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Mysterious dance of dwarfs may force a cosmic rethink

THE DISCOVERY THAT many small galaxies throughout the universe do not ‘swarm’ around larger ones as bees do but ‘dance’ in orderly orbits is a challenge to our understanding of how the universe formed and evolved.

The finding, by an international team of astronomers, including Professor Geraint Lewis of the University of Sydney, was published in the prestigious science journal Nature today.

“Early in 2013 we announced our startling discovery that half of the dwarf galaxies surrounding the Andromeda Galaxy are orbiting it in an immense plane” said Professor Lewis. “This plane is more than a million light years in diameter, but is very thin, with a width of only 300,000 light years.”

The universe contains billions of galaxies. Some, such as the Milky Way, are immense, containing hundreds of billions of stars. Most galaxies, however, are dwarfs, much smaller and with only a few billion stars.

Many of the larger galaxies have dwarf galaxies circling around them. Astronomers call them satellite galaxies.

Result contradicts standard understandings

For decades astronomers have used computer models to predict how these dwarf galaxies should orbit the large galaxies, and they’d always found that the dwarfs should be scattered randomly.

“Our Andromeda discovery did not agree with expectations, and we felt compelled to explore if it was true of other galaxies throughout the universe,” said Professor Lewis.

Using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a remarkable resource of colour images and 3-D maps covering more than a third of the sky, the researchers dissected the properties of thousands of nearby galaxies.

An artist's impression of the orbit of dwarf galaxies about a large galaxy

An artist’s impression of the orbit of dwarf galaxies about a large galaxy. Credit Geraint Lewis. The Hubble Image Archive was used as a source of the galaxies used in this illustration.

They were surprised to find that a large proportion of pairs of satellite galaxies are travelling in opposite directions if they are on opposite sides of larger galaxy hosts, said lead author Neil Ibata of the Lycée International in Strasbourg, France. And each of the dwarfs seemed to orbiting in the same plane, or angle, around the parent galaxy.

“Everywhere we looked we saw this strangely coherent co-ordinated motion of dwarf galaxies,” said Professor Lewis. From this the astronomers have extrapolated that this phenomenon is widespread in the universe, and seen in about 50 percent of galaxies.

“This is a big problem that contradicts our standard cosmological models. It challenges our understanding of how the universe works including the nature of dark matter,” said Professor Lewis.

Keeping an open mind

The researchers think the explanation might lie in some currently unknown physical process that governs how gas flows in the universe, although, as yet, there is no obvious mechanism that can guide dwarf galaxies into narrow planes.

Some experts, however, have made more radical suggestions, including bending and twisting the laws of gravity and motion.

“Throwing out seemingly established laws of physics is unpalatable,” said Professor Lewis, “but if our observations of nature are pointing us in this direction, we have to keep an open mind. That’s what science is all about.”

Adapted from information issued by the University of Sydney.

Galactic explosion betrays black hole

TWO MILLION YEARS AGO a supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy erupted in an explosion so immensely powerful that it lit up a cloud 200,000 light years away, a team of researchers led by the University of Sydney has revealed.

The finding is an exciting confirmation that black holes can ‘flicker’, moving from maximum power to switching off over, in cosmic terms, short periods of time.

An artist's conception of a black hole generating a jet

An artist’s conception of a black hole generating a jet. Two million years ago the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Galaxy was 100 million times more powerful than it is today. Credit: NASA / Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital

“For 20 years astronomers have suspected that such a significant outburst occurred, but now we know when this sleeping dragon, four million times the mass of the Sun, awoke and breathed fire with 100 million times the power it has today,” said Professor Joss Bland-Hawthorn from the University’s School of Physics, and lead author of an article on the research to be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Professor Bland-Hawthorn unveiled the research at the international Galaxy Zoo science conference on 24 September in Sydney.

“It’s been long suspected that our Galactic Centre might have sporadically flared up in the past. These observations are a highly suggestive ‘smoking gun’,” said Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, who was one of the first scientists to suggest that massive black holes power quasars.

