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Aussie scope to be upgraded

Artist's impression of an exoplanet

The University of Western Australia's 1-metre robotic Zadko Telescope will search for new planets, exploding stars and space junk.

THE UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA’S (UWA) Gingin-based Zadko Telescope will get a clearer view thanks to an agreement signed between UWA and the WA Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) that enhances the partnership between these two organisations.

The 1-metre robotic Zadko Telescope is currently housed in an inadequate dome that is not up to the rigours of robotic operation.

Zadko Telescope

Zadko Telescope

Under the collaboration between DEC and UWA, DEC will contribute $100,000 towards the construction of a new building where the telescope will reach its full potential.

DEC astronomer Ralph Martin of Perth Observatory said: “Part of the collaboration with UWA includes searching for undiscovered planets orbiting distant stars.”

Zadko Telescope Director, UWA Associate Professor David Coward, said the new Zadko Observatory building would significantly enhance the research capabilities of DEC and UWA.

“The upgrade will also strengthen our collaboration with TAROT (Fast Action Telescopes for Transient Objects), the French international network of robotic telescopes,” Professor Coward said. “Our international team will be on the hunt for new planets and exploding stars.”

“The new Zadko Observatory building will also allow our collaboration to scan the sky for space junk that threatens the satellites on which we depend for almost every aspect of daily life from telecommunications, weather reports, security and navigation, to information about mineral deposits.”

Adapted from information issued by UWA.

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Aussie telescope spots cosmic cataclysm

Artist's impression of a gamma-ray burst

Artist's impression of a gamma-ray burst, a huge explosion thought to be caused by the birth of a black hole, or maybe when two neutron stars collide.

Just 215 seconds after receiving an alert from a NASA satellite and with no direct human involvement, the Zadko telescope was the first in the world to turn its gaze to the light coming from a powerful explosion billions of light years away.

Located near Gingin, the Zadko Telescope is an important facility for astronomy research at The University of Western Australia (UWA), and is a joint resource for the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) and the Australian International Gravitational Research Centre (AIGRC).

GRB captured by the Zadko telescope

Image captured by the Zadko telescope. Green circles are known gamma-ray sources; red square shows the bright "unknown" source at the location of the burst.

At 7.05pm on Sunday 24 October, the Zadko received a signal from the NASA’s Swift satellite indicating that something exciting was happening in the night sky.

Without a moment to lose, the automated telescope responded to the call to action by repositioning itself so that its giant one metre mirror could capture the light coming from what scientists call a gamma ray burst.

Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the Universe since the Big Bang. They are brief, intense flashes of gamma radiation coming from other galaxies in the very distant Universe.

So far scientists don’t know exactly what causes them, but some suggest they signal the birth of a black hole in a massive stellar explosion. Or perhaps they’re caused by colliding neutron stars or some other exotic phenomenon.

Co-Director and Zadko Systems Manager Dr Myrtille Laas-Bourez designed the software that allows the Zadko to operate autonomously and respond to events such as this.

The Zadko telescope

The Zadko telescope

“This was a really bright gamma ray burst event and Zadko was the first ground- based telescope to catch it,” Dr Laas-Bourez said. “This is very exciting because it shows the robotic system is working well and is capable of doing some really interesting science.”

The telescope was made possible by a philanthropic donation by businessman James Zadko to the University. The instrument is a resource for research, training, and science education. It is co-located with a science and astronomy outreach facility, and with the Australian International Gravitational Observatory (AIGO).

Adapted from information issued by the University of Western Australia / NASA / David Coward.

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Space junk trackers

A map showing where large pieces of space junk are in Earth orbit.

A map showing where large pieces of space junk are in Earth orbit.

  • Space junk becoming a major problem
  • Australian observatory in tracking network
  • Provides warnings to satellite operators

Space junk is becoming such a major problem that if it continues to accumulate at present rates, it will be impossible to launch anything into space in 100 years’ time, according to researchers at The University of Western Australia.

Ranging from tiny chips of paint to big parts of spent booster rockets, thousands of pieces of space debris threaten the satellites on which we depend for almost every aspect of daily life from telecommunications, weather reports, security and navigation, to information about mineral deposits.

The University of Western Australia's Zadko Telescope

The University of Western Australia's Zadko Telescope is part of a network that tracks space junk.

A UWA team led by Associate Professor David Coward is part of a global effort to track space junk, using robotic astronomical telescopes, and warn the owners of satellites to alter their orbit until the threat has passed.

In particular, UWA is collaborating with French astronomers at the CNRS-Observatoire de Haute Provence in France in a project that links UWA’s impressive Zadko Telescope to robotic telescopes in France and Chile, called TAROT, to form a global array that scans the sky for debris.

Zadko Telescope Systems Manager, 27 year-old Dr Myrtille Laas-Bourez, is part of UWA’s School of Physics and the $100 million UWA-based International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.

Dr Laas-Bourez, an engineer who describes herself as a ‘celestial mechanic’, worked on the TAROT robotic telescope space debris program in France, daily cataloguing the junk in real-time and informing the French Space Agency of hazards in the same orbits as its satellites.

Detecting space debris is also a priority of the Australian Federal Government, with a recent Senate report stating that Australia needs to urgently engage in space research to protect its space-based assets.

Adapted from information issued by The University of Western Australia / NASA.