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Australian SKA site producing the goods

  • Western Australia radioastronomy site now active
  • Already producing world-class research
  • Targets are as close as the Moon and as distant as quasars

CSIRO’s MURCHISON RADIOASTRONOMY OBSERVATORY (MRO), located in remote Western Australia, is the site proposed by Australia and New Zealand to host the high-density core of the multi-billion dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA), and is already producing world-class research that will be described at an international conference in the UK this week.

The research uses the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), a $50m SKA Precursor telescope located at the MRO. The MWA project is led by the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) at Curtin University.

MWA Project Director, Professor Steven Tingay, will be presenting the results at an international conference in the UK last week, and said, “The MWA is just starting to come online but is already producing world-class research, due to the extraordinarily high quality of the MRO as a location for ultra-sensitive radio telescopes.”

The MWA uses stationary antennae that look like strange metallic spiders, with no moving parts. There will be 128 groups of 16 antennae, each group known as a “tile”. The system will use huge computing power to undertake sensitive surveys of the cosmos.

An MWA antennae tile group

Unlike the CSIRO's Parkes "dish", the Murchison Widefield Array uses strange-looking antennae space out on the ground. Seen here are three groups of 16 antennae. The system will use 128 groups.

Low interference level

Professor Tingay said that a critical requirement for the MWA is the need to operate in an environment free from radio interference generated by human activities. FM radio stations, mobile phones, cars and industrial activities are major sources of interference that drown out the whisper-faint radio signals from objects in the distant universe.

“For this reason, the MWA has been constructed at the MRO, where the level of interference is much lower than most other observatory locations around the world. An indication of the MRO site’s pristine conditions is the amount of data that is lost due to interference. At the MRO this is less than 1%, compared to close to 100% at some other observatory locations around the world,” said Tingay.

Due for completion November this year, the MWA already has a steady flow of research from it’s current configuration due to the excellent radio-quiet conditions of the MRO.

Recently, astronomers from MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have used the MWA to image an area of the sky 20,000 times larger than the full Moon, covering a region of the universe that the MWA will search for the very first stars and galaxies to form, soon after the Big Bang. Researchers from the University of Washington have determined that the MWA should be capable of detecting these signals.

Aside from these papers, an avalanche of astrophysics research from the MWA is about to appear in print, ranging from studies of explosions on the Sun, to observations of signals bouncing off the Moon, to surveys looking for highly variable quasars.

The MWA is being delivered by an international consortium of 13 institutions in four countries: Australia; the USA; India; and New Zealand.

More information: Murchison Widefield Array

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR. 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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Cosmic expansion rate confirmed

Galaxy cluster

As the universe expands, galaxies move further apart from one another. The rate at which the expansion is proceeding is determined by the Hubble constant, which has been newly measured with high precision.

  • Hubble constant used to gauge size and age of the universe
  • Previous measurements had a level of uncertainty
  • New measurement method confirms earlier results

A STUDENT WITH THE with the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) at the University of Western Australia, has calculated how fast the Universe is growing by measuring the Hubble constant.

“The Hubble constant is a key number in astronomy because it’s used to calculate the size and age of the Universe,” said PhD candidate Mr Florian Beutler.

As the Universe expands, it carries other galaxies away from ours. The Hubble constant links how fast the galaxies are moving with how far they are away from us.

By analysing light coming from a distant galaxy, the speed and direction of that galaxy can be easily measured. But determining the galaxy’s distance from Earth is much more difficult.

Until now, this has been done by measuring the brightness of individual objects (such as certain kinds of stars) within a galaxy and using what we know about those objects to calculate how far away the galaxy must be.

This approach is based on some well-established assumptions but is prone to systematic errors, leading Mr Beutler to tackle the problem using a completely different method.

Plot of 6df Galaxy Survey data

In this plot of 125,000 galaxies from 6df Galaxy Survey data, each dot is a galaxy and Earth is at the centre. (The dark slices are regions blocked from view.) The amount of galaxy clustering has been used (along with other data) to measure the expansion rate of the universe.

New method uses super survey

Published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Mr Beutler’s work draws on data from a survey of more than 125,000 galaxies carried out with the UK Schmidt Telescope in eastern Australia.

Called the 6dF Galaxy Survey, this is the biggest survey of relatively nearby galaxies, covering almost half the sky.

Galaxies are not spread evenly through space, but are clustered. Using a measurement of the clustering of the galaxies surveyed, plus other information derived from observations of the early Universe, Mr Beutler has measured the Hubble constant with an uncertainty of less than 5%.

The new measurement is 67.0 (±3.2) kilometres per second per megaparsec. A megaparsec is 1 million parsecs, or 3.26 million light-years.

Good agreement

“This way of determining the Hubble constant is as direct and precise as other methods, and provides an independent verification of them,” says Professor Matthew Colless, Director of the Australian Astronomical Observatory and one of Mr Beutler’s co-authors.

“The new measurement agrees well with previous ones, and provides a strong check on previous work.”

The measurement can be refined even further by using data from larger galaxy surveys.

