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“Super scope” takes shape in the Outback

  • Network of 36 radio astronomy dishes called ASKAP
  • Being built in a remote corner of Western Australia
  • Pathfinder for the international Square Kilometre Array telescope

CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (or ASKAP) project continues to progress to schedule, with five new antennae constructed at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) during the months of September and October, 2010.

The five new antennae bring the total number of ASKAP antennae now standing at the MRO site to six, with the first ASKAP antenna successfully built and tested earlier in the year.

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 CSIRO’s ASKAP team and local contractors assisting.

The antennae are built and tested in China by CETC54. The antenna sections then disassembled, shipped to Australia and then reassembled on site.

ASKAP antenna being erected

ASKAP antennae being erected at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia.

Ant Schinckel, CSIRO ASKAP Project Director, is particularly pleased with recent antenna activity, highlighting the significant success of reflector accuracy that the CETC54 team has been able to achieve upon re-assembly of the shipped antenna.

He notes, “a surface accuracy of <0.6 mm has been achieved with no site adjustments necessary to the panel alignments which is a tremendous result—it means that antennae built in the factory can be rebuilt on site quickly and reliably.”

These first six ASKAP antennae will form BETA (the Boolardy Engineering Test Array) once they are kitted out with PAFs (Phased Array Feeds), receivers and digital backends. BETA is scheduled to be completed in the second quarter of 2011.

By the end of 2011, all 36 antennae should be built, with the full ASKAP system expected to be completed by 2013.

When operational in 2013, ASKAP will be one of the world’s best radio telescope systems. In fact, for many types of astronomy, it will be the best radio telescope. It will have electronic “fish eye” technology that enables it to see huge areas of the sky at once, which means that it will be able to conduct whole-sky surveys with impressive speed. This efficiency means astronomers will be able to achieve in a matter of months or years what would have taken decades to do before.

The Head of Astrophysics for CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, Dr Robert Braun, said ASKAP will carry out a series of ambitious surveys that will fundamentally change our view of the Universe.

“Our new ‘radio-camera’ technology makes this possible by making the useful image field of each antenna a hundred times larger,” Dr Braun said.

“We will continue refining it both for ASKAP and for future use in the SKA—for instance, by improving how it captures dynamic range in an image.”

The ‘radio-camera’ was developed by a team that included Dr John O’Sullivan, winner of the 2009 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for his work on wireless technologies.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO. Images courtesy CSIRO / Ross Forsyth (CSIRO).

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CSIRO “hot rods” old telescope

SKAMP telescope

The University of Sydney's MOST radio telescope, now called SKAMP, has been boosted with new CSIRO technology that dramatically improves performance.

CSIRO has helped transform the University of Sydney’s radio telescope into a world-class instrument, and along the way has learned lessons for its own ASKAP (Australian SKA Pathfinder) telescope.

Both telescopes will help demonstrate Australia’s technological expertise in its bid to host the world’s largest and most advanced radio telescope—the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The University of Sydney runs what was the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (MOST) near Canberra. It contracted CSIRO to help develop signal-processing systems—a filterbank and correlator—to dramatically boost the telescope’s performance.

The upgrade has made the telescope more flexible, three times more sensitive, with ten times more bandwidth (up from 3 MHz to 30 MHz), and able to make better-quality images of objects in space.

“This project has given our telescope a whole new capability,” says Professor Anne Green of the University of Sydney, who led the process.

“It looks the same, but under the bonnet it’s been born again.”

Artist's impression of the SKA

Artist's impression of the core of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope system, which Australian astronomers hope to host in Western Australia.

And the “new” telescope has a new name: SKAMP (the Square Kilometre Array Molonglo Prototype).

The formal handover of the new signal-processing systems recently took place at the University of Sydney.

The knowledge CSIRO has gained during the course of this project has been applied to the design of the digital systems for its own ASKAP telescope, which is now under construction in Western Australia. Much of the SKAMP contract was carried out by the ASKAP Digital Systems team.