Fossil record

The evidence for the findings comes from a lacy filament of hydrogen gas called the Magellanic Stream. It trails behind our galaxy’s two small companion galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

“Since 1996, we’ve been aware of an odd glow from the Magellanic Stream, but didn’t understand the cause. Then this year, it finally dawned on me that it must be the mark, the fossil record, of a huge outburst of energy from the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.”

The region around the galaxy’s supermassive black hole and the black hole is called Sagittarius A* (pronounced Sagittarius A-star). It emits radio, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma ray emissions. Flickers of radiation rise up when small clouds of gas fall onto the hot cloud of matter that swirls around the black hole.

The video below show a computer simulation of a black hole in real time showing how gas falling in forms a disc that spins around the black hole. The friction causes the gas to become so hot it produces beams of UV radiation. Credit: McKinney (UMD), Tchekhovskoy (Princeton), Blandford (KIPAC), Kaehler (KIPAC)

In stark contrast to this current inactivity, evidence is emerging that there was a cataclysmic event in the past.

“In particular, in 2010 NASA’s Fermi satellite discovered two huge bubbles of hot gas billowing out from the centre of the galaxy, covering almost a quarter of the sky,” said Professor Bland-Hawthorn.

On-and-off black holes

Earlier this year, computer simulations of the Fermi bubbles made by the University of California Santa Cruz controversially suggested that they were caused by a colossal explosion from Sagittarius A* within the last few million years.

“When I saw this research I realised that this same event would also explain the mysterious glow that we see on the Magellanic Stream,” Professor Bland-Hawthorn said.

“Together with Dr Ralph Sutherland from Mount Stromlo Observatory and Dr Phil Maloney, from the University of Colorado, I calculated that to explain the glow it must have happened two million years ago because the energy release shown by the Santa Cruz group perfectly matched, to our delight, that from the Magellanic Stream.”

“The galaxy’s stars don’t produce enough ultraviolet to account for the glow, nor could they have in the past,” said Dr Maloney. “The Galactic Centre never formed stars at a high enough rate. There had to be another explanation.”

Professor Bland-Hawthorn said, “In fact the radiation from stars is one hundred times too little to account for the radiation now or at any time. The galaxy could never have produced enough UV radiation to account for it. So the only explanation was it had to be produced from our dragon, the massive black hole.”

“The realisation that these black holes can switch on and off within a million years, which given the universe is 14 billion years old means very rapidly, is a significant discovery.”

Will such a colossal explosion ever happen again?

“Yes, absolutely! There are lots of stars and gas clouds that could fall onto the hot disk around the black hole,” says Professor Bland-Hawthorn. “There’s a gas cloud called G2 that astronomers around the world are anticipating will fall onto the black hole early next year. It’s small, but we’re looking forward to the fireworks!

Professor Bland-Hawthorn is a Fellow of the Australian Astronomical Observatory.

Adapted from information issued by the University of Sydney.

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Aussie tech helps telescopes “see in the dark”

NGC 300

Australian technology will soon enable astronomers to get a clearer view of distant galaxies, by reducing the effect of the natural airglow of the sky.

AUSTRALIAN SCIENTISTS have made a major breakthrough in the drive to improve their view of the night sky and greatly increase the efficiency of ground-based telescopes.

While the night sky looks dark to the naked eye, to an astronomer working at infrared wavelengths the air actually glows brightly, drowning out the view of distant astronomical bodies.

This happens because molecules in our atmosphere emit their own infrared radiation, swamping the faint infrared light coming in from deep space.

What astronomers have needed is a way to filter out the atmospheric emission while letting through the infrared waves from stars and galaxies.

Traditional filters can only remove selected wavelengths at a time. What if a system could be devised that removes many at once?

Enter the “photonic lantern” and high-tech, wavelength-suppressing optical fibres, both the brainchild of Professor Joss Bland-Hawthorn (University of Sydney) and the team he leads.

The complex system, under development since 2004, recently underwent its first real test under the night sky—at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales—and passed with flying colours.

The system removed the unwanted air emissionwavelengths just as planned, while letting through the infrared from deep space. In effect, it made the sky look darker and clearer.

