temporary accommodation camp, as there are no motels for hundreds of kilometres!

Between now and early December we’ll complete all of the 30 remaining antenna foundations, the access tracks to each antennae, fibre and power distribution around the site and to each antenna, and then the central building as well—all of the primary infrastructure that doesn’t include the science instruments and power systems.

It must be a difficult task, building hi-tech facilities that are essentially in the middle of nowhere?

With these remote sites there are a lot of logistics that need to be understood and got moving properly, but the contractors have a fair bit of experience with that. Most of it is normal civil engineering, although there are a few subtleties—for instance, the concrete foundations for the antennae need to be a certain minimum stiffness.

The unusual bits in a sense are the optical data fibre links between the antennae and the central site. Our raw data rate will be phenomenally high, about 74 terabits per second for the total 36 antennae. That data then goes into some special equipment (the beam former and the correlator) which ramps down the rate fairly significantly before it is sent via cable down to Perth.

ASKAP antenna

ASKAP will comprise 36 hi-tech antennae

How are you going to handle the enormous amounts of data produced by the 36 ASKAP antennae?

Well, it’s going to be a really interesting challenge how we treat this. We can’t afford to archive the absolute raw data—the volume is just too high. So working out which are the critical data products to archive right up front is going to prove a real challenge. We’ve clearly got some plans on which ones are the most important, but it’ll be fascinating to see over the next few years if we end up archiving those or finding we have to modify it a little bit.

The Pawsey Centre in Perth is a key part of this in terms of the data reduction.

The actual fibre in the ground that CSIRO has put in, is through a contract with AARNet with major sub-contracts to CCTS and North Coast Holdings, out of Geraldton. The fibre has now been fully laid and tested. The fibre is all buried, which is easier long term than having it up on aerial poles. The fibre is better protected when buried. There are three booster huts along the length of the fibre.

There are two remote booster huts that are solar powered with the possibility of back-up diesel if required. And there’s one in the town of Mullewa, which is just on grid power with back-up.

As far as terrain goes, there’s a gentle slope 350km up from Geraldton to the site—we end up at an elevation of about 370 metres.

How will you supply electrical power to such a remote site?

With power, our intention long-term is to have as a renewable a power source as we possibly can. For all sorts of obvious reasons, we want to go with generating most of our power through whatever renewable resources we have. Out in that region of Western Australia in particular, solar power is extremely attractive. It’s one of the places with the highest solar insolation in the world. So solar will be a substantial part of it.

To begin with we’ll have a base power capability from diesel generators, but over a number of years we’ll be expecting to be adding or start off with some solar on top of the diesel, and then in a couple of more years we have some additional funds that will enable us to expand that significantly around 2013-14.

ASKAP dish being installed

The CSIRO has been particularly pleased with the quality of the antennae, built by the 54th Research Institute of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (known as CETC54).

Power storage is something of an issue. That’s partly why we’ve put the funding back a couple of years, to see what eventuates with power storage options by the time ASKAP is really up and operational. The focus now is on what we need to get it going.

You have six dishes installed and two more being installed right now. What’s the schedule for the rest of them?

It’s a fairly continuous process of installing the remaining antennae right through this year and into early 2012, at about 3 to 4 per month. A team from the Chinese manufacturer, CETC54, comes out to supervise their construction.

With the dishes, there’s one point there that we’ve been particularly thrilled with. We specified a surface accuracy of 1mm but the delivered capability substantially exceeds that—most of the antennae are coming in with an accuracy of about 0.5mm. This means in the long-term they could be used to do observations at much higher frequencies than originally planned, giving us very good long-term flexibility.

Another thing that CETC54 has achieved is that we don’t have to adjust the surfaces. They’ve come up with a manufacturing technique in China and then at installation here that means it’s literally a case of just bolting the dish panels together … there’s no fine adjustment necessary here in Australia.

Given that it is such remote site, will there be people stationed there on a regular basis?

No, not for operations. Like most telescopes these days, it can be operated by remote control from anywhere. However, with an array as big and as complex as this—36 antennae, vast data rates, these huge specialised digital systems—it really is a dramatic step forward. The telescope is about a factor of 10 more powerful than any other radio telescope in the world. So regular maintenance will be required to keep the system up and running, and there will be people going out to the site to do that.