“What we’ve learned over several years will now allow us to dramatically shorten our design cycle for ASKAP’s digital systems, as well as potentially feed into future development work that will be required for the SKA,” says CSIRO SKA Director, Dr Brian Boyle.

Much of the funding for the SKAMP project was provided by the Commonwealth Government under the second round of the Major National Research Facilities program. The Australian Research Council has also contributed substantial funding.

In a synergy with the SKAMP project, CSIRO has built a similar correlator for the international Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) consortium, which is building a low-frequency radio telescope at the same site as the ASKAP telescope (the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia). MWA too will demonstrate technology for the SKA project.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO / University of Sydney.

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World’s biggest telescope – the Aussie bid

Artist's impression of the Square Kilometre Array

Artist's impression of the Square Kilometre Array. Australia and New Zealand are competing with Southern Africa to host the facility, which will be the biggest and most powerful radio telescope ever built.

  • Australia pushing its bid for the SKA
  • To be the largest telescope in the world
  • Competing with Southern Africa to host it

Australia is pursuing its bid to host the world’s most powerful radio telescope at the 2010 International Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Forum in the Netherlands.

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.

Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr, who is leading the Australian team at the forum, said the international science community had short-listed two possible sites – one in Australia and New Zealand and one in Southern Africa.

“The SKA will provide huge benefits, and not just to the host country. It will create opportunities for industry and support high-skill, high-wage jobs. It will attract world-class talent to Australia and New Zealand and inspire young people to pursue careers in science,” Senator Carr said.

“This extraordinarily ambitious project will allow the best astronomers from across the globe to work together on fundamental questions about the evolution of the universe.”

“The Australian Government is strongly backing the bid to host the SKA. We are investing over $280 million in infrastructure to support next-generation radio astronomy in Western Australia. The Government of Western Australia is investing another $30 million.”

“Australia and New Zealand are the ideal location for the SKA. The International SKA Forum is an opportunity to bring the scientific advantages of the Australian and New Zealand site home to the international community.”

“Australia and New Zealand have a very compelling case. We have a remote site, free of radio interference; a long tradition of excellence in radio astronomy that goes right back to the birth of the discipline; and superb astronomy infrastructure and a fibre-optic network (NBN) to support the SKA,” Senator Carr said.

Adapted from information issued by the Australian Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research / CSIRO / Xilostudios / ISPO / Swinburne University.

Super scope will be green

Artist's impression of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder

An artist's impression of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), part of the system that will benefit from use of solar and geothermal power.

  • Australia building huge new radio telescope
  • Solar & geothermal power to be used
  • Boosts bid to host even bigger international telescope

The Australian Government will invest $47.3 million in Western Australia to ensure solar energy and the nation’s largest direct heat geothermal facility power Australia’s bid to host the world’s strongest radio telescope.

Two key pieces of infrastructure being built to support the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) bid will now have full-scale, clean energy generation systems because of the investment.

The Pawsey High-Performance Computing Centre in Kensington, will now use hot sedimentary aquifers to provide cooling and ventilation in the largest direct heat geothermal demonstrator in Australia at 10 MW.

The Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory will now use a full-scale solar/storage/diesel energy generation system.

This investment has the potential to cut energy costs by AU$5 million per year, and reduce Australia’s carbon emissions by 12,000 tonnes per year – the equivalent of taking 6,000 cars off the road.

The projects will also help the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which owns or leases 1,000 buildings across 55 locations, achieve its goal to be carbon neutral by 2015.

Artist's impression of the Square Kilometre Array

Artist's impression of the Square Kilometre Array. Australia/New Zealand and Southern Africa are competing to host the facility, which will be the biggest and most powerful radio telescope ever built.

Bid for the SKA

The announcement will strengthen Australia and New Zealand’s bid to host the mega-science $2.5 billion SKA radio telescope by ensuring it meets the international community’s aspiration that sustainable energy be used for the project.

The Australian Government has demonstrated a strong commitment to the SKA bid with other important investments: $100 million for the SKA Pathfinder, $80 million for High Performance Computing for the SKA, and $25 million for an optical fibre backbone broadband link from Perth to Geraldton.

