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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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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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Revolutionary new telescope in WA

MWA antennae

Antennae of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, Western Australia. Credit: Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker (ICRAR).

A QUEST TO STUDY the earliest stars and galaxies in the Universe is underway, with local industry building the first major pieces of a revolutionary new radio telescope in Western Australia, as part of the Murchison Wide-field Array.

Murchison Wide-field Array (MWA) industry partner and Fremantle-based high-technology company, Poseidon Scientific Instruments (PSI), has been awarded a $1.3m contract by Curtin University to build 16 packages of sensitive electronics, using a smart design suited to the environmental and radio-quiet conditions of outback WA.

The MWA is located at the Murchison Radio-Astronomy Observatory, a site operated by CSIRO and a proposed core site for the multi-billion dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The MWA will be the first of three official SKA precursor telescopes to be completed, proving the technology and science on the path to the SKA.  Australia and New Zealand are bidding to host the SKA, with the site location to be decided in February 2012.

MWA site

The desolate landscape of outback Western Australia is perfect for radio astronomy.

The MWA is being built by an Australian consortium led by The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia, in close collaboration with US, Indian and New Zealand partners.

ICRAR Deputy Director, Professor Steven Tingay, said PSI was a world-class technology company and working with its local expertise to design and develop components for the international project was an enormous advantage.

“PSI will build 16 electronics packages for the MWA, the culmination of more than two years of collaboration in which PSI have been deeply involved in the design cycle. They are a valued collaborator, not just another cog in the supply chain,” Professor Tingay said.

The innovative package would also prevent the electronics from interfering with other equipment on the site, preserving the uniquely radio-quiet environment of the Murchison.

“The combination of the MWA and the radio-quiet environment of the Murchison will allow us to search for the incredibly weak signals that come from the early stages in the evolution of the Universe, some 13 billion years ago,” Professor Tingay said.

One of ICRAR’s goals is to partner with Australian industries to help position them to participate in future radio astronomy opportunities, such as the SKA. The MWA partnership with PSI is one such success story.

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR. Panorama image by Paul Bourke and Jonathan Knispel (supported by WASP (UWA), iVEC, ICRAR, and CSIRO).

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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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CSIRO “hot rods” old telescope

SKAMP telescope

The University of Sydney's MOST radio telescope, now called SKAMP, has been boosted with new CSIRO technology that dramatically improves performance.

CSIRO has helped transform the University of Sydney’s radio telescope into a world-class instrument, and along the way has learned lessons for its own ASKAP (Australian SKA Pathfinder) telescope.

Both telescopes will help demonstrate Australia’s technological expertise in its bid to host the world’s largest and most advanced radio telescope—the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The University of Sydney runs what was the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (MOST) near Canberra. It contracted CSIRO to help develop signal-processing systems—a filterbank and correlator—to dramatically boost the telescope’s performance.

The upgrade has made the telescope more flexible, three times more sensitive, with ten times more bandwidth (up from 3 MHz to 30 MHz), and able to make better-quality images of objects in space.

“This project has given our telescope a whole new capability,” says Professor Anne Green of the University of Sydney, who led the process.

“It looks the same, but under the bonnet it’s been born again.”

Artist's impression of the SKA

Artist's impression of the core of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope system, which Australian astronomers hope to host in Western Australia.

And the “new” telescope has a new name: SKAMP (the Square Kilometre Array Molonglo Prototype).

The formal handover of the new signal-processing systems recently took place at the University of Sydney.

The knowledge CSIRO has gained during the course of this project has been applied to the design of the digital systems for its own ASKAP telescope, which is now under construction in Western Australia. Much of the SKAMP contract was carried out by the ASKAP Digital Systems team.

“What we’ve learned over several years will now allow us to dramatically shorten our design cycle for ASKAP’s digital systems, as well as potentially feed into future development work that will be required for the SKA,” says CSIRO SKA Director, Dr Brian Boyle.

Much of the funding for the SKAMP project was provided by the Commonwealth Government under the second round of the Major National Research Facilities program. The Australian Research Council has also contributed substantial funding.

In a synergy with the SKAMP project, CSIRO has built a similar correlator for the international Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) consortium, which is building a low-frequency radio telescope at the same site as the ASKAP telescope (the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia). MWA too will demonstrate technology for the SKA project.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO / University of Sydney.

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