The road to ASKAP

ASKAP is being built in one of the remotest parts of the world, 350 kilometres inland from Geraldton in Western Australia.

Finally, from a personal standpoint, what’s it like to be out there in the WA desert? The conditions must be pretty challenging.

Many telescopes are built in remote sites, but mostly they’re built where there’s already some level of infrastructure. For us working out at Boolardy Station, you have to bring in absolutely everything. You know intellectually that that’s true, but nonetheless on the day when you realise you really do need that special screwdriver, you find it is 350km away! It’s one of those classics where you know philosophically how to do something, and you think you’ve got it covered…but boy, there really is no give and take on that.

Summers out there are pretty warm. We’ve managed to move schedules around to deal with that, and it’s quite manageable; it’s just a case of thinking things out sensibly. We’ve worked a lot with regional contractors in WA who are experienced at this and we’ve shifted our mindset to suit the climate.

The wildlife situation reminds us that we’re living in Australia. The numbers of kangaroos, emus, goannas and snakes, has been quite impressive. Snakes in particular are the most dangerous local wildlife, but we’ve got good procedures in place to deal with them.

Story by Jonathan Nally, SpaceInfo.com.au. Images courtesy CASS / Terrace Photographers / Paul Bourke and Jonathan Knispel (Supported by WASP (UWA), iVEC, ICRAR, and CSIRO).

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Milestone as radio dishes linked

ASKAP antennae

Antennae of CSIRO's Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope in Western Australia were linked with other dishes across Australasia to provide incredible detail of a distant quasar. Photo: Terrace Photographers

THE DISCOVERY POTENTIAL of the future international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope has been glimpsed following the commissioning of a working optical fibre link between CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope in Western Australia, and other radio telescopes across Australia and New Zealand.

The achievement will be announced at the 2011 International SKA Forum, taking place this week in Banff, Canada.

On 29 June, six telescopes—ASKAP, three CSIRO telescopes in New South Wales, a University of Tasmania telescope and another operated by the Auckland University of Technology—were used together to observe a radio source that may be two black holes orbiting each other.

Data from all sites were streamed in real time to Curtin University in Perth  (a node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research) and there processed to make an image.

This ability to successfully link antennae (dishes) over large distances will be vital for the future $2.5 billion SKA telescope, which will have several thousand antennae, up to 5,500 kilometres apart, working together as a single telescope. Linking antennae in such a manner allows astronomers to see distant galaxies in more detail.

Map of antennae across Australia and New Zealand

The network of radio telescope dishes stretched across Australia and New Zealand. Image: Carl Davies, CSIRO

“We now have an SKA-scale network in Australia and New Zealand: a combination of CSIRO and NBN-supported fibre and the existing AARNET and KAREN research and education networks,” said SKA Director for Australasia, Dr Brian Boyle.

Watching as black holes feed

The radio source the astronomers targeted was PKS 0637-752, a quasar that lies more than seven and a half billion light-years away from us.

This quasar emits a spectacular radio jet with regularly spaced bright spots in it, like a string of pearls. Some astronomers have suggested that this striking pattern is created by two black holes in orbit around each other, one black hole periodically triggering the other to ‘feed’ and emit a burst of radiation.

Radio image of a quasar

The radio dish network was used to zoom in on quasar PKS0637-752, at the heart of which is thought to be two black holes circling each other. ATCA image: L. Godfrey (Curtin Uni.) and J. Lovell (Uni. of Tasmania). Image from telescope network: S. Tingay (Curtin Uni.) et al.

‘It’s a fascinating object, and we were able to zoom right into its core, seeing details just a few millionths of a degree in scale, equivalent to looking at a 10-cent piece from a distance of 1,000 kilometres,’ said CSIRO astronomer Dr Tasso Tzioumis.

During the experiment Dr Tzioumis and fellow CSIRO astronomer Dr Chris Phillips controlled all the telescopes over the Internet from Sydney.

Curtin University’s Professor Steven Tingay and his research team built the system used to process the telescope data. “Handling the terabytes of data that will stream from ASKAP is within reach, and we are on the path to the SKA,” he said.