Joss Bland-Hawthorn

Professor Joss Bland-Hawthorn leads the team that has developed the photonic lantern and wavelength-suppressing optical fibres. Photo courtesy University of Sydney.

The results of the field test were published this week in the scientific journal, Nature Communications.

Looking deeper into space

The optical fibres are specially made with internal patterns that act to filter out the unwanted wavelengths, while the photonic lantern combines the output from multiple fibres. That output can then be fed into a spectrograph, a device that splits light into separate wavelengths and enables analysis to be made of the chemical nature of the stuff (stars, galaxies, nebulae) that emitted the original infrared light.

Infrared wavelengths are very important because visible wavelength light emitted from astronomical bodies when the universe was young, has by now been redshifted into the infrared by the expansion of the universe. So in order to study the universe’s past, astronomers need to see at infrared wavelengths.

The first operational device to use the new photonics was commissioned earlier this year on the Anglo-Australian Telescope. This prototype instrument, called GNOSIS, paves the way to a more powerful instrument now under development by the AAO and the University of Sydney. Called SUNESIS, it will be operational by the end of 2012.

“This will mean we’ve gone from project inception to completion within 12 months, a remarkable effort,” says Bland-Hawthorn.

And they’re also aiming to have the technology ready soon for use on other major telescopes throughout the world.

“In particular, we’re aiming at the current 8- to 10-metre class of telescopes—the largest in the world—and then the new generation of 30-metre telescopes that are currently in the design phase,” says Bland-Hawthorn.

When installed on such large telescopes, the system will enable astronomers to see five times deeper into space in the infrared part of the spectrum, which corresponds to a 100-fold increase in the volume of space covered. And that means thousands more targets for their telescopes.

And that’s not the end of it. Space-based applications also beckon, and the University of Sydney team aims to test out other uses of the photonics technology aboard a micro-satellite to be launched in 2012, as well as with high-altitude balloon flights in collaboration with NASA.

Story by Jonathan Nally. Galaxy image courtesy ESO.

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Milky Way galaxy is a ‘snake pit’

CSIRO's Australia Telescope Compact Array

CSIRO's Australia Telescope Compact Array was used to make a map of galactic gas polarisation.

A PIT OF WRITHING SNAKES. That’s what the first picture of turbulent gas inside our Milky Way galaxy looks like.

Professor Bryan Gaensler of the University of Sydney, Australia, and his team used a CSIRO radio telescope in eastern Australia to make the ground-breaking image, published in the journal Nature today.

The space between the stars in our Galaxy is not empty, but is filled with thin gas that continually swirls and churns.

“This is the first time anyone has been able to make a picture of this interstellar turbulence,” said Professor Gaensler. “People have been trying to do this for 30 years.”

Turbulence makes the Universe magnetic, helps stars form, and spreads the heat from supernova explosions through the Galaxy

“We now plan to study turbulence throughout the Milky Way. Ultimately this will help us understand why some parts of the Galaxy are hotter than others, and why stars form at particular times in particular places,” Professor Gaensler said.

Spectacular image

Gaensler and his team studied a region of our Galaxy about 10,000 light-years away in the constellation Norma.

They used CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri, NSW, because “it is one of the world’s best telescopes for this kind of work,” as Dr Robert Braun, Chief Scientist at CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science explained.

The radio telescope was tuned to receive radio waves that come from the Milky Way. As these waves travel through the swirling interstellar gas, one of their properties—polarisation—is very slightly altered, and the radio telescope can detect this.

(Polarisationis the direction the waves “vibrate”. Light can be polarised—for instance, some sunglasses filter out light polarised in one direction while letting through other light.)

Gas turbulence map of part of the Milky Way

A map has been made of the gas in our Milky Way galaxy. The 'snakes' are regions of gas where the density and magnetic field are changing rapidly as a result of turbulence.

The researchers measured the polarisation changes over an area of sky and used them to make a spectacular image of overlapping entangled tendrils, resembling writhing snakes.

The “snakes” are regions of gas where the density and magnetic field are changing rapidly as a result of turbulence.

