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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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SKA telescope to be split

Artist's impression of SKA dishes

Artist's impression of SKA dishes.

IT HAS JUST BEEN ANNOUNCED that the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope system, will be hosted jointly by the two bidding regions – Australia-New Zealand and South Africa. The SKA will comprise around 3,000 antennae of different types to cover low-, mid- and high-frequency ranges.

Following is the text of the announcement made by the SKA organisation:

The Members of the SKA Organisation today agreed on a dual site solution for the Square Kilometre Array telescope, a crucial step towards building the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope.

The ASKAP (Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder) and MeerKAT precursor dishes will be incorporated into Phase I of the SKA which will deliver more science and will maximise on investments already made by both Australia and South Africa.

The majority of the members were in favour of a dual-site implementation model for SKA. The members noted the report from the SKA Site Advisory Committee that both sites were well suited to hosting the SKA and that the report provided justification for the relative advantages and disadvantages of both locations, but that they identified Southern Africa as the preferred site. The members also received advice from the working group set up to look at dual site options.

The majority of SKA dishes in Phase 1 will be built in South Africa, combined with MeerKAT. Further SKA dishes will be added to the ASKAP array in Australia. All the dishes and the mid frequency aperture arrays for Phase II of the SKA will be built in Southern Africa while the low frequency aperture array antennas for Phase I and II will be built in Australia.

“This hugely important step for the project allows us to progress the design and prepare for the construction phase of the telescope. The SKA will transform our view of the Universe; with it we will see back to the moments after the Big Bang and discover previously unexplored parts of the cosmos,” says Dr Michiel van Haarlem, Interim Director General of the SKA Organisation.

The SKA will enable astronomers to glimpse the formation and evolution of the very first stars and galaxies after the Big Bang, investigate the nature of gravity, and possibly even discover life beyond Earth.

“Today we are a stage closer to achieving our goal of building the SKA. This position was reached after very careful consideration of information gathered from extensive investigations at both candidate sites,” said Professor John Womersley, Chair of the SKA Board of Directors. “I would like to thank all those involved in the site selection process for the tremendous work they have put in to enable us to reach this point.”

Factors taken into account during the site selection process included levels of radio frequency interference, the long term sustainability of a radio quiet zone, the physical characteristics of the site, long distance data network connectivity, the operating and infrastructure costs as well as the political and working environment.

The agreement was reached by the Members of the SKA Organisation who did not bid to host the SKA (Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom). The Office of the SKA Organisation will now lead a detailed definition period to clarify the implementation.

Scientists and engineers from around the world, together with industry partners, are participating in the SKA project which is driving technology development in antennas, data transport, software and computing, and power. The influence of the SKA project extends beyond radio astronomy. The design, construction and operation of the SKA have the potential to impact skills development, employment and economic growth in science, engineering and associated industries, not only in the host countries but in all partner countries.

About the SKA

The Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity, and 10,000 times the survey speed, of the best current-day telescopes.

Thousands of receptors will extend to distances of 3,000 km from the centre of the telescope, the SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our Universe including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the big bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth.

The target construction cost is €1,500 million and construction of Phase 1 of the SKA is scheduled to start in 2019. The SKA Organisation, with its headquarters in Manchester UK, was established in December 2011 as a not-for-profit company in order to formalise relationships between the international partners and centralise the leadership of the project.

Members of the SKA Organisation:

Australia: Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research

Canada: National Research Council

China: National Astronomical Observatories, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Italy: National Institute for Astrophysics

New Zealand: Ministry of Economic Development

Republic of South Africa: National Research Foundation

The Netherlands: Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research

United Kingdom: Science and Technology Facilities Council

Associate member:

India: National Centre for Radio Astrophysics

Images courtesy SPDO / Swinburne Astronomy Productions.

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The year ahead in space

Artist's impression of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Artist's impression of the Curiosity rover on Mars. The craft is due to arrive on Mars on August 6, 2012.

THIS YEAR IS GOING TO BE A BIG ONE in terms of space activity, and will include some events you’ll be able to experience firsthand. Let’s count down the top five.

At number five we have NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, carrying the Curiosity rover to the Red Planet. Scheduled to arrive on August 6, it will land in Gale Crater (named after a 19th-20th century Australian astronomer, Walter Frederick Gale) and look for signs of organic chemicals. The 900-kilogram, nuclear-powered rover has a primary mission of two years but is expected to last for much longer than that.

At number four we have the total eclipse of the Sun on November 14. The path of totality runs along a narrow west-east strip of far northern Queensland, taking in Cairns and surrounding areas. The thousands of people who are expected to flock to the area will experience two minutes of totality shortly after sunrise—observers elsewhere in Australia will witness a partial eclipse.