“For an SKA built in Australia and New Zealand, this technology will help connect the SKA to major radio telescopes in China, Japan, India and Korea.”

AARNet, which provides the data network for Australia’s research institutions, has recently shown that it can implement data rates of up to 40 Gbps on existing fibre networks. That figure is for a single wavelength, and one fibre can support up to 80 wavelengths.

Adapated from information issued by CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science.

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Aboriginal community names CSIRO telescope

One of the ASKAP dishes

One of the ASKAP dishes at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia. The first six dishes (of an eventual 36) have been given indigenous names.

THE FIRST SIX ANTENNAE of CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope in Western Australia have today received names in the local Wajarri language.

The names, chosen by the Wajarri people, were bestowed by representatives of seven Aboriginal families at a ceremony at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, about 315 km northeast of Geraldton.

Name plaques will be fixed to each antenna. Further naming will take place as more antennae are installed and eventually all 36 of ASKAP’s antennae will have a Wajarri name.

The antenna names are: Bilyarli (which means “galah”, and is also the name of a past Wajarri Elder, Mr Frank Ryan); Bundarra (stars); Wilara (the Moon); Jirdilungu (the Milky Way); Balayi (a lookout, as this antenna looks down westward to others); and Diggidumble (a nearby table-top hill).

Antony Schinckel

CSIRO ASKAP Director, Antony ("Ant") Schinckel has been named "Minga", the Wajarri name for "ant".

“These names will be a permanent reminder that this is the land of the Wajarri people,” said the Chair of Wajarri Yamatji Native Title Group, Gavin Egan.

Roads and other significant structures will also be given Wajarri names.

One of the roads will be called Ngurlubarndi, the Wajarri name for Fred Simpson, a past Wajarri Elder and father of Wajarri Elder, Ike Simpson.

CSIRO’s ASKAP Director, Antony (“Ant”) Schinckel has also been given a Wajarri name—”Minga”, which means “ant”.

In March CSIRO awarded McConnell Dowell Constructors (Aust) Pty Ltd the contract to construct support infrastructure at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.

The work involves the construction of several kilometres of access roads and tracks, power and data distribution, a central control building, and foundation pads for the rest of the 36 antennae that will be installed on the site by early 2012.

The MRO is located in the Mid West region of Western Australia. As well as being home to ASKAP, it is also the Australia–New Zealand candidate core site for the future $2.5bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO. Images courtesy Tim Wheeler and Terrace Photographers.

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Super Science with the SKA

THE SQUARE KILOMETRE ARRAY (SKA) will be a new generation radio telescope 50 times more powerful than current instruments. It will be built in the Southern Hemisphere, either in Africa or Australia-New Zealand where the view of the Galaxy is the best and there is little radio interference.

An international project involving some 20 countries, the SKA will be one of the largest and most ambitious science projects ever devised. It has an estimated construction cost of €1.5 billion and a total cost of €9 billion ($13 billion) over its expected 50-year lifetime.

In this video, Professor Peter Quinn, Director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Perth, Western Australia; Dr Brian Boyle, Australasian SKA Director; and other leaders in Australian astronomy, explain why they’re so excited about the SKA.

The decision on whether the joint Australia-New Zealand bid will host the SKA is expected in 2012.

More information:

ICRAR

SKA

CSIRO Astronomy & Space Sciences

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR / NASA.

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Data deluge for astronomers

Artist's impression of the LSST

The proposed Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will survey the entire visible sky every week from a mountaintop in Chile.

THE STEREOTYPICAL ASTRONOMER of yesteryear was a patient soul, endlessly gazing skywards searching for a faint glimmer that might lead to a discovery.

But for the astronomers of tomorrow this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Super-sized telescopes currently under development around the world like the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), will be so sensitive that information from the rest of the Universe will literally pour from the sky.

Once these data-intensive telescopic beasts come online the challenge for astronomers will no longer be to find the needle in the haystack, but to remove the hay from the pile of needles and choose which are the most likely to further our understanding of the cosmos.

To tackle this data challenge head on, two organisations on opposite sides of the planet have joined forces.

Artist's impression of SKA dishes

Artist's impression of some of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) dishes. The SKA will produce copious amounts of data that will need to be sifted carefully.

