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Big boost for Aussie astronomy

Artist's impression of ASKAP

Artist's impression of some of the dishes of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, ASKAP, being built in Western Australia. It is a forerunner to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which Australian and New Zealand astronomers hope will be built in their two countries.

Australia’s astronomers are celebrating the successful attainment of Federal Government funding for a new research centre, the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics, or CAASTRO.

The Government, through the Australian Research Council (ARC), will provide funding of $20.6 million over 7 years. To this will be added $7.5 million provided by the institutions involved.

The Centre’s first Director will be Professor Bryan Gaensler of the University of Sydney; the University will be the administering organisation.

Bryan Gaensler

Professor Bryan Gaensler of the University of Sydney will lead the new research centre

The collaborating and partner organisations are:

  • The University of Western Australia
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Swinburne University of Technology
  • The Australian National University
  • Curtin University of Technology
  • Anglo-Australian Observatory
  • Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy
  • Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics
  • California Institute of Technology
  • University of Oxford
  • Durham University
  • University of Arizona
  • University of Toronto
  • Laboratoire de Physique Nucleaire et de Hautes Energies

CAASTRO’s activities will substantially expand Australia’s research capabilities and will make a major contribution to the National Research and Innovation Priorities.

CAASTRO will boost Australia’s outstanding track record as a world leader in astronomy, and will solve fundamental data processing problems that can potentially be applied to communications, medical imaging and remote sensing.

All CAASTRO activities will have a strong focus on training the next generation of scientists, providing a legacy extending well beyond the Centre’s lifetime.

Artist's impression of part of the Square Kilometre Array

Artist's impression of a smallk part of the Square Kilometre Array network of radio antennae

The students mentored by CAASTRO will lead the scientific discoveries made on future wide-field facilities, culminating in the ultimate all-sky telescope, the $2.5 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The SKA will be one of the world’s largest scientific facilities, with thousands of radio antennae spread over thousands of square kilometres. Two regions are bidding for the right to host the facility: Australia and New Zealand, and southern Africa.

Astronomy super science

In recent years the Federal Government has dramatically boosted spending on Australian astronomy, mostly in the form of the Government’s Super Science programme.

The Government has promised $1.1 billion for critical areas of scientific endeavour, including astronomy, climate change, marine and life sciences, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

In particular, the Super Science focus covers three areas:

  • Space science and astronomy;
  • Marine and climate science; and
  • Future industries.

The infrastructure projects funded under the Super Science Initiative were identified as priorities in the Strategic Roadmap for Australian Research Infrastructure in September 2008.

Super Science support for astronomy and space science includes:

  • A new Australian National Centre of Square Kilometre Array Science in Perth
  • Additional funding for the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO), the world’s leading 4-metre optical telescope
  • Funding for an Australian Space Research program and a Space Policy Unit that will provide advice to the Government on national space policy.
  • Funding of 33 Super Science Fellows at a wide range of institutions

Adapted from information issued by ARC / DIISR.

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Aussie observatory goes it alone

Anglo-Australian Telescope

Anglo-Australian Observatory will become the Australian Astronomical Observatory on July 1. It's 3.9-metre telescope, built in the 1970s, is still one of the world's most productive.

  • Anglo-Australian to become solely Australian
  • Telescope is 35 years old, but one of the world’s best
  • Government putting in extra $30 million in next 5 years

The Australian Astronomical Observatory will continue its world-class astronomical research and training role when it becomes a solely Australian-operated facility on July 1.

At an historic ceremony marking the end of the joint Australian-British operation of the observatory, Parliamentary Secretary for Innovation and Industry, Richard Marles, said the telescope would continue to operate as one of the world’s most productive astronomical observatories.

“The 35-year collaboration with Britain is a great example of how international co-operation between governments, institutions and researchers can achieve ground-breaking results,” Mr Marles said.

“The telescope at Siding Spring, near Coonabarabran in NSW, was the first modern era optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere and allowed astronomers to explore, in better detail, some of the most exciting regions of the sky, including the Milky Way Galaxy and the Magellanic Clouds.

Dome of the AAT

The dome of the 3.9m AAT at Siding Spring in NSW.

“Today it remains the world’s most productive four-metre telescope and has made major contributions to the way we think about the universe, including helping to discover that it is expanding at an accelerating rate.

“Work done here will help provide the skills, scientific and technical capabilities for the next generation of telescopes, like the major international collaboration on the Giant Magellan Telescope.”