After this, the next total solar eclipse to be visible from Australia will be in 2028, when the path of totality will run straight through Sydney.

Transit of Venus

The transit of Venus will be seen on the morning of June 6 in Australia. There won't be another one until the year 2117.

Coming in at number three is an event you won’t want to miss, as you’ll never get a chance to see another one. It’s the transit of Venus, which will happen on the morning of June 6. A transit occurs when one of the inner planets, in this case Venus, moves between Earth and the Sun and we see it as a small black dot slowly crawling across the solar face. It was to observe a transit of Venus that Captain Cook travelled to the South Pacific in the 18th century … and on his way home bumped into a certain large, dry continent, girt by sea.

Transits of Venus are very rare. They happen in pairs eight years apart (so the last one was in 2004), but between pairs there is a gap of over 100 years. So the 20th century totally missed out, and after June there won’t be another one until the year 2117. So don’t miss it!

Number two on our list is the decision on where the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, will be built. The SKA will be an enormous network of radio dishes and antennae spread over an area the size of a continent. It will enable astronomers to look back towards the beginning of time, and study the evolution of stars and galaxies throughout cosmic history.

Artist's impression of part of the Square Kilometre Array.

Artist's impression of part of the Square Kilometre Array.

In a situation reminiscent of the Olympics, two regions have put in bids to host the facility and are eagerly awaiting the decision of the international panel. A joint bid by Australia and New Zealand is up against a consortium of southern African countries. The decision could be announced next month. If Australasia gets it, the core of the network will be located in a remote region of Western Australia, but with many other dishes spread out across the nation and into New Zealand.

And so after all of these fantastic events, what could we possibly have in the number one spot on our countdown? What will be this year’s biggest cosmic event? Why, the very survival of Planet Earth of course! In case you haven’t heard, a lot of people seem to be very worried about two things—the apparent end of the Mayan Long Count calendar in December (and the implied end of civilisation as we know it), and a collision between Earth and a planet called Nibiru.

Well, as far as the Mayan calendar is concerned, there is no cause for alarm. Like the Gregorian calendar we use every day, it will simply tick over to a new Long Count and we’ll all live happily every after.

That is, unless we get wiped out by that collision with Nibiru. Frightened? Don’t be. For you see, there’s a basic flaw in the Nibiru hypothesis, and it’s simply this … Nibiru doesn’t exist. It’s a fiction invented by some loopy, cosmic conspiracy nutters. There is no evidence for such a planet, and no evidence that Earth is in any danger from a collision with any other planet, known or unknown. Phew!

UPDATE, February 6: BTW, I misspoke on the Today Show this morning, saying that the next total solar eclipse after this year’s one will occur in the year 2128. I should have said 2028 of course.

Story by Jonathan Nally

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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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More funding for Aus-NZ Super Scope bid

Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope.

Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope.

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT WILL PROVIDE an extra $40.2 million over four years to support Australia’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), in partnership with New Zealand.

The SKA will be the largest and most advanced radio telescope ever constructed. It will consist of thousands of antennae, spread out across a continent and connected by a fibre-optic network, with the data it generates processed by a powerful supercomputer.

Australia is an ideal candidate to host the SKA, thanks to the data and speed capabilities of the National Broadband Network, our large tracts of radio-quiet land and our research strengths in astronomy, the physical sciences and ICT.

Australia’s joint bid with New Zealand is one of two short-listed to host the SKA, with a final decision on the site expected early in 2012.

This funding will assist Australia’s bid and support pre-construction design and development work if the bid is successful.

Attracting global investment in this massive technologically advanced project to Australia will generate spin-off returns for business.

Researchers and engineers from the world’s leading institutions will work together on the SKA, developing the next generation technologies the project will demand. In turn, Australia’s research community will build their skills and expand their networks.

They can use those same capabilities to create cutting-edge products for consumers in computing, in renewable energy and in communications.

By the end of 2011 the SKA programme will be ready to transition to the detailed design and pre-construction engineering phase.

Adapted from information issued by the office of Senator the Hon Kim Carr. Images courtesy SPDO.

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Super-scope to answer five key questions

THIS FANTASTIC SHORT VIDEO gives us a taste of what’s to come once the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope network is up and running next decade.

Comprising thousands of individual antennae spread out across a continental-sized region, the SKA will be hosted either by Australia-New Zealand or South Africa…the decision will be made in 2012.

Adapted from information issued by SPDO / Swinburne Astronomy Productions.

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