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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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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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Aboriginal community names CSIRO telescope

One of the ASKAP dishes

One of the ASKAP dishes at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia. The first six dishes (of an eventual 36) have been given indigenous names.

THE FIRST SIX ANTENNAE of CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope in Western Australia have today received names in the local Wajarri language.

The names, chosen by the Wajarri people, were bestowed by representatives of seven Aboriginal families at a ceremony at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, about 315 km northeast of Geraldton.

Name plaques will be fixed to each antenna. Further naming will take place as more antennae are installed and eventually all 36 of ASKAP’s antennae will have a Wajarri name.

The antenna names are: Bilyarli (which means “galah”, and is also the name of a past Wajarri Elder, Mr Frank Ryan); Bundarra (stars); Wilara (the Moon); Jirdilungu (the Milky Way); Balayi (a lookout, as this antenna looks down westward to others); and Diggidumble (a nearby table-top hill).

Antony Schinckel

CSIRO ASKAP Director, Antony ("Ant") Schinckel has been named "Minga", the Wajarri name for "ant".

“These names will be a permanent reminder that this is the land of the Wajarri people,” said the Chair of Wajarri Yamatji Native Title Group, Gavin Egan.

Roads and other significant structures will also be given Wajarri names.

One of the roads will be called Ngurlubarndi, the Wajarri name for Fred Simpson, a past Wajarri Elder and father of Wajarri Elder, Ike Simpson.

CSIRO’s ASKAP Director, Antony (“Ant”) Schinckel has also been given a Wajarri name—”Minga”, which means “ant”.

In March CSIRO awarded McConnell Dowell Constructors (Aust) Pty Ltd the contract to construct support infrastructure at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.

The work involves the construction of several kilometres of access roads and tracks, power and data distribution, a central control building, and foundation pads for the rest of the 36 antennae that will be installed on the site by early 2012.

The MRO is located in the Mid West region of Western Australia. As well as being home to ASKAP, it is also the Australia–New Zealand candidate core site for the future $2.5bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO. Images courtesy Tim Wheeler and Terrace Photographers.

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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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“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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