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Australian telescope to reveal early universe

SOLAR STORMS, SPACE JUNK and the formation of the Universe are about to be seen in an entirely new way with the start of operations this week of the $51 million Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope.

The first of three international precursors facilities to the $2 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, the MWA is located in a remote pocket of outback Western Australia. It is the product of an international project led by Curtin University and was officially turned on this morning by Australia’s Science and Research Minister, Senator Kim Carr.

Using bleeding edge technology, the MWA will become an eye on the sky, acting as an early warning system that will potentially help to save billions of dollars as it steps up observations of the Sun to detect and monitor massive solar storms. It will also investigate a unique concept that will see stray FM radio signals used to track dangerous space debris.

Night-time photo of antennae of the MWA

Antennae of the MWA in outback Western Australia. Photo by John Goldsmith.

The MWA will also give scientists an unprecedented view into the first billion years of the Universe, enabling them to look far into the past by studying radio waves that are more than 13 billion years old. This major field of study has the potential to revolutionise the field of astrophysics.

“This collaboration between some of astronomy’s greatest minds has resulted in the creation of a groundbreaking facility,” Director of the MWA and Professor of Radio Astronomy at Curtin University, Steven Tingay said.

“Right now we are standing at the frontier of astronomical science. Each of these programs has the potential to change our understanding about the Universe.”

Nine major projects

The development and commissioning of the MWA, the most powerful low frequency radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, is the outcome of nearly nine years’ work by an international consortium of 13 institutions across four countries (Australia, USA, India and New Zealand).

The detailed observations will be used by scientists to hunt for explosive and variable objects in the Milky Way such as black holes and exploding stars, as well as to make the most comprehensive survey of the Southern Hemisphere sky at low radio frequencies.

From this week, regular data will be captured through the entirely static telescope, which spans a three-kilometre area at the CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, future home to the SKA.

Close-up shot of some MWA antennae

The MWA comprises thousands of small antennae spread across a three-kilometre-wide section of the Western Australian desert.

The data will be processed 800 kilometres away at the $80 million Pawsey High Performance Computing Centre for SKA Science, in Perth, carried there on a link provided by the NBN and enabled by AARNet. The MWA will be the Pawsey Centre’s first large-scale customer.

Nine major research programs were announced at the launch, with more than 700 scientists across four continents awaiting the information the telescope has now begun to capture.

“Given the quality of the data obtained during the commissioning process and the vast areas of study that will be investigated, we are expecting to see preliminary results in as little as three months’ time,” Professor Tingay said.

“This is an exciting prospect for anyone who’s ever looked up at the sky and wondered how the Universe came to be.

“The MWA has and will continue to lift the bar even higher for the SKA.”

Forerunner to the SKA

Under Professor Tingay and fellow colleague Professor Peter Hall’s guidance, Curtin University has been awarded a $5 million grant by the Australian Government to participate in the SKA pre-construction program over the next three years, with the MWA’s unique insight being used to develop a low frequency radio telescope that is expected to be 50 times more sensitive.

The MWA has been supported by both State and Federal Government funding, with the majority of federal funding being administered by Astronomy Australia Limited.

The MWA project says it recognises the Wadjarri Yamatji people as the traditional owners of the site on which the MWA is built and thanks the Wadjarri Yamatji people for their support, as well as that of Astronomy Australia Limited.

The MWA launch event took place simultaneously at the Astronomical Society of Australia’s annual scientific meeting hosted at Monash University Melbourne and the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in the Murchison, Western Australia.

More information: Murchison Widefield Array

Adapted from information issued by Curtin University.

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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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Join the SkyNet Project!

theSkyNet logo

TheSkyNet is a new citizen science project that lets you use your computer's spare power to help radio astronomers explore the Universe.

A COMMUNITY COMPUTING SCIENCE initiative to help discover the hidden Universe was officially launched this morning at Curtin University by Western Australia’s Minister for Science and Innovation, the Hon. John Day.

TheSkyNet project, sponsored by the WA Department of Commerce and developed by the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), in conjunction with UK-based computing company, eMedia Track, will enable members of the public to contribute their spare computing power to the processing of radio astronomy data.

ICRAR Director, Professor Peter Quinn, said theSkyNet provided a community-based cloud computing resource to raise awareness of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project and complement the primary data processing work of supercomputing facilities such as the Pawsey Centre.

“Radio astronomy is a data intensive activity and as we design, develop and switch on the next generation of radio telescopes, the supercomputing resources processing this deluge of data will be in increasingly high demand,” Professor Quinn said.

A nebula

Your spare PC power can help crunch the data from radio telescopes

TheSkyNet aims to complement the work already being done by creating a citizen science computing resource that radio astronomers can tap into and process data in ways and for purposes that otherwise might not be possible.”

