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Aussies to help build Super Scope

Artist's impression of Giant Magellan Telescope

Artist's impression of the Giant Magellan Telescope, for which ANU teams will design and build instrumentation.

  • Giant Magellan Telescope will be the biggest optical telescope in the world
  • It’ll produce images 30 times sharper than currently possible from the ground
  • ANU teams will contribute instrumentation to give GMT its ‘eyes’

AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY researchers are helping to build a super-sized telescope that will allow scientists to see deeper into space in the visible light range than ever before.

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT)—with a primary mirror the equivalent of 24.5 metres in diameter—will produce astronomical images up to 30 times sharper than existing ground-based telescopes.

Launching the next stage of the ANU’s Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre (AITC) at Mount Stromlo in Canberra, Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr said the GMT promises to answer some of astronomy’s biggest questions.

“It will tell us about the early universe including formation of the first stars and the evolution of galaxies only a few million years after the Big Bang,” Senator Carr said.

The ANU—which is developing instrumentation for the $700 million telescope—is part of an international consortium that will build the telescope in the Chilean Andes.

Artist's impression of Giant Magellan Telescope

The $700 million Giant Magellan Telescope will see 30 times sharper than current ground-based telescopes.

The government is contributing nearly $90 million towards the telescope through the Education Investment Fund—$65 million for our share of construction costs and $23.4 million to ANU for enhancements to the AITC, development of new instruments for the telescope and for industry engagement.

The funding, on behalf of the ANU and the Australian astronomical community through Astronomy Australia Ltd, would buy Australian astronomers time on the telescope once it is operational later this decade.

“This will be the premier optical-infrared facility for our astronomers. Being part of the consortium building the telescope will keep Australia at the forefront of optical astronomy, complementing the radio-based capabilities of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA),” Senator Carr said. “The association will further strengthen our case to host the SKA.

Australia’s part in building the GMT is expected to create at least 95 highly skilled jobs and at least 145 other supporting positions.

History of innovation

The ANU, through its Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA, and its forerunner, the Mount Stromlo & Siding Spring Observatory, MSSSO) has a long history of technological innovation, and has designed and built instrumentation that is now used in Australia and overseas.

In the early 1980s, the then MSSSO built the 2.3-metre Advanced Technology Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory. It featured an altitude-azimuth (‘swivel and tilt’) mounting design, which was very uncommon at the time but which has become the standard for large telescope these days.

GSAOI being lifted into place

The ANU-designed Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager (GSAOI) being lifted into place on the Gemini South telescope in Chile.

This was followed by several advanced imaging and spectrographic instruments for Australian and international observatories, including the European Southern Observatory in Chile, plus equipment for an astronomy site testing station in Antarctica.

In more recent times, RSAA has designed and built instruments for some of the largest telescopes in the world.

One of these units is NIFS—the Near-infrared Integral-Field Spectrograph—which is used on the Gemini South telescope in Chile, one of the largest telescopes in the world. Worth $6 million, NIFS was designed by RSAA and rebuilt by Canberra firm AUSPACE (after the original NIFS was destroyed in the Canberra bushfires in 2003).

NIFS enables astronomers to observe astronomical objects at a resolution on par with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Another success story is GSAOI—the Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager—which is due to go live on Gemini South later this year. GSAOI is a wide-field imaging system that operates in the near-infrared part of the spectrum and, like NIFS, gives almost Hubble-like views of the cosmos.

Adapted from information issued by ANU. Images courtesy ANU / GMT Office / Gemini Observatory.

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Aussie space research facility launched

AITC exterior shot

Construction has begun on the second stage of the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre at Mount Stromlo near Canberra.

CONSTRUCTION OF A STATE-OF-THE-ART facility to develop and test advanced space science technologies has been officially launched at Mt Stromlo Observatory.

Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr launched the building of phase two of the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre (AITC-2).

The new one-of-a-kind facility, funded under the Education Investment Fund program, will initially support development of the international, billion-dollar Giant Magellan Telescope and a number of Australian Space Research Program projects.

The Australian projects include supplying broadband Internet access to research teams in Antarctica; taking gravity field measurements for water management across Australia and monitoring the movement of dangerous space debris.

Director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Mt Stromlo, Professor Harvey Butcher, said that the goal is to make the AITC a national centre for university, government and industry collaboration.

“This new building aims to provide a ‘one stop shop’ to develop and test small satellites for remote sensing and telecommunications, as well as instruments for astronomy and astrophysics,” said Professor Butcher.

“The assembly of such precision equipment requires high-quality clean rooms, vacuum chambers, test benches and a vibration table designed to test the dynamical behaviour of instrumentation, for example such as occurs during launching into orbit.”

“Astronomy is remote sensing at its most remote, and the facility will be available for use by the remote sensing community from universities, government organisations and commercial industry,” he added.

“An important focus will be collaboration with industry, including a partnership with EOS Space Systems to develop Adaptive Optics—a technology capable of de-blurring images made through the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Adapted from information issued by ANU.

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Space museum for Australia

Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre

Mount Stromlo's Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre (AITC), one of the new facilities built in the wake of the 2003 bushfires. It will soon be joined by a new space and astronomy museum built in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. Image courtesy ANU.

THE SIGNING OF AN AGREEMENT overnight in Washington DC between the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and The Australian National University represents a giant leap forward for efforts to build a national astronomy and space science museum at Mount Stromlo.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Chubb AC and National Air and Space Museum Director General John ‘Jack’ Dailey signed the agreement. It sets out the first steps for co-operation that will support the development of a museum to tell the story of Australia’s contribution to space science and space technologies, and celebrate the special role Australian astronomers have played in the exploration of the cosmos.

The signing comes as the University prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the iconic Mount Stromlo Observatory and will see a number of key curatorial staff from Washington come to Canberra in coming months to take part in a planning conference for the proposed museum.

“The National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC is one of the great science museums of the world. We want to build a museum that will inspire our young people, melding science, art, culture and history—and growing our already close relationship with the Smithsonian Institution will ensure that we create something wonderful for Australia,” Professor Chubb said.

Mount Stromlo bushfires

An aerial view of part of Mount Stromlo on fire during the 2003 bushfires. Image by Ray Brown.

Mount Stromlo Observatory was almost completely destroyed by the terrible 2003 bushfires that ravaged Canberra and surrounding regions. The ANU has been rebuilding the facility.

Professor Chubb said the museum would draw on the long history of co-operation between the United States and Australia in astronomy and space science, and the Smithsonian Institution has always been part of that cooperation.

“The Smithsonian Institution has been linked to Canberra since 1907, when Smithsonian Secretary Walcott provided expert advice on the establishment of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory at Mount Stromlo. The observatory was designed so that it would complement the research of Smithsonian astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere,” Professor Chubb said.

“In the 1990s a joint ANU-Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics (CfA) research team discovered the acceleration of the universal expansion of the Universe, one of the major mysteries of modern science. And both the ANU and the Smithsonian are foundation partners in the billion-dollar Giant Magellan Telescope, which will push the boundaries of science.”

“A museum on Mount Stromlo, which is an active hub of leading edge international astronomy and space research, will ensure that we inspire future generations of young Australians to look to the skies.”

Adapted from information issued by ANU.

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