The SKA involves 20 countries and will have the potential for discovery ten thousand times greater than existing radio telescopes. It will explore a number of fundamental scientific questions such as the origin of the universe, the nature of dark matter and the existence of life in the universe.

Hosting the SKA will generate significant economic and scientific benefits, particularly to WA, including spin-offs in areas such as supercomputing, data transmission, renewable energy, construction and manufacturing.

The decision on the location of the SKA between Australia-New Zealand and Southern Africa is expected around 2012.

Construction on the energy generation projects is scheduled to commence in November 2010, be completed in August 2013, and support 62 construction jobs.

The $47.3 million investment is part of the Sustainability Round of the Education Investment Fund, which is seeing a $4 billion investment in world-leading, strategic tertiary education and research infrastructure.

Adapted from information issued by the Australian Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research / CSIRO / Xilostudios / ISPO / Swinburne University.

Aussies and Kiwis forge cosmic connection

Antenna 1 of CSIRO's Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope in Western Australia.

Antenna 1 of CSIRO's Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope in Western Australia.

  • Six dishes linked across Australia / New Zealand
  • Formed one virtual telescope 5,500km wide
  • Australia bidding for world’s biggest radio telescope

Six radio telescopes across Australia and New Zealand have joined forces to act as one giant telescope, linking up over a distance of 5,500km for the first time.

The link-up was a collaboration between CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research at Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia, and AUT University in New Zealand.

The linked telescope will make images 10 times more detailed than those of the Hubble Space Telescope and has already been used to peer into the heart of a galaxy called Centaurus A.

Showing Australia and New Zealand can link telescopes this way strengthens the two countries’ joint bid to host the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.

“The SKA is a truly mega-sized science project with its global reach, scale and ambition, akin to the Large Hadron Collider in Europe,” said CSIRO SKA Director Dr Brian Boyle.

“This successful linking of antennae shows Australia and New Zealand’s commitment to next-generation astronomical research and how seriously we are taking the SKA bid.”

The new 12-m dish near Warkworth in the North Island of New Zealand.

The new 12-m dish near Warkworth in the North Island of New Zealand.

Aiming for world’s biggest radio telescope

The giant $2.5 billion SKA will have several thousand antennae, up to 5,500km apart, working together as one telescope.

Fifty times more sensitive than today’s radio telescopes, the SKA will scan the cosmos for black holes, star formation and magnetic fields in space.

Australia and New Zealand are one of two regions shortlisted to host the SKA. The other is Southern Africa. A decision is expected in 2012.

The newcomers to the Australasian telescope team are the New Zealand dish, near Warkworth in the hills of the North Island, and a new CSIRO dish in Western Australia’s red dirt country, inland from Geraldton.

The new CSIRO dish is the first antenna of the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope.

The Warkworth dish is operated by AUT and is the first functioning research-quality radio telescope in New Zealand.

Data from New Zealand radio telescope were transferred from Warkworth directly to Australia using recently established 1 Gb per second connectivity via the Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network (KAREN).

“The linking of the Warkworth antenna is a milestone for New Zealand science,” said the Director of the Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research at AUT, Professor Sergei Gulyaev.

Zooming in to the heart of galaxy Centaurus A

Zooming in to the heart of galaxy Centaurus A, 14 million light-years away. This composite image shows the entire galaxy, as imaged by CSIRO radio telescopes; radio emission from a central part of the galaxy, imaged by a US radio telescope; and the innermost part of the galaxy, imaged by the new network of Australian & NZ radio telescopes.

“It shows that Australia and New Zealand can achieve the SKA’s ambitious science goals.”

The other telescopes used in the link-up were three CSIRO facilities in New South Wales and a University of Tasmania dish near Hobart, Tasmania.

Amazing detail seen

One of the linked telescope’s first projects has been to study the heart of a galaxy called Centaurus A.

Lurking there is a black hole that shoots out jets of radio-emitting particles at close to the speed of light.

Observing for the galaxy for 10 hours, the telescopes took enough data to fill a stack of DVDs in their cases as high as a nine-storey building.