Best match

The “snakes” also show how fast the gas is churning — an important number for describing the turbulence.

Team member Blakesley Burkhart, a PhD student from the University of Wisconsin, made several computer simulations of turbulent gas moving at different speeds.

These simulations resembled the “snakes” picture, with some matching the real picture better than others.

By picking the best match, the team concluded that the speed of the swirling in the turbulent interstellar gas is around 70,000 kph—relatively slow by cosmic standards.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO. Images courtesy B. Gaensler et al. (data: CSIRO/ATCA) and David Smyth, CSIRO.

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Star Aussie student wins astronomy prize

A nebula and stars

Dying stars return their gas into the interstellar environment, which then becomes the raw material for new generations of stars and planets.

UPDATED 24/05/2011: I’ve added a short Q&A with Barnaby Norris.

MUCH OF THE MATTER that forms new stars and planets—and even our own bodies—is produced in the last gasps of dying, giant stars.

A thesis produced by Barnaby Norris—an astronomy student based within the University of Sydney’s School of Physics—helps answer the longstanding mystery of how these dying stars eject their matter into the galaxy.

For his work, Barnaby has been awarded the 2011 Bok Prize for the Best Honours Thesis in astronomy across all Australian universities.

Barnaby Norris

The judges said Barnaby Norris' thesis was a "clear and deserving winner".

“I am interested in how old stars are recycled to make a new generation of stars, planets and all the matter that makes up the universe,” said Barnaby.

Barnaby, who is now a PhD student at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy based at the University of Sydney, said he was excited to have won the Bok Prize: “This came as a great surprise. Given all the amazing work done by Australian astronomers in this field I feel really honoured to be selected.”

The Bok Prize is awarded annually by the Astronomical Society of Australia to recognise outstanding research in astronomy by an honours student at an Australian university.

It was established to honour Dr Bart Jan Bok, the Director of Mount Stromlo Observatory from 1957 to 1966. Dr Bok energetically promoted the undergraduate and graduate study of astronomy in Australia and set up the Graduate School of Astronomy at the Australian National University.

The prize consists of the Bok Medal together with an award of $500. The recipient is invited to present a paper on their research at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Astronomical Society of Australia, where the prize will be presented.

SpaceInfo spoke with Barnaby Norris, and asked him about his research:

Can you give us more detail about your research into how stars are ‘recycled’?

I’m studying stars that undergo big pulsations over a year or so, during which they expel a lot of material in the form of a ‘stellar wind’.

Along with supernovae (exploding stars), the gas and dust expelled by these stars is the raw material that goes on to form the next generation of stars. But there has been a big mystery as to how exactly this loss of mass occurs.

It’s known that the mass loss is related to a shell of dust that forms around the star. But it’s incredibly hard to directly observe the dust shells—you’re trying to see this relatively faint detail around a star that is perhaps only 40 milli-arcseconds across (less than a millionth the width of the full Moon).

The research I did was one of the first times these shells of dust have been directly imaged. This led to measurements of the size of the shells and the size of the dust particles that make them up, which can be used in computer models to better understand the mass-loss process.

Bok globule

'Bok globules' are dense clouds of gas and dust, the raw material for a new generation of stars and planets. Courtesy NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA). Acknowledgment: P. McCullough (STScI).

What observations did you do, and what astronomical facilities did you use?

Due to the tiny angular size and high contrast involved, you can’t see the dust shells using regular astronomical imaging—it’s like standing in Sydney looking at a streetlight in Perth, and trying to figure out the species of moth flying around it!

I used a new technique based on a type of interferometry called aperture masking, combined with measurement of the polarisation of the light.

Aperture masking effectively turns a large telescope into lots of smaller telescopes. Combining the images helps you to see fine detail.

The observations were all done using the 8-metre telescope at the Very Large Telescope in Chile. I carried out some of the observations last year, and I also used some data taken by my supervisor and others the previous year.

My supervisors—Peter Tuthill (University of Sydney) and Michael Ireland (Macquarie University)—really pioneered the techniques I used in this study, and contributed immensely to the project.

