RSSArchive for May, 2012

Venus transit – get a live view from the Arctic

Transit of Venus with an aircraft in the field of view

Observers at the European Space Research and Technology Centre witnessed a spectacular event during the Venus transit of 2004 – an aircraft joined the planet in front of the Sun for a few fractions of a second. Copyright: Detlef Koschny.

SCIENTISTS AND AMATEUR ASTRONOMERS around the world are preparing to observe the rare occurrence of Venus crossing the face of the Sun on 5-6 June, an event that will not be seen again for over a hundred years.

The occasion also celebrates the first transit while there is a spacecraft orbiting the planet – the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Venus Express.

ESA will be reporting live from the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, where the Venus Express science team will be discussing the latest scientific results from the mission while enjoying a unique view of the 2012 transit under the ‘midnight Sun’.

A transit of Venus occurs only when Venus passes directly between the Sun and Earth. Since the orbital plane of Venus is not exactly aligned with that of Earth, transits occur very rarely, in pairs eight years apart but separated by more than a century.

The last transit was enjoyed in June 2004 but the next will not be seen until 2117.

The transit of Venus

The transit of Venus across the Sun as recorded by European Space Astronomy Centre observers located in Portugal 8 June 2004. Copyright: ESA.

Venus – key to the Solar System

Venus transits are of great historical significance because they gave astronomers a way to measure the size of the Solar System.

The transits of the 18th century enabled astronomers to calculate the distance to the Sun by timing how long it took for Venus to cross the solar disc from different locations on Earth and then using simple trigonometry.

Also, during the transit of 1761 astronomers noticed a halo of light around the planet’s dark edge, revealing Venus to have an atmosphere.

Thanks to spacecraft that have since visited Venus, including Venus Express, we now know that it hosts an inhospitable dense atmosphere of carbon dioxide and nitrogen with clouds of sulphuric acid.

Testbed for exoplanets

Today transit events are a valuable tool for developing methods for detecting and characterising planets orbiting other stars than the Sun, planets that astronomers refer to as exoplanets.

As a planet passes in front of a star, it temporarily blocks out a tiny portion of the starlight, revealing its presence and providing information about the planet’s size. Europe’s CoRoT space telescope has used this technique to discover over 20 exoplanets.

Transits are also being used to search for exoplanets that may harbour life. If the planet has an atmosphere a small fraction of the light from the star will pass through this atmosphere and reveal its properties, such as the presence of water or methane.

Map showing where the transit of Venus will be visible

World visibility of the transit of Venus on 5-6 June 2012. Spitsbergen is an Arctic island – part of the Svalbard archipelago in Norway – and one of the few places in Europe from which the entire transit is visible. For most of Europe, only the end of the transit event will be visible during sunrise on 6 June. Copyright: Michael Zeiler,

Where to view the transit of Venus

During next month’s transit, astronomers will have the chance to test these techniques and add to the data collected during only six previous Venus transits observed since the invention of the telescope in the early 1600s.

The 2012 transit will be visible in its entirety only from the western Pacific, eastern Asia, eastern Australia and high northern latitudes.

For the US, the transit will begin in the afternoon of 5 June and for much of Europe the Sun will rise on 6 June with the transit almost finished.

If you are observing the event please remember — NEVER look at the Sun with unprotected eyes, through ordinary sunglasses or through a telescope, as this will cause permanent blindness.

Live updates from the Arctic

The Sun does not set at Spitsbergen in June, providing a unique opportunity to observe the entire transit from 22:04 GMT 5 June (00:04 CEST 6 June) to 04:52 GMT (06:52 CEST).

“We’re very excited about watching the transit from such a unique European location while Venus Express is in orbit around the transiting planet,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s Venus Express project scientist.

“During the transit, Venus Express will make important observations of Venus’ atmosphere that will be compared with ground-based telescopes to help exoplanet hunters test their techniques.”