The LSST Corporation in the United States and the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Perth, Western Australia have signed an agreement to work together on designing common database systems for optical and radio astronomy and research tools that will enable direct comparisons of objects discovered by these optical and radio telescopes.

“This collaboration will give us a great head start in preparing for the enormous data challenges of the SKA and will allow scientists access to both optical and radio data to probe the Universe across all wavelengths,” said ICRAR Director Prof. Peter Quinn

The LSST was ranked the number one project in the US by the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey conducted in 2010.

“Once you have separated the incoming data into sources and objects, it makes little difference to the system if the signal is at optical or radio wavelengths,” said Jeff Kantor, Data Management Project Manager.

“So it makes sense to join forces with ICRAR to find data processing solutions for the enormous databases that will be generated by both of these amazing telescopes.”

Using supercomputers located at the new Pawsey Centre in Perth, ICRAR’s Professor Andreas Wicenec is heading up the international team designing data systems for the SKA radio telescope.

“We expect to detect more than 100 billion objects, which is at least 10 times more than we’ve observed in the last 400 years of astronomy,” said Professor Wicenec. “This represents an immense challenge but potentially huge scientific reward

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR. Images courtesy SPDO / Swinburne Astronomy Productions / Todd Mason, Mason Productions / LSST Corp.

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Supercomputer boosts SKA chances

Artist's impression of the central part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Artist's impression of the central part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

RESEARCHERS IN AUSTRALIA and New Zealand have been donated a high performance computing facility by IBM, boosting their chances of a successful bid for the $3 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.

International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) at Curtin University researchers and counterparts at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand will use the computing facility to process data from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope, a precursor instrument for the SKA telescope.

Victoria University radio astronomer Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt who chairs the New Zealand SKA Research & Development Consortium says the supercomputer is a massive boost for the MWA.

“New Zealand researchers and students will have the opportunity to contribute directly to the Murchison Widefield Array, the first time we’ve been involved in an official SKA ‘precursor’,” says Dr Johnston-Hollitt.

“This is a significant step forward in New Zealand’s engagement in both radio astronomy and the SKA project and we are grateful to IBM for their support.”

Real-time view of the early cosmos

The SKA will be a new generation radio telescope 50 times more powerful than current instruments. It will be built in the Southern Hemisphere, either in Africa or Australia-New Zealand where the view of the Galaxy is the best and there is little radio interference.

The decision on whether the joint Australia-New Zealand bid will host the SKA is expected in 2012.

Part of the Murchison Wide-field Array

A small part of the Murchison Wide-field Array, which will comprise over 500 separate antennae…most of them located in a cluster 1.5km wide. The antennae are of an advanced new type, with no moving parts.

The MWA is one of three official SKA ‘precursors’, medium scale instruments that will be used to explore and prove important technologies for the SKA. The MWA is the only SKA Precursor that operates at low radio frequencies.

The $30m MWA radio telescope—currently under construction at the heart of the Australia-New Zealand SKA site in Western Australia, the Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory—is designed to probe the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the Universe, looking back billions of years in time to the so-called Epoch of Reionisation.

The IBM facility will help the MWA process data in real-time, forming images of the sky that will be used to measure the signals of interest.

Tasman ties in astronomy

Professor Steven Tingay, ICRAR Deputy Director, sees the links between Australia and New Zealand getting stronger in radio astronomy.

“This work builds on existing links between Australia and New Zealand in radio astronomy and the IBM facility will be a vital component of the MWA system. It will allow data from MWA to be processed which in turn will allow us to make new discoveries about the Universe. We’re delighted to be working with colleagues in New Zealand and IBM on this critical sub-system for the MWA.”

Chief Technologist of IBM New Zealand, and co-chair of the NZ SKA Industry Consortium (NZSKAIC) Dougal Watt, says, “This award is an important contribution by IBM towards research and development for SKA, one of the four biggest science projects of the century. IBM is excited to be working with the MWA project to understand and solve some key challenges these next-generation science instruments will generate.”

Dr Johnston-Hollitt sees the future of such collaborations between international researchers and industry to be fundamental to large international projects like the SKA.