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research at Curtin University of Technology provided the equipment for recording the data and also analysed the data to make an image.

The resolution of the new image is 100,000 times higher than that of a ground-breaking radio image made by CSIRO last year, which is itself the most detailed image ever made of the whole galaxy.

“Centaurus A is 14 million light-years away,” said Curtin University’s Professor Steven Tingay, a radio astronomy expert. “We’re zooming in on the black hole at the heart of this galaxy, to learn about how these systems work.

“Making the new image has been like photographing a pin head from 20km away.”

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO.

Centaurus A image credit: Whole galaxy: I. Feain, T. Cornwell & R. Ekers (CSIRO/ATNF); ATCA northern middle lobe pointing courtesy R. Morganti (ASTRON); Parkes data courtesy N. Junkes (MPIfR). Inner radio lobes:  NRAO / AUI / NSF. Core: S. Tingay (ICRAR) / ICRAR, CSIRO and AUT. ASKAP

ASKAP image credit: P. Dawson

Warkworth antenna image credit: Tim Natusch, AUT

Honey, I shrunk the receiver

An artist's impression of the ASKAP radio telescope array

An artist's impression of the ASKAP radio telescope array in Western Australia. ASKAP is currently under construction, and is due to commence operations in early 2013.

A complete radio receiver on a chip measuring just 5mm x 5mm could eventually be used in mobile phones and other communications technologies.

CSIRO and Australian company Sapphicon Semiconductor Pty Ltd have signed an agreement to jointly develop the chip.

The development of a low-cost, ultra-high-bandwidth ‘system-on-chip’ device could also replace traditional receivers currently used in radio astronomy applications, many of which are about the size of a small fridge.

The chip’s first test will be in CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP)—an array of 36 radio dishes that acts as a single telescope now under construction in Western Australia.

Image of silicon-on-sapphire chips

New silicon-on-sapphire chips are being developed by CSIRO and Sapphicon Semiconductor.

It will be tested in an innovative radio camera (or “phased array feed”) developed by CSIRO, which sits at the focal centre of each ASKAP dish to receive incoming cosmic radio waves.

“This chip will minimise the size and weight of the phased array feed, reduce cost and power, and facilitate maintenance,” said CSIRO Project Director for ASKAP, Dr David DeBoer.

“In our radio camera, it could revolutionise radio astronomy.”

International researchers developing the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope are interested in the R&D proposed by CSIRO and Sapphicon. No other group is developing a fully integrated single-chip receiver.

“This sort of technology, which looks to deliver mass-produced components on low-loss substrates consuming little power, is ideal for the SKA, which potentially needs millions of highly sensitive electronic sensors,” said Professor Richard Schilizzi, Director of the SKA Program Development Office in the UK, which co-ordinates international planning for the SKA.

“CSIRO is to be congratulated on this important step.”

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO / Sapphicon Semiconductor Pty Ltd.

CSIRO’s astronomy Super Science

CSIRO's prototype phased array feed in position on an antenna for testing.

CSIRO's prototype phased array feed in position on an antenna for testing.

CSIRO has been awarded three of the Australian Research Council’s new Super Science Fellowships, worth a total of $835,000 over three years, to develop technology for the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

The CSIRO winners were among 100 Fellows announced last week by the Minister for Science, Senator Kim Carr, at the headquarters of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science (CASS) in Marsfield, Sydney.

The Acting Chief of CASS, Dr Lewis Ball, said the CSIRO Fellows will work to refine a device CSIRO has pioneered for the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope it is now building in Western Australia—an innovative radio camera (or “phased array feed”) that sits at the focal centre of each ASKAP dish to receive incoming cosmic radio waves.

“These fellowships will help ensure Australia’s readiness for the SKA, boosting essential research and development at the interface between engineering and astronomy within CSIRO and in University groups in Australia and around the world,” Dr Ball said.

The SKA is a $2.5 billion radio telescope now being developed by 19 countries to serve the global community.

Australia and New Zealand have been shortlisted by the international science community as one of two potential locations for the SKA. Southern Africa is the other location.