As ESA prepares for this rare event with observations from space and from the ground, we will provide background information about the transit on a dedicated blog at:

Live updates will be posted from Spitsbergen during 5-6 June as the world tunes in to watch Venus make its journey across the Sun for the last time this century.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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Transit of Venus – more online resources

Here’s a collection of web pages with information on the transit of Venus. We’ll add more links as they come to hand.

ABC Science: Your Guide to the Transit of Venus

Astronomical Society of Australia: Transit of Venus factsheet (small PDF download)

Sydney Observatory: How to see the Transit of Venus safely

Perth Observatory: Viewing the Transit of Venus in Perth

Stardome Observatory Planetarium, Auckland: Transit of Venus viewing

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Transit of Venus – viewing in Melbourne

ON WEDNESDAY JUNE 6, Venus will line up directly with the Sun and we’ll see the planet as a small black dot tracking across the bright Sun.

It’s an astronomical curiosity today, but in times past it prompted major scientific expeditions. Men devoted their lives to the transit – some were successful and there were also many tales of despair – as they tried to unlock the true size of the Solar System.

The transit in June will be the last in our lifetimes. No one will witness this event again until 2117, and people in Melbourne are perfectly placed to see it.

Join Dr Tanya Hill for breakfast and witness this once in our lifetime event. See the moment when Venus crosses onto the Sun and discover the stories and history that surround this momentous event.

This special event includes telescope viewing, a presentation highlighting the stories surrounding the transit and a light breakfast.

Please note: This event will go ahead regardless of the weather conditions. In the case of bad weather an alternative program will be offered including the Planetarium show “Guiding Lights”, an extended talk by Dr Tanya Hill, the Planetarium’s astronomer and supplemented by footage from other locations in Australia or off-shore via a live feed.

Tickets are strictly limited, so book early!

More information: Melbourne Planetarium Transit of Venus viewing

Adapted from information issued by Melbourne Planetarium.

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Transit of Venus – Sydney viewing opportunity

THE UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN SYDNEY’S Penrith campus Observatory will be the best place in Sydney to witness one of the rarest astronomical phenomena of our lifetime – the transit of Venus – on June 6, 2012.

The transit of Venus occurs when Earth’s closest neighbour, the planet Venus, passes directly between Earth and the Sun. From Australia, Venus will look like a small, round silhouette, slowly moving across the surface of the Sun.

Director of the UWS Observatory, Associate Professor Miroslav Filipovic, says UWS has the biggest and best telescope within a 200-300km radius.

“The University’s 24inch (62cm) computerised telescope is equipped with special solar … filters, which will allow for a safe and exemplary viewing experience,” says Associate Professor Miroslav Filipovic.

“As part of the transit experience at UWS, guests will have the opportunity to view Venus’ travels through a range of telescopes and hear a short, educational talk.

“The entire event will also be televised in a new 3D movie theatre within the Observatory, and will be live-streamed on the University’s website.”

The transit of Venus occurs in pairs, in cycles of more than 100 years. Captain James Cook sailed to Tahiti to observe a pair of transits in 1761 and 1769, and our direct ancestors may have been fortunate enough to see the transits of 1874 and 1882.

The first transit of our lifetime occurred in 2004. After this year’s transit, Venus will not pass between Earth and the Sun again until December 2117 and 2125.

Members of the community are invited to book-in for a special one-hour viewing of this important celestial event, from 8am on Wednesday 6th June 2012.

Although optimal viewing of the transit is dependent on a clear and cloud-free day, this special event will run regardless of the weather with the assistance of the Western Sydney Amateur Astronomy Group (WSAAG).

WHAT: The UWS transit of Venus Experience

WHEN:  The transit will take place from 8.15am to 2.45pm, Wednesday, 6th June 2012

WHERE: Building AO, UWS Penrith campus, Great Western Highway, Werrington North


COST: $10 per person


Bookings are essential. To schedule your viewing of the transit of Venus, please contact the UWS Observatory on: (02) 4736 0135 (Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays) or email

Adapted from information issued by UWS.