What has been known as the Anglo-Australian Observatory will become the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) as the Australian Government takes full responsibility for its operations from July 1.

“The Australian Government will spend an additional $27 million over five years to support ongoing operations of the AAO from its Super Science – Space and Astronomy initiative and $2.3 million from the Education Investment Fund for upgraded instrumentation,” Mr Marles said.

“This investment will ensure the AAO remains a global leader in astronomy and continue to provide years of service to the international astronomy community.”

Adapted from information issued by the office of the Parliamentary Secretary for Innovation and Industry. Photos by Shaun Amy and Barnaby Norris, AAO.

‘Galaxy genome’ project to start

A Hubble Space Telescope image of galaxies

The Galaxy Genome Project – an ambitious programme to create the definitive resource for studying galaxy evolution, the large-scale structure of the universe, and cosmology.

Move over, Craig Venter! Thanks to funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC), through its new Super Science Fellowships program, Australia’s national optical observatory is launching the Galaxy Genome Project – an ambitious programme to create the definitive resource for studying galaxy evolution, the large-scale structure of the universe, and cosmology.

“What the Human Genome Project did for biology, we’ll be doing for astronomy,” said Professor Matthew Colless, Director of the Anglo-Australian Observatory, Australia’s national centre for optical astronomy.

The AAO has been awarded four of the ARC’s new Super Science Fellowships to take this work forward, one starting in 2010 and three in 2011. Each Fellowship is worth $278,400 over three years. The successful applicants for the first round of Fellowships were announced by Senator Kim Carr, Minister for Science, in early April.

Galaxies are like people

Just as people are characterised by their genomes, a galaxy is characterised by the spectrum of its emitted light.

The 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope

The 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope is Australia's largest optical telescope, and the best of its kind in the world

The Galaxy Genome Project will combine 700,000 spectra from ongoing and completed surveys done with the AAO’s telescopes with 900,000 spectra from the next generation of surveys, to create the largest sample ever obtained by a single observatory—1.6 million spectra.

“This will increase by 50% the total number of galaxy spectra ever measured,” said Associate Professor Andrew Hopkins, Head of AAT Science at the Anglo-Australian Observatory. “We will create the primary and most thorough point of reference for all future studies of galaxy evolution.”

The AAT data will be combined with observations from new facilities such as the Australian National University’s (ANU’s) new SkyMapper telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in NSW, and the Australian SKA Pathfinder radio telescope, now being built by CSIRO in Western Australia.

“The Galaxy Genome Project will increase the scientific productivity and impact of all these major Australian investments,” Professor Colless said.

The project will also increase the international profile of Australian astronomy and enhance the prospects of Australian scientific and technical involvement in next-generation astronomical facilities such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international radio telescope, and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), one of the next-generation “extremely large” optical telescopes or ELTs.

The domes of the Anglo-Australian Telescope and UK Schmidt Telescope

The domes of the Anglo-Australian Telescope and UK Schmidt Telescope

Combination of powerful surveys

Galaxy spectra reveal not only the redshifts (and hence distances) of galaxies, but also their dynamical state, their current and past rates of star formation, the degree to which they are obscured by dust, the abundances of elements in their stars and interstellar gas, and the total mass of stars and of dark matter. These are the keys to understanding galaxies’ origins and histories.

The Galaxy Genome Project has two phases. The first involves the consolidation of two complementary surveys, the Six-Degree Field Galaxy Survey (6dFGS) and the first stage of the Galaxy and Mass Assembly (GAMA) project.

6dFGS is a survey done with the AAO’s 1.2-m UK Schmidt Telescope. The most detailed survey to date of galaxies in the nearby Universe, it has recorded the positions of 125,000 galaxies over more than 80% of the southern sky, out to about 2,000 million light-years from Earth, with a volume and sampling five times larger than that of any previous survey.

GAMA-I, being carried out with the 3.9-m Anglo-Australian Telescope, is obtaining 1,000 galaxy spectra per square degree. This is an order of magnitude higher density than the ground-breaking Sloan Digital Sky Survey and 2dFGRS (Two-Degree Field Galaxy Redshift Survey), over an area of sky a hundred times larger than that of the most sensitive spectroscopic surveys to date.

A Hubble Space Telescope image of colliding galaxies

A Hubble Space Telescope image of colliding galaxies

GAMA-I thus allows the first large and systematic investigation of galaxy properties reaching down to the smallest galaxies.

