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Milky Way galaxy is a ‘snake pit’

CSIRO's Australia Telescope Compact Array

CSIRO's Australia Telescope Compact Array was used to make a map of galactic gas polarisation.

A PIT OF WRITHING SNAKES. That’s what the first picture of turbulent gas inside our Milky Way galaxy looks like.

Professor Bryan Gaensler of the University of Sydney, Australia, and his team used a CSIRO radio telescope in eastern Australia to make the ground-breaking image, published in the journal Nature today.

The space between the stars in our Galaxy is not empty, but is filled with thin gas that continually swirls and churns.

“This is the first time anyone has been able to make a picture of this interstellar turbulence,” said Professor Gaensler. “People have been trying to do this for 30 years.”

Turbulence makes the Universe magnetic, helps stars form, and spreads the heat from supernova explosions through the Galaxy

“We now plan to study turbulence throughout the Milky Way. Ultimately this will help us understand why some parts of the Galaxy are hotter than others, and why stars form at particular times in particular places,” Professor Gaensler said.

Spectacular image

Gaensler and his team studied a region of our Galaxy about 10,000 light-years away in the constellation Norma.

They used CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri, NSW, because “it is one of the world’s best telescopes for this kind of work,” as Dr Robert Braun, Chief Scientist at CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science explained.

The radio telescope was tuned to receive radio waves that come from the Milky Way. As these waves travel through the swirling interstellar gas, one of their properties—polarisation—is very slightly altered, and the radio telescope can detect this.

(Polarisationis the direction the waves “vibrate”. Light can be polarised—for instance, some sunglasses filter out light polarised in one direction while letting through other light.)

Gas turbulence map of part of the Milky Way

A map has been made of the gas in our Milky Way galaxy. The 'snakes' are regions of gas where the density and magnetic field are changing rapidly as a result of turbulence.

The researchers measured the polarisation changes over an area of sky and used them to make a spectacular image of overlapping entangled tendrils, resembling writhing snakes.

The “snakes” are regions of gas where the density and magnetic field are changing rapidly as a result of turbulence.

Best match

The “snakes” also show how fast the gas is churning — an important number for describing the turbulence.

Team member Blakesley Burkhart, a PhD student from the University of Wisconsin, made several computer simulations of turbulent gas moving at different speeds.

These simulations resembled the “snakes” picture, with some matching the real picture better than others.

By picking the best match, the team concluded that the speed of the swirling in the turbulent interstellar gas is around 70,000 kph—relatively slow by cosmic standards.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO. Images courtesy B. Gaensler et al. (data: CSIRO/ATCA) and David Smyth, CSIRO.

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New way of looking at the sky

THE SKY IS NO LONGER THE LIMIT for Australian astronomy, with CAASTRO—the new ARC (Australian Research Council) Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics—launching recently.

CAASTRO is taking a revolutionary new approach to astronomy by using an all-sky perspective to answer the big questions about our universe, bringing together unique expertise across six Australian universities, along with local and international partners.

“CAASTRO is a major new initiative that is revolutionising the way we see the universe,” says Professor Bryan Gaensler, director of CAASTRO and based in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney.

“The traditional approach to astronomy has had a lot of success, but we’re now running up against a whole range of questions these old approaches can’t answer,” he adds.

Australia in the vanguard

“The big unsolved questions in astronomy demand entirely new approaches, requiring us to look at the whole sky at once, rather than studying single objects in the sky in isolation,” says Professor Gaensler.

“You really need to look at how everything works together to truly understand what is going on out there and that’s what CAASTRO will do with our all-sky approach to astronomy.”

“CAASTRO research will use wider fields of view, with bigger data sets, processed more deeply and more subtly, than anyone has attempted before,” he adds.

CAASTRO team members

(L-R) CAASTRO team members Associate Professor Scott Croom, Professor Elaine Sadler, Professor Bryan Gaensler and PhD student Kitty Lo.

“In the last few years, Australia has invested more than $400 million in new wide-field telescopes and the high-performance computers needed to process the resulting torrents of data. Using these new tools, Australia now has the chance to be at the vanguard of the upcoming information revolution in all-sky astronomy.”

Tackling the big questions

CAASTRO brings together expertise in radio astronomy, optical astronomy, theoretical astrophysics and computation to investigate three interlinked themes: the evolving universe, the dynamic universe, and the dark universe.

CAASTRO’s three interlinked research themes are:

  • The evolving universe: when did the first galaxies form, and how have they evolved?
  • The dynamic universe: what is the high-energy physics that drives rapid change in the universe?
  • The dark universe: what are the dark energy and dark matter that dominate the cosmos?

Professor Gaensler says CAASTRO’s strength is that it will be a collaborative structure that for the first time combines the relevant expertise and resources into a single coherent unit.

“In addition to our revolutionary science, we’ve decided right from the outset that CAASTRO should also put a high priority on training the next generation of scientists, on providing a family friendly environment for all our staff, and engaging with schools and the public with outreach activities,” he adds.

The new centre is led by the University of Sydney, in collaboration with the Australian National University, the University of Melbourne, the University of Western Australia, Curtin University and Swinburne University of Technology.

Adapted from information issued by CAASTRO. Images courtesy CAASTRO, ESO and CASS / Swinburne.