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Transit of Venus – live coverage details

ON WEDNESDAY JUNE 6, the people of Earth will be able to witness a ‘transit of Venus,’ when the planet Venus can be seen moving across the face of the Sun.

“Since the phenomena was first recognised and observed by Jeremiah Horrocks, an English astronomer and clergyman in 1639, there have only been five transits of Venus – 1761, 1769, 1874, 1882 and 2004,” says Dr Paul Willis, Director of the Royal Institution of Australia.

“By observing a transit, astronomers could, for the first time, calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun with some accuracy,” he adds. “This had astounding implications for science’s understanding of the universe.

Livestreaming of the transit will be shown on RiAus website on 6 June 2012, from 7:30am – 3pm

“This is the last time people will get the chance to see this until 2117 – and for most of us the chances of being here then are pretty slim,” says Dr Nick Lomb, Curator of Astronomy, Powerhouse Museum. “It’s an experience not to be missed.”

“What many people don’t realise is that Australia has a very real connection to this rare astronomical event,” says Valerie Sitters, Collections Specialist, the State Library of South Australia.

“Lieutenant James Cook was sent to Tahiti on HMS Endeavour to observe the transit that occurred in 1769,” Sitters adds. “He was then ordered to search for the great south land when he discovered and charted the east coast of Australia.”

RiAus transit of Venus livestreaming site:

Adapted from information issued by RiAus.

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Transit of Venus – NASA’s live coverage

NASA TELEVISION will air a live program starting at 5:30 p.m. US EDT Tuesday, June 5, showcasing the celestial phenomenon of the planet Venus trekking across the face of the Sun. The rare event, known as the Venus transit, will not occur again until 2117.

The transit occurs when Venus passes directly between Earth and the Sun. Viewers will see Venus as a small dot gliding slowly across our nearest star. Historically, viewed by Captain James Cook and other luminaries, this rare alignment is how we measured the size of our Solar System.

There have been 53 transits since 2000 B.C. The last time the event occurred was on June 8, 2004, watched by millions worldwide. This year, observers on six continents and a small portion of Antarctica will be in position to see at least part of it.

NASA TV coverage will include updates from NASA centres across the USA and locations from some of the 148 countries hosting viewing activities. Images taken of the transit from the International Space Station and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Solar Dynamics Observatory also will be aired with scientists sharing their perspectives and the historical significance of the event.

NASA EDGE, a behind-the-scenes, informative webcast, will air the transit live from Mauna Kea, Hawaii. This location offers the best viewing position of the entire transit.

More information about the worldwide events, safety precautions for viewing, educational content and social media activities:

NASA TV streaming video, downlink and scheduling information:

The public can follow the event on Twitter on #venustransit and download a free phone App:

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Transit of Venus – resources from Spain

A TRANSIT IS THE CROSSING of a planet or any star in front of the Sun. Mercury and Venus are the only planets of the Solar System that can make transits, because they are closer to the Sun than the Earth.

On 5-6 June the transit of the planet Venus across the Sun will take place. Researchers from the Department of Astronomy and Meteorology (DAM) of the University of Barcelona (UB) will live broadcast the phenomenon from the Svalbard Islands, in the Arctic, through the website Serviastro

On this occasion, the UB has developed the web page Venus 2012, where specific information on this transit will be accessible, together with a series of activities on astronomical distances which have been made available to school centres, and a comic on the history of the transits of Venus by Josep Manel Carrasco can also be found there (only in Spanish and Catalan).

The transits of Venus occur twice over intervals of eight years, with then a gap of more than 100 years until the next pair. Hence, the last transit of Venus took place in 2004 and the next one will happen in 2117.