ASKAP Project Leader, Dr Dave DeBoer

ASKAP Project Leader, Dr Dave DeBoer, with a receiver for CSIRO's prototype phased array feed.

New technology put to the test

The Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) is a next-generation radio telescope that is on the strategic pathway towards the staged development and deployment of the SKA.

The first of ASKAP’s 36 antennas has been erected at the proposed Australian site for the centre of the SKA—the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory inland from Geraldton in WA. The antenna received its first radio signals in February.

The Head of Astrophysics for CASS, Dr Robert Braun, said ASKAP will carry out a series of ambitious surveys that will fundamentally change our view of the Universe.

“Our new ‘radio-camera’ technology makes this possible by making the useful image field of each antenna a hundred times larger,” Dr Braun said.

“We will continue refining it both for ASKAP and for future use in the SKA—for instance, by improving how it captures dynamic range in an image.”

The ‘radio-camera’ was developed by a team that included Dr John O’Sullivan, winner of the 2009 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for his work on wireless technologies.

The Super Science Fellowships are designed to give early-career researchers the opportunity to work in areas of national significance.

Space Science and Astronomy is one of the three areas targeted by the Australian Research Council for the first round of Fellowships, the other two being marine and climate science, and future industries—biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO. Images by Chris Walsh and David McClenaghan, CSIRO.

Funding boost for Australian astronomy

An artist's impression of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder

An artist's impression of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), under construction in Western Australia.

Australian astronomers are celebrating the announcement of extra funding for their science, with 33 extra scientist positions to be funded in 2010 and 2011 under the federal government’s Super Science programme.

In all, 17 extra scientists working on 9 different projects will be funded this year, with a further 16 scientists in 7 projects following in 2011.

The government had already committed an extra $160.5m to Australian astronomy and space science research as part of three Super Science strands announced in the 2009 budget. The three Super Science areas are Astronomy and Space Science, Marine and Climate, and Future Industries.

The Astronomy and Space Science funding included: a new Australian National Centre of Square Kilometre Array Science in Perth; additional funding for the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO), the world’s leading 4-metre optical telescope; and funding for an Australian Space Research program and a Space Policy Unit that will provide advice to the Government on national space policy.

The latest funding is part of $27.2m allocated to 100 Super Science Fellowships, which are three-year post-doctoral fellowships to enable Australia’s most promising young researchers to work in areas of national significance.

Of the 100 Fellowships funded, 33 have gone to astronomers.

Most of the Fellowships will see work involving the new generation of radio telescope facilities such as ASKAP and the Square Kilometre Array, and instruments that operate on the Anglo-Australian Telescope. Others include research into planets orbiting other stars and the evolution of stars.

Adapted from information issued by the Australian Research Council / CSIRO / Swinburne University.

The Square Kilometre Array

In recent days we’ve brought you animated videos of Australia’s new radio telescope system, ASKAP, taking shape in the Western Australian desert.

Although ASKAP will be a fully-fledged radio telescope system in its own right — and one of the best in the world — it is also a “pathfinder” facility being built in the hope that Australia will win the rights to host the much larger Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the world’s largest radio telescope system.

The video above, produced by the Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, showcases the SKA and the amazing astronomical research it will perform.

Adapted from information issued by the Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing.

Perth’s radio astronomy centre

A new astronomy centre, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, has been established in Perth, Australia, to support and boost Australia’s 21st century radio astronomy research efforts.

Australia is currently building ASKAP, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, which will be a network of 36 radio dish antennae. ASKAP will become one of the world’s foremost astronomy observatories, and for some types of research programs, it will be the best in the world.

As the name suggests, ASKAP is intended to be the forerunner to the Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope system that will be the world’s largest observatory (in terms of geographical spread). Comprising hundreds of antennae spread over thousands of square kilometres, the total area of all the dishes and other antennae combined will add up to one square kilometre, hence the name.

Australia and southern Africa are vying for the rights to host the facility. A decision is expected sometime within the next couple of years.

Video courtesy of ICRAR.