Second phase will triple coverage

The second phase of the Galaxy Genome Project involves a continuation of GAMA, to triple the area of sky it covers, and a major new survey using the UK Schmidt Telescope called TAIPAN (Transforming Astronomical Imaging surveys through Polychromatic Analysis of Nebulae). TAIPAN will build on and extend the 6dFGS, adding 500,000 new spectra.

The 3.9-m Anglo-Australian Telescope is the largest optical telescope in Australia, and one of the world’s most productive.

The Anglo-Australian Observatory operates the AAT and the 1.2-m UK Schmidt Telescope, both located at Siding Spring Observatory in NSW. As its name suggests, it was created as a bi-national facility for UK and Australian astronomers.

On 1 July this year it will become a wholly Australian institution, and be incorporated into the Commonwealth Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. The organisation will continue to be known as the AAO—now standing for the Australian Astronomical Observatory.

Adapted from information issued by AAO / Barnaby Norris / NASA / ESA / HHT / STScI / AURA.

CSIRO dish spots superstar birthplace

Spitzer Space Telescope image of gas cloud BYF 73

A NASA Spitzer Space Telescope image of BYF 73, a massive cloud of hydrogen gas and dust that is collapsing in on itself in the process of forming new stars (seen in blue). The yellowish wisps are remnants of gas that have been heated and are being driven off by the young stars.

Using a CSIRO radio telescope, an international team of researchers has caught an enormous cloud of cosmic gas and dust in the process of collapsing in on itself – a discovery which could help solve one of astronomy’s enduring conundrums: ‘How do massive stars form?

Dr Peter Barnes from the University of Florida says astronomers have a good grasp of how stars such as our Sun form from clouds of gas and dust, but for heavier stars – 10 times the mass of the Sun or more – they are still largely in the dark, despite years of work.

“Astronomers are still debating the physical processes that can generate these big stars,” Dr Barnes says.

Massive stars are rare, making up only a few per cent of all stars, and they will only form in significant numbers when really massive clouds of gas collapse, creating hundreds of stars of different masses. Smaller gas clouds are not likely to make big stars.”

CSIRO's Mopra dish

The CSIRO's Mopra dish near Coonabarabran in NSW, is ideally suited to studying gas clouds in space.

Accordingly, regions in space where massive stars seem to be forming are also rare. Most are well over 1,000 light-years away, making them hard to study.

CSIRO dish makes the discovery

Using CSIRO’s ‘Mopra’ radio telescope – a 22m dish near Coonabarabran, NSW – the research team discovered a massive cloud of mostly hydrogen gas and dust, three or more light-years across, that is collapsing in on itself, and will probably form a huge cluster of stars.

Dr Stuart Ryder of the Anglo-Australian Observatory said the discovery was made during a survey of more than 200 gas clouds.

“With clouds like this we can test theories of massive star cluster formation in great detail.”

The gas cloud, called BYF 73, is about 8,000 light years away, in the constellation of Carina (“the keel”) in the Southern sky.

Evidence for ‘infalling’ gas came from the radio telescope’s detection of two kinds of molecules in the cloud – HCO+ and H13CO+. The spectral lines from the HCO+ molecules in particular showed the gas had a velocity and temperature pattern that indicated collapse.

Complex chemical picture

Mopra Research Scientist at CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, Dr Kate Brooks, said the Mopra telescope excels at giving a picture of the complex chemistry of cosmic gas clouds.

“Much of its time is used for large projects like this, and almost all Mopra projects are international collaborations.”

The CSIRO telescope observations were confirmed by observations with the Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ATSE) telescope in Chile.

Artist's impression of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

An artist's impression of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, which confirmed the results achieved with the CSIRO dish.

The research team calculates that the gas is falling in at the rate of about three per cent of the Sun’s mass every year – one of the highest rates known.

Follow-up infrared observations made with the 3.9-m Anglo-Australian Telescope (also near Coonabarabran, NSW) showed signs of massive young stars that have already formed right at the centre of the gas clump, and new stars forming.

Confirmed by space telescopes

Star-formation in the cloud was also evident in archival data from the Spitzer and MSX spacecraft, which pick up mid-infrared wavelengths.

Gas cloud BYF 73 was found during a large-scale search for massive star-forming regions – the Census of High- and Medium-mass Protostars, or CHaMP. This is one of the largest, most uniform and balanced surveys to date of massive star-forming regions in our Galaxy.

The research team’s findings have been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO / AAO / NASA / JPL-Caltech.