The UB will monitor the transit of Venus from the Svalbard Islands because it is one of the places where the entire transit will be visible and where the Sun never sets at this time of year (the Midnight Sun) due to the high latitude of the area (78 degrees north). Therefore, researchers will be able to monitor it during the night with the Sun on the horizon.

The transits of planets have historically been used to determine the Sun-Earth distance. Nowadays, this phenomenon, observed in other stars, is one of the techniques used to search for exoplanets, that is, planets in other star systems: when these planets cross in front of the star its brightness decreases.

The Institute of Cosmos Sciences of the UB, the Montsec Astronomical Park, the Institute for Space Studies of Catalonia, and the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology collaborate in the Venus 2012 project.

Link to the Venus 2012 web page:

Adapted from information issued by the University of Barcelona.

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Transit of Venus – viewing in the USA

ON TUESDAY AFTERNOON, June 5th (US time zone), everyone in the United States will have a chance to witness one of the rarest celestial phenomena known: a “transit of Venus”. Such an event occurs when the planet Venus passes almost exactly between the Earth and the Sun, and they are incredibly rare.

Since first predicted by the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler in the 17th century, only six transits of Venus have been observed. Weather permitting, this will be the seventh.

Transits of Venus occur at regular intervals that repeat over a 243-year period. Intervals between successive transits are 8 years, 105.5 years, 8 years, and 120.5 years. The next transit of Venus won’t occur until December 11, 2117, and it will not be visible from most of the USA.

Early transit of Venus expeditions

Kepler predicted the transit of December 7, 1631, but died before the event occurred. The next transit, on December 4, 1639, was observed by only two individuals, Jeremiah Horrocks and William Crabtree, from England.

In 1677 Edmond Halley (of comet fame) observed a transit of Mercury from St. Helena Island and realised that such events, if observed from many widely-spaced sites, could provide a geometric measure of the scale of the Solar System. His work led to several far-flung expeditions to observe the Venus transits of June 6, 1761 and June 3, 1769. One of the British expeditions to the latter transit was led by Captain James Cook.

Results from these expeditions were mixed, but enough experience was gained to attempt observations of the next series in the 19th century.

The transits of December 9, 1874, and December 6, 1882, were met with an armada of scientific expeditions equipped with state-of-the-art astronomical instruments. The U.S. Congress funded and outfitted eight separate expeditions for each event and placed overall scientific direction of these teams under the command of the U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO). Once again the results were inconclusive, but many of the instruments from these expeditions are still in the Observatory’s possession.

The 20th century saw no transits of Venus; the next one occurred on June 8, 2004. By this time the size of the Solar System had been well established, so observing the transit became more of an historical event than a scientific one.

Transit of Venus viewing for US citizens

This year’s transit will begin about 2.5 hours before sunset in the Washington, D.C., area at 6:04pm US Eastern Daylight Time. It will occur earlier in the day and at a higher altitude as one moves farther west, but no place in the “lower 48” will see the event in its entirety. Residents of Alaska, Hawai’i, and the U.S. Pacific Territories are the only Americans who will see the complete event.

At the USNO, we will once again attempt to observe the transit with one of our historic 5-inch Alvan Clark transit of Venus telescopes. This particular instrument, Number 856, successfully observed the transit of 1874 from Vladivostok, Siberia, and the 1882 transit from San Antonio, Texas.

It was employed to successfully observe the 2004 transit following restoration by the observatory’s instrument shop. If successful this year we will have the only instrument known to have observed four of the seven transits that humans have recorded.

Observing the transit will not require a telescope – the disc of Venus is large enough to be seen with the unaided eye. However, extreme precaution must be taken when observing the event or permanent eye damage and/or blindness will occur. The USNO strongly recommends that people wishing to observe the transit contact any of the local science centres, planetariums, or amateur astronomy clubs as they will have the proper equipment to enjoy this rare event. A listing of such regional organisations may be found on the USNO’s website:

Adapted from information issued by USNO.

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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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