Help explore the Universe

Curtin University’s Acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Graeme Wright, said theSkyNet would generate real outcomes for scientific research by encouraging the online community to participate in the processing of radio astronomy data.

“Radio astronomy is a clear focal point in Curtin’s commitment to research in ICT and emerging technologies and it’s great to see people from across the University, in collaboration with our partners at the Department of Commerce, The University of Western Australia and ICRAR, bringing this project to life,” Professor Wright said.

ICRAR Outreach Manager, Pete Wheeler, said joining theSkyNet allowed participants to play a major part in the exploration of the Universe.

“By creating a distributed network containing thousands of computers, we can simulate a single powerful machine capable of doing real scientific research,” Mr Wheeler said.

“The key to theSkyNet is having lots of computers connected, with each contributing only a little, but the sum of those computers achieving a lot.”

For further information and to sign up, please visit theSkyNet website: http://www.theskynet.org/

Adapted from information issued by Curtin University.

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Aussie astronaut to speak in Perth

NASA portrait photo of Dr Andy Thomas

Australian-born NASA astronaut Dr Andy Thomas will give a public lecture at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia, on September 14, 2010.

Adelaide-born NASA astronaut Dr Andy Thomas will visit Australia in September, and one of the highlights will be a public lecture in Perth on the 14th.

Although he wasn’t the first Australian-born person to join NASA as an astronaut—that honour goes to Philip Chapman during the Apollo era—and although he wasn’t the first Australian-born person to fly in space—that honour goes to Paul Scully-Power, who flew aboard the space shuttle as an oceanographer in 1984—Andy Thomas was the first Aussie to fly in space as a professional astronaut and a member of NASA’s permanent astronaut corps.

Dr Thomas’ visit to Australia is an initiative of the Fogarty Foundation, a leading philanthropic and education organisation in Western Australia that engages leaders in their field to speak about their achievements and their passions and encourages others to take leading roles in our community.

The Fogarty Foundation is working in conjunction with The University of Western Australia, Curtin University, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), Scitech, UWA’s Aspire program, the UWA/WA Department of Education teachers’ enrichment program (SPICE) and the US Consul General to enable Dr Thomas to speak with scholars and scientists, primary and secondary students and teachers and interested members of the public.

While in Perth one of his engagements will be a public lecture at Curtin University with a planned hook-up to the International Space Station (ISS), during which students will have a chance to quiz the Station astronauts. Australia has very restricted access to the International Space Station and this is a great opportunity co-inciding with his visit to Perth. If communications allow, Dr Thomas will speak to his wife Shannon Walker who is also an astronaut, and is presently aboard the International Space Station.

Dr Thomas’ public lecture details are as follows:

  • Date: Tuesday 14 September 2010
  • Time: 6.00pm – 7.30pm
  • Venue: Elizabeth Jolley Lecture Theatre, Building 210, Curtin University, Kent Street, Bentley
  • Register: events@curtin.edu.au or (08) 9266 2563 by Thursday 9 September 2010
  • RSVP is essential. Limit of 6 tickets per booking.

More details here.

Andy Thomas performing a spacewalk

Andy Thomas performed a spacewalk during shuttle mission STS-102.

Andy Thomas biography

After completing his studies, Thomas accepted an offer from Lockheed in Atlanta. By 1990 he was the company’s principal aerodynamic scientist. His career continued in the field, steering towards more senior research positions.

Thomas was selected by NASA in March 1992 and reported to the Johnson Space Centre in August 1992. In August 1993, following one year of training, he was appointed a member of the astronaut corps and was qualified for assignment as a mission specialist on Space Shuttle flight crews.

While awaiting space flight assignment, Thomas supported shuttle launch and landing operations as an Astronaut Support Person (ASP) at the Kennedy Space Centre. He also provided technical support to the Space Shuttle Main Engine project, the Solid Rocket Motor project and the External Tank project at the Marshall Space Flight Centre.

In June 1995, Thomas was named as payload commander for STS-77 and flew his first flight in space on Endeavour in May 1996. Although Paul D. Scully-Power had entered orbit as an oceanographer in 1985, Thomas was the first Australia-born professional astronaut to enter space.

Thomas next trained at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia in preparation for a long-duration flight. In 1998, he served as Board Engineer 2 aboard the Russian Space Station Mir for 130 days.

From August 2001 to November 2003, Thomas served as Deputy Chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office. He completed his fourth space flight on STS-114 and has logged over 177 days in space.

He is currently working for the Exploration Branch of NASA’s Astronaut Office.

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR / Curtin University / NASA.

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