Bart Bok, after whom the prize is named, was an astronomer who researched dark interstellar clouds (‘Bok globules’) that are involved in star birth and rebirth. Is it a nice touch that your work is in a closely related field?

Yes that is a nice touch. The whole cyclical nature of stellar evolution, from the death of old stars to the birth of new ones, such as in Bok globules, is really fascinating to me.

Finally, what got you into astronomy, and where would you like to go in this field?

I’ve always been fascinated by astronomy, and science in general, but I also love good nerdy stuff like building gadgets and writing computer programs. I could never be a theorist. I love the type of astronomy where you can get your hands dirty—bolt together an instrument in a lab, write some code, and then use it to find out something new!

Adapted from information issued by the University of Sydney. Portrait image courtesy University of Sydney. Hubble image courtesy NASA, ESA, R. O’Connell (University of Virginia), F. Paresce (National Institute for Astrophysics, Bologna, Italy), E. Young (Universities Space Research Association/Ames Research Centre), the WFC3 Science Oversight Committee, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

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Aussie astronomers find stellar heavyweights

  • Many huge stars in the Milky Way cannot be seen because of intervening dust
  • University of Sydney team develops method to spot them using X-ray data
  • These giant stars live fast and die young, often in violent explosions

AN ASTRONOMY TEAM at the University of Sydney has used the bright X-ray glow from our galaxy’s most massive stars to find where they are hiding.

There are over 400 million stars in the Milky Way but only a few are truly massive. These stars emits ‘winds’ that flash outwards at over 1,000 kilometres per second and at temperatures of up to 100 million degrees.

The search project—known as “ChIcAGO” (Chasing the Identification of ASCA Galactic Objects)—is lead by Gemma Anderson from the School of Physics.

“ChIcAGO was designed to explore the unidentified X-ray sources detected with the Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics (ASCA), an older generation orbital X-ray telescope,” says Anderson.

Ms Anderson says the massive stars they found can be 50 times heavier than our Sun. But they have very short life spans, and may end in a supernova explosion that produces enough light to outshine the entire galaxy.

“We asked how do we find these rare and distant supernova progenitors, hidden deep in the Milky Way?

“These stars are nearly invisible to traditional optical telescopes, because the dust in … our galaxy absorbs their light,” Anderson explains.

Recent observations with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory have discovered that these massive stars can be some of the brightest sources of X-ray radiation, easily shining through the galactic dust.

The ASCA satellite

The team used data from the ASCA satellite observatory.

Shocking discovery

Taking it a step further, the ChIcAGO project asked what possible process could cause a star to produce such high-energy radiation?

Anderson explains: “When X-ray radiation is detected from an astronomical object it means that [the object is] extremely hot and that particles are being accelerated to speeds near the speed of light.”

In this case the massive stars have winds that blow over 1,000 kilometres per second and are often found in binary star pairs.

“Such systems are known as colliding-wind binaries as the strong winds from these stars collide, creating extremely strong shocks that heat the stellar material to temperatures up to 100 million degrees, resulting it the production of bright and powerful X-rays,” added Anderson.

“The collisions in colliding-wind binaries are some of the most violent in our universe, only surpassed by extreme events like the death of one of these massive stars in a supernova.”

The detection of their X-ray emission is a new way of discovering massive stars that previously eluded discovery in extensive infrared and optical surveys of our galaxy.

“By searching for such high energy X-rays with Chandra we have devised an efficient way of finding the most massive stars in our galaxy,” Anderson says.

In the future, the ChIcAGO project is aiming to discover the identity of other massive stars in colliding-wind binaries, as well as their supernova remnants, allowing us the explore the life, death and evolution of these stellar giants in the Milky Way.

Other involved in the work include Bryan Gaensler (University of Sydney), David Kaplan (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee), Bettina Posselt, Patrick Slane and Stephen Murray (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, or CfA), Jon Mauerhan (California Institute of Technology), Robert Benjamin (University of Wisconsin, Whitewater), Crystal Brogan (National Radio Astronomy Observatory), Deepto Chakrabarty (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Jeremy Drake (CfA), Janet Drew (University of Hertfordshire), Jonathan Grindlay and Jaesub Hong (CfA), Joseph Lazio (Naval Research Laboratory), Julia Lee (CfA), Danny Steeghs (University of Warwick), and Marten van Kerkwijk (University of Toronto).