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Sydney astronomer gets top science medal

Magnetic field lines superposed on a galaxy

Magnetic fields are spread throughout the universe, but their ultimate origin and evolution are still a mystery. Image courtesy Andrew Fletcher / Rainer Beck, SuW / Hubble Heritage Team, STScI / AURA.

ONE OF AUSTRALIA’S TOP science honours, the highly prestigious Pawsey Medal has been awarded to Bryan Gaensler, Professor of Physics at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy within the School of Physics at the University of Sydney.

The Pawsey Medal is awarded annually by the Australian Academy of Science and recognises outstanding Australian research in physics by scientists under 40 years of age.

Professor Bryan Gaensler

Professor Bryan Gaensler: "Australian astronomy is headed in some very exciting directions right now, and it's wonderful to be able to play a part in this adventure." Image courtesy University of Sydney.

This is the tenth occasion on which a staff member at the School of Physics has been awarded this honour, a remarkable achievement. Previous winners include Professor Kostya Ostrikov in 2008 and Professor Benjamin Eggleton in 2007.

Professor Gaensler received the award for his pioneering studies of cosmic magnetism, which have opened a new window on the Universe.

He has developed innovative new spectropolarimetric techniques, and has then used them to derive detailed three-dimensional maps of large-scale magnetic fields in the Milky Way, the Magellanic Clouds and in distant galaxies.

His experiments reveal what cosmic magnets look like and what role they have played in the evolving Universe. They have led to the selection of Cosmic Magnetism as a key science project for the Square Kilometre Array, a planned next-generation radio telescope for which Western Australia is one of the two contenders.

As a by-product of studying astrophysical magnetism, Professor Gaensler has also made the stunning discovery that the Milky Way is twice as thick as was previously thought, a result that fundamentally changes our understanding of our home Galaxy.

“It’s a huge honour to be recognised in this way by a body as distinguished as the Academy of Science,” Professor Gaensler said.

“Australian astronomy is headed in some very exciting directions right now, and it’s wonderful to be able to play a part in this adventure.”

Looking to the future, Professor Gaensler is about to take on a major new role as an Australian Laureate Fellow, commencing in early 2011. He plans to determine the overall magnetic field of the Universe, one of the final unsolved problems in cosmology.

Adapted from information issued by the University of Sydney.

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Big boost for Aussie astronomy

Artist's impression of ASKAP

Artist's impression of some of the dishes of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, ASKAP, being built in Western Australia. It is a forerunner to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which Australian and New Zealand astronomers hope will be built in their two countries.

Australia’s astronomers are celebrating the successful attainment of Federal Government funding for a new research centre, the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics, or CAASTRO.

The Government, through the Australian Research Council (ARC), will provide funding of $20.6 million over 7 years. To this will be added $7.5 million provided by the institutions involved.

The Centre’s first Director will be Professor Bryan Gaensler of the University of Sydney; the University will be the administering organisation.

Bryan Gaensler

Professor Bryan Gaensler of the University of Sydney will lead the new research centre

The collaborating and partner organisations are:

  • The University of Western Australia
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Swinburne University of Technology
  • The Australian National University
  • Curtin University of Technology
  • CSIRO
  • Anglo-Australian Observatory
  • Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy
  • Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics
  • California Institute of Technology
  • University of Oxford
  • Durham University
  • University of Arizona
  • University of Toronto
  • Laboratoire de Physique Nucleaire et de Hautes Energies

CAASTRO’s activities will substantially expand Australia’s research capabilities and will make a major contribution to the National Research and Innovation Priorities.

CAASTRO will boost Australia’s outstanding track record as a world leader in astronomy, and will solve fundamental data processing problems that can potentially be applied to communications, medical imaging and remote sensing.

All CAASTRO activities will have a strong focus on training the next generation of scientists, providing a legacy extending well beyond the Centre’s lifetime.

Artist's impression of part of the Square Kilometre Array

Artist's impression of a smallk part of the Square Kilometre Array network of radio antennae

The students mentored by CAASTRO will lead the scientific discoveries made on future wide-field facilities, culminating in the ultimate all-sky telescope, the $2.5 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The SKA will be one of the world’s largest scientific facilities, with thousands of radio antennae spread over thousands of square kilometres. Two regions are bidding for the right to host the facility: Australia and New Zealand, and southern Africa.

Astronomy super science

In recent years the Federal Government has dramatically boosted spending on Australian astronomy, mostly in the form of the Government’s Super Science programme.

The Government has promised $1.1 billion for critical areas of scientific endeavour, including astronomy, climate change, marine and life sciences, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

In particular, the Super Science focus covers three areas:

  • Space science and astronomy;
  • Marine and climate science; and
  • Future industries.

The infrastructure projects funded under the Super Science Initiative were identified as priorities in the Strategic Roadmap for Australian Research Infrastructure in September 2008.

Super Science support for astronomy and space science includes:

  • A new Australian National Centre of Square Kilometre Array Science in Perth
  • Additional funding for the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO), the world’s leading 4-metre optical telescope
  • Funding for an Australian Space Research program and a Space Policy Unit that will provide advice to the Government on national space policy.
  • Funding of 33 Super Science Fellows at a wide range of institutions

Adapted from information issued by ARC / DIISR.

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