“The way big research is being done is via collaboration between international teams of researchers from academia and industry and the SUR grant for New Zealand researchers for MWA epitomises this new approach. I hope this is the start of a fruitful collaboration between Victoria, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research and IBM.”

ICRAR/Curtin University and Victoria University in Wellington were donated the facility as part of an IBM Shared University Research grant.

Artist's impression of an ASKAP dish

Artist's impression of an ASKAP dish

Australian-German collaboration

In other news, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to foster collaboration between the Fraunhofer Institute of Solar Energy (Fraunhofer), Max Plank Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) and CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science (CASS) was signed on April 7, 2011.

The MoU was signed in Berlin, Germany during a workshop on “Renewable Energy Concepts for Mega-Science Projects demonstrated by the SKA and its Pathfinders”.

A key focus of the MoU is to promote scientific and research co-operation in renewable energy capture, storage and management for the SKA between Australia and experts from Germany and the rest of the world.

The MOU also looks to advance collaboration between Fraunhofer ISE, Max Plank Institute for Radio Astronomy and CSIRO on the development of renewable energy systems for the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) and the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) instrument as an SKA precursor facility.

MRO and ASKAP are located hundreds of kilometres inland from Geraldton in Western Australia. Consequently, access to reliable power is a major issue.

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR and CASS. MWA image courtesy Paul Bourke and Jonathan Knispel (supported by WASP (UWA), iVEC, ICRAR, and CSIRO). Other images courtesy CASS / Swinburne.

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Aussies unite for outback astronomy

MWA antennae

A small part of the Murchison Wide-field Array, which will comprise over 500 separate antennae…most of them located in a cluster 1.5km wide. The antennae are of an advanced new type, with no moving parts.

A QUEST TO DISCOVER the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang is underway with the first major pieces of a revolutionary new radio telescope built in remote Western Australia.

The Murchison Wide-field Array (MWA) is being built by an Australian consortium led by The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia, in close collaboration with US and Indian partners.

MWA industry partner and Fremantle-based high-technology company, Poseidon Scientific Instruments (PSI), recently succeeded in packaging sensitive electronics into environmentally controlled enclosures tough enough to withstand the harsh conditions of outback WA.

Professor Steven Tingay, ICRAR Deputy Director, said PSI’s delivery of this first electronics package was a critical milestone for the MWA project.

MWA receiver

The MWA Receiver with Professor Steven Tingay (ICRAR), Jesse H Searls (PSI), Derek Carroll (PSI), and Mark Waterson (ICRAR).

“This is the first of 64 such enclosures that will service a telescope made up of over 500 antennae, spread over a nine square-kilometre area of the remote Murchison region in WA,” said Professor Tingay.

Professor Tingay said the innovative enclosure would also prevent electronics from interfering with other equipment on the site, preserving the uniquely quiet environment of the Murchison.

“The combination of the MWA and the radio quiet environment of the Murchison will allow us to search for the incredibly weak signals that come from the early stages in the evolution of the Universe, some 13 billion years ago,” he said.

The MWA is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, a site operated by the CSIRO and a proposed core site for the multi-billion dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

It is one of only three official SKA Precursor telescopes, proving the technology and science on the path to the SKA.

One of ICRAR’s goals is to partner with Australian industries, helping position them to participate in future radio astronomy opportunities, such as the SKA. The MWA partnership with PSI is one such success story.

Breaking new ground

Meanwhile, work is gathering pace out in the Western Australian desert.

Following a tender evaluation process, McConnell Dowell Constructors (Aust) Pty Ltd. has been selected by CSIRO as the successful tender in the construction of support infrastructure at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO).

Artist's impression of the SKA

Artist's impression of the central part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The project commences immediately, has a 45-week schedule and is a significant milestone in the ongoing development of the site.

The scope of work involves the construction of several kilometres of access roads and tracks, power and data infrastructure, a central control building and 30 radio antenna concrete foundations, as well as ancillary works.

The MRO is located in the Mid West region of Western Australia, and will be home to world-class instruments including CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope. The MRO is also the Australia–New Zealand candidate core site for the future $2.5bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project.

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR / CSIRO. MWA image courtesy Paul Bourke and Jonathan Knispel (supported by WASP (UWA), iVEC, ICRAR, and CSIRO).

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