“Big surveys, like the one used for this work, generate numerous scientific outcomes for astronomers internationally,” says Professor Lister Staveley-Smith, ICRAR’s Deputy Director of Science.

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR / Images courtesy ICRAR / Chris Fluke, Centre for Astrophysics & Supercomputing, Swinburne University of Technology / NASA, N. Benitez (JHU), T. Broadhurst (Racah Institute of Physics/The Hebrew University), H. Ford (JHU), M. Clampin (STScI),G. Hartig (STScI), G. Illingworth (UCO/Lick Observatory), the ACS Science Team and ESA.

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Milky Way is a galactic cannibal

Galaxy NGC 1300

The barred-spiral galaxy NGC1300 has a "bar" structure—the elongated section through the middle of the galaxy from which the spiral arms extend. The Milky Way is thought to have a bar like this too.

LATEST RESEARCH HAS GIVEN ASTRONOMERS new insight into how our Milky Way galaxy may have formed, including its history of devouring smaller neighbouring galaxies that get too close.

One such incident, the focus of this recent work, could be responsible for the shape of our galaxy.

Astronomer Dr Kenji Bekki of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Perth worked with international collaborators to simulate a merger between a smaller galaxy and the infant Milky Way some nine billion years ago.

“Our computer model shows a distinct bar-shape in a portion of our galaxy called the thick disc. If observed, this bar would be clear evidence for a merger taking place in the early history of the Milky Way,” says Dr Bekki, who is based at The University of Western Australia node of ICRAR.

Side-on view of the simulated Milky Way

A side-on view of the simulated Milky Way, showing its different parts—the thin disc in blue and the thick disc in red. The green dot shows the location of the Solar System within the thin disc.

Bar—or elongated—central sections are seen in many galaxies.

The Milky Way is shaped like two fried eggs placed back to back, where the yolks are a puffy collection of older stars called the bulge. The whites are a bright collection of younger stars known as the thin disc. The thick disc is a puffed up version of the thin disc, but is ten times lighter.

Current ideas predict that the thick disc used to be shaped like the thin disc, but was ‘puffed up’ during a merger with a smaller galaxy. The thin disc we observe today was then slowly formed from other material in our galaxy.

The idea that our galaxy was shaped in this way by galactic merging has been around for about 30 years, but until now this hasn’t been directly testable. The new research provides the best avenue yet to determine whether or not the merger actually occurred.

“If our predicted bar-shape is not detected within the thick disc, then we know it can’t have formed as early as we think. We would then need some new ideas for how our galaxy came to look the way it does today,” says Dr Bekki.

“Detecting the shape of the thick disc involves working out the movement of individual stars, a lengthy painstaking process. From our vantage point within the thin disc of the Galaxy, it’s difficult for us to know exactly what shape our Galaxy is,” he adds.

ICRAR is a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia providing research excellence in the field of radio astronomy.

The research will be published in the Astrophysical Journal on July 10, 2011.

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR. Images courtesy Dr Kenji Bekki (ICRAR) / Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA).

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New SPIRIT for student astronomy

SPICE Physics ICRAR Remote Internet Telescope

The $100,000 SPIRIT II telescope based at the University of Western Australia, will give students easy, remote access to a world-class optical observatory.

MORE WESTERN AUSTRALIAN SCHOOL STUDENTS will be able to take part in an innovative astronomy programme through The University of Western Australia (UWA), thanks to an agreement signed yesterday between Hawaiian Pty Ltd and UWA.

Funded by Hawaiian (a commercial property development and management company) and UWA, the $100,000 sophisticated optical telescope, SPIRIT II, will boost the successful SPIRIT I programme.
SPIRIT II will enhance and extend the University’s School Outreach and Teacher Development programme, SPIRIT I. SPIRIT I is the SPICE-Physics-ICRAR Remote Internet Telescope. SPIRIT II provides the latest equipment and offers a broader range of scientific research.

The new telescope will enable many more Education Department schools throughout WA to benefit from the programme in which students from Years 7 to 12 use their home computers to take their own images of galaxies hundreds of millions of light years away and of planets, comets and asteroids.

Astronomy from the classroom

UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Alan Robson said the University expected the programme to encourage more young people to seriously contemplate studying science at tertiary level.

“This programme showcases science as an exciting subject – and Australia needs more scientists if we are to progress as a nation,” Professor Robson said.

Globular star cluster

An image of a globular star cluster, taken by the SPIRIT I telescope.

“We are grateful to Hawaiian for its generous donation and partnership in this venture.”

Paul Luckas, SPIRIT I and II Programme Manager at UWA’s Centre for Learning Technology, said no matter how remote their school, students would be able to use their home computers at night and take their own images.

“All they need is the Internet to access two powerful telescopes when SPIRIT II joins its ‘little sister’ SPIRIT I on the roof of the UWA Physics building,” Mr Luckas said.

Hawaiian CEO Russell Gibbs said it was pleasing to support such an innovative astronomy programme at UWA.

“At Hawaiian we have a philosophy of uniting business and people, which is delivered through business collaboration and community partnerships.  We believe in supporting young people living in Western Australia and I’m sure there is much to be gained from this exciting new telescope.”

