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Deep freeze telescope reveals galactic carbon trail

USING A TELESCOPE INSTALLED at the driest place on earth – Ridge A in Antarctica – a UNSW-led team of researchers has identified a giant gas cloud that appears to be in an early stage of formation. Giant clouds of molecular gas – the most massive bodies in our galaxy – are the birthplaces of stars.

“This newly discovered gas cloud is shaped like a very long filament, about 200 light years in extent and ten light years across, with a mass about 50,000 times that of our Sun,” says team leader, Professor Michael Burton, an astronomer at UNSW Australia. “The evidence suggests it is in the early stages of formation, before any stars have turned on.”

Stunning new way of doing science

The team is using the High Elevation Antarctic Terahertz telescope, or HEAT, at Ridge A, along with the Mopra telescope at Coonabarabran in NSW, to map the location of gas clouds in our galaxy from the carbon they contain.

At 4,000 metres elevation, Ridge A is one of the coldest places on the planet, and the driest. The lack of water vapour in the atmosphere there allows terahertz radiation from space to reach the ground and be detected.

PLATO-R in Antarctica

The PLATO-R observatory at Ridge A. The HEAT telescope is the black object on stilts at left, the instrument module is the yellow box and the solar panel array is on the right. Image Credit: Geoff Sims.

The PLATO-R robotic observatory with the HEAT telescope was installed in 2012 by a team led by UNSW physicist, Professor Michael Ashley, and Dr Craig Kulesa of the University of Arizona.

“We now have an autonomous telescope observing our galaxy from the middle of Antarctica and getting data, which is a stunning new way of doing science. Ridge A is more than 900 kilometres from the nearest people, who are at the South Pole, and is completely unattended for most of the year,” says Professor Burton.

Following the galactic carbon trail

The HEAT telescope detects atomic carbon and the Mopra telescope detects carbon monoxide. “I call it following the galactic carbon trail,” says Professor Burton.

Mopra telescope

The Mopra telescope, near Coonabarabran in NSW.

The discovery of the new galactic cloud, which is about 15,000 light years from earth, will help determine how these mysterious objects develop in the interstellar medium.

One idea is that they are formed from the gravitational collapse of an ensemble of small clouds into a larger one. Another involves the random collision of small clouds that then agglomerate. Or it may be that the molecular gas filament is condensing out of a very large, surrounding cloud of atomic gas.

About one star per year, on average, is formed in the Milky Way. Stars that explode and die then replenish the gas clouds as well as moving the gas about and mixing it up.

The team includes researchers from Australia, Germany and the US. The results have been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Adapted from information issued by UNSW. Image Credit: Geoff Sims.

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Australia back in the space race

Australia from space

Australia from space. A new space centre at the University of NSW aims to get the nation back into the space race.

Australia’s space capabilities have received a significant boost with the opening of the country’s first centre for satellite and space engineering at the University of NSW (UNSW).

The new Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) will develop technologies for satellite navigation; Earth observation applications such as monitoring of disasters, climate change and mine subsidence; national security; and space vehicle engineering.

NASA space shuttle astronaut Jan Davis was the guest of honour at the centre’s launch.

ACSER Director, Associate Professor Andrew Dempster of the School of Surveying and Spatial Information Systems, said Australia lacks its own satellites at a time when the global space industry was expanding rapidly.

UNSW A/Prof Andrew Dempster with astronaut Jan Davis

UNSW A/Prof Andrew Dempster with astronaut Jan Davis

In an article published on the opinion website The National Times, Associate Professor Dempster has outlined the role ACSER can play in building up Australia’s space technology capabilities.

“Interest in space is booming as the number of satellites being launched escalates, and that increase will affect everything from smartphones and cars to innovations in industry, mining, agriculture, communication and security,” he said.

“At ACSER we are developing systems to enable real-time, highly accurate mapping of the Earth’s surface, and technologies to allow new satellite navigation systems to communicate with each other, improving service accuracy and availability.

“Australia was the fourth country in the world to launch a satellite—we did that in the 1960s—but we’ve lagged ever since. We will be working to establish an Australian presence in the space industry,” he said.

ACSER combines the expertise of researchers in the UNSW faculties of Engineering and Science, and UNSW@ADFA (Australian Defence Force Academy).

Adapted from information issued by UNSW / NASA.

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The Universe: not so universal after all?


Careful measurements of the light coming different parts of the universe suggest that the laws of physics might not be the same everywhere.

  • Laws of physics might not be the same everywhere
  • Strength of electromagnetism found to vary throughout cosmos

The laws of physics are different in different parts of the universe, according to new evidence uncovered by a team of Australian and British astrophysicists.

One of the supposed fundamental constants of Nature appears not to be constant after all, the team says in a report of the discovery submitted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters.

The report describes how the “magic number” known as the fine-structure constant—dubbed alpha for short—appears to vary throughout the universe, says the team from the University of New South Wales, Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Cambridge. The work is currently under peer review.

Professor John Webb

Professor John Webb of the University of NSW, one of the members of the international team of researchers.

“After measuring alpha in around 300 distant galaxies, a consistency emerged: this magic number, which tells us the strength of electromagnetism, is not the same everywhere as it is here on Earth, and seems to vary continuously along a preferred axis through the universe,” says Professor John Webb of the UNSW School of Physics.

“The implications for our current understanding of science are profound. If the laws of physics turn out to be merely “local by-laws”, it might be that whilst our observable part of the universe favours the existence of life and human beings, other far more distant regions may exist where different laws preclude the formation of life, at least as we know it.”

“If our results are correct, clearly we shall need new physical theories to satisfactorily describe them.”

A better theory needed?

The researchers’ conclusions are based on new measurements taken with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, along with their previous measurements from the world’s largest optical telescopes at the Keck Observatory, in Hawaii.

Co-author Julian King, a UNSW doctoral student, says that after combining the two sets of measurements, the new result “struck” them: “The Keck telescopes and the VLT are in different hemispheres; they look in different directions through the universe. Looking to the north with Keck we see, on average, a smaller alpha in distant galaxies, but when looking south with the VLT we see a larger alpha.

Keck Telescope

The astronomers used the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, as well as the Very Large Telescope in Chile (not shown here) to make their measurements.

“It varies by only a tiny amount—about one part in 100,000—over most of the observable universe, but it’s possible that much larger variations could occur beyond our observable horizon.”

Co-author Dr Michael Murphy, of Swinburne University of Technology, says the discovery will force scientists to rethink their understanding of Nature’s laws.

“The fine structure constant, and other fundamental constants, are absolutely central to our current theory of physics. If they really do vary, we’ll need a better, deeper theory,” Dr Murphy says.

While a “varying constant” would shake our understanding of the world around us, Dr Murphy notes: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What we’re finding is extraordinary, no doubt about that.”

“It’s one of the biggest questions of modern science—are the laws of physics the same everywhere in the universe and throughout its entire history? We’re determined to answer this burning question one way or the other.”

Other researchers involved in the research are Professor Victor Flambaum and doctoral student Matthew Bainbridge, from UNSW, and Professor Bob Carswell at the University of Cambridge.

Adapted from information issued by UNSW / NASA / ESO / W.M. Keck Observatory.

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