Technical details

SPIRIT II (sister to SPIRIT I) will be a 0.4m corrected Dall-Kirkham design telescope. Though the CCD camera is yet to be finalised, it will likely provide about a half a degree FOV with somewhere between 1 and 2 arc seconds per pixel resolution. A matching filter wheel will provide both photometric and astrophotographic filter options.

The instrument will be housed in an automated Sirius Observatory, adjacent to SPIRIT I at The University of Western Australia

The system is fully automated, and available to WA students via the Internet using nothing more than a browser. This novel project provides multiple modes of operation—from a fully hands on experience where students literally get to “drive” the telescope in real time via the internet, to multi-client scheduling and data collection for research and survey work (clients submit observation requests which are processed automatically).

“Currently we (SPICE) have provided professional development and resources to about 50 teachers in WA, with more planned in the coming months,” Mr Luckas said. “Within that population, approximately 100 students and groups have accessed SPIRIT I on-line.”

SPIRIT is a joint SPICE, Physics and ICRAR (International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research) project, hosted at The University of Western Australia.

Adapted from information issued by UWA.

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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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Astronomy linking Australia and Asia

Australia from space

New radio telescopes are being brought online in India, China, Japan and Korea.

THE LATEST ADVANCES and scientific benefits of the Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) will be discussed by radio astronomy researchers from the Asia-Oceania region in Perth tomorrow (Wednesday, 3 May 2011).

VLBI connects radio telescopes hundreds to thousands of kilometres apart, creating a telescope the size of a continent. With such a telescope, the sky can be viewed in amazing detail, with a resolution of a millionth of a degree.

About 40 researchers from 16 organisations will attend the Advances in Asia and Oceania Toward Very Long Baseline Interferometry in the Age of the Square Kilometre Array, held at the Perth Zoo from 4-6 May.

Professor Steven Tingay, ICRAR Deputy Director, said rapid and impressive advances in VLBI were taking place throughout Asia and Oceania.

Artist's impression of SKA radio astronomy dishes

Artist's impression of SKA radio astronomy dishes

“With the high level of technical expertise in the region and new radio telescopes being brought online in India, China, Japan and Korea, it is timely to come together and discuss VLBI and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA),” Professor Tingay said.

Participants will discuss VLBI projects throughout Asia and Oceania as well as what scientific benefits the SKA can provide for the region. The techniques behind VLBI are exactly the same as will be used for the SKA.

When complete, the SKA will be the largest radio astronomy instrument ever constructed and may be situated in the Asia/Oceania region if the Australia and New Zealand bid is successful.

The workshop is sponsored by the Federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, the New Zealand Ministry of Economic Development, CSIRO and the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.

ICRAR is a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia providing research excellence in the field of radio astronomy.

Adapted from information issued by Curtin University. Earth images courtesy 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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Cosmic tails betray a close encounter

SMC and LMC

The Small (left) and Large (right) Magellanic Cloud galaxies orbit together around our Milky Way galaxy. A large stream of gas, not visible in this image, stretches between the two galaxies, the result of a close encounter around a billion years ago.

OUR NEAREST GALACTIC NEIGHBOURS became entangled in a cosmic dance over the past few billion years, with a dramatic close encounter around 1.2 billion years ago, say astronomers.

International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) astronomers Jonathan Diaz and Dr Kenji Bekki have used computer modelling to study the movement of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds around the Milky Way and the structure of the gas that surrounds them.

The Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud are the two closest reasonable size galaxies to our own Milky Way. Southern Hemisphere stargazers can easily see them in the night sky from dark locations.

“An enormous stream of hydrogen gas trails behind the Magellanic Clouds as they orbit the Milky Way,” says ICRAR student Jonathan Diaz. ICRAR is a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia, located in Perth.

Animation of the Magellanic Stream

Simulation of the orbits of the Large and Small Magellanic Cloud galaxies (red and green lines) around the Milky Way. A close approach around a billion years ago was responsible for forming a huge cloud of gas around the galaxies.

“Previous explanations for the oversized tail had it being stripped away from the Magellanic Clouds during a close approach of the Milky Way around 2 billion years ago.”

However, recent observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope have cast doubt on whether that close approach actually occurred. The new data from Hubble shows that the Magellanic Clouds are moving differently than originally thought.

“We have found a solution to the question raised by the Hubble data,” explains Diaz. “We’ve shown that its possible for the gas stream to form through a violent interaction between the two small galaxies around 1.2 billion years ago, without the need for a strong interaction with the much larger Milky Way.”

“Past models have assumed that the Magellanic Clouds have been cosmic companions since birth, but our work demonstrates a recent and quite dramatic coupling between the Clouds.”

“Our model shows the Magellanic Clouds have been drifting around the Milky Way for many billions of years, but have only just recently found each other,” says Dr Kenji Bekki, supervisor of the project.

“Were going to conduct further simulations and refine our model but this result shows us we still have more to learn about our galaxy and its neighbourhood.”

The research will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR. Images courtesy Jonathan Diaz (ICRAR) / Eckhard-Slawik / Serge Brunier.

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