The results have been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Adapted from information issued by the University of Sydney. Images courtesy NASA / ESA.

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Sydney astronomer gets top science medal

Magnetic field lines superposed on a galaxy

Magnetic fields are spread throughout the universe, but their ultimate origin and evolution are still a mystery. Image courtesy Andrew Fletcher / Rainer Beck, SuW / Hubble Heritage Team, STScI / AURA.

ONE OF AUSTRALIA’S TOP science honours, the highly prestigious Pawsey Medal has been awarded to Bryan Gaensler, Professor of Physics at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy within the School of Physics at the University of Sydney.

The Pawsey Medal is awarded annually by the Australian Academy of Science and recognises outstanding Australian research in physics by scientists under 40 years of age.

Professor Bryan Gaensler

Professor Bryan Gaensler: "Australian astronomy is headed in some very exciting directions right now, and it's wonderful to be able to play a part in this adventure." Image courtesy University of Sydney.

This is the tenth occasion on which a staff member at the School of Physics has been awarded this honour, a remarkable achievement. Previous winners include Professor Kostya Ostrikov in 2008 and Professor Benjamin Eggleton in 2007.

Professor Gaensler received the award for his pioneering studies of cosmic magnetism, which have opened a new window on the Universe.

He has developed innovative new spectropolarimetric techniques, and has then used them to derive detailed three-dimensional maps of large-scale magnetic fields in the Milky Way, the Magellanic Clouds and in distant galaxies.

His experiments reveal what cosmic magnets look like and what role they have played in the evolving Universe. They have led to the selection of Cosmic Magnetism as a key science project for the Square Kilometre Array, a planned next-generation radio telescope for which Western Australia is one of the two contenders.

As a by-product of studying astrophysical magnetism, Professor Gaensler has also made the stunning discovery that the Milky Way is twice as thick as was previously thought, a result that fundamentally changes our understanding of our home Galaxy.

“It’s a huge honour to be recognised in this way by a body as distinguished as the Academy of Science,” Professor Gaensler said.

“Australian astronomy is headed in some very exciting directions right now, and it’s wonderful to be able to play a part in this adventure.”

Looking to the future, Professor Gaensler is about to take on a major new role as an Australian Laureate Fellow, commencing in early 2011. He plans to determine the overall magnetic field of the Universe, one of the final unsolved problems in cosmology.

Adapted from information issued by the University of Sydney.

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CSIRO “hot rods” old telescope

SKAMP telescope

The University of Sydney's MOST radio telescope, now called SKAMP, has been boosted with new CSIRO technology that dramatically improves performance.

CSIRO has helped transform the University of Sydney’s radio telescope into a world-class instrument, and along the way has learned lessons for its own ASKAP (Australian SKA Pathfinder) telescope.

Both telescopes will help demonstrate Australia’s technological expertise in its bid to host the world’s largest and most advanced radio telescope—the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The University of Sydney runs what was the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (MOST) near Canberra. It contracted CSIRO to help develop signal-processing systems—a filterbank and correlator—to dramatically boost the telescope’s performance.

The upgrade has made the telescope more flexible, three times more sensitive, with ten times more bandwidth (up from 3 MHz to 30 MHz), and able to make better-quality images of objects in space.

“This project has given our telescope a whole new capability,” says Professor Anne Green of the University of Sydney, who led the process.

“It looks the same, but under the bonnet it’s been born again.”

Artist's impression of the SKA

Artist's impression of the core of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope system, which Australian astronomers hope to host in Western Australia.

And the “new” telescope has a new name: SKAMP (the Square Kilometre Array Molonglo Prototype).

The formal handover of the new signal-processing systems recently took place at the University of Sydney.

The knowledge CSIRO has gained during the course of this project has been applied to the design of the digital systems for its own ASKAP telescope, which is now under construction in Western Australia. Much of the SKAMP contract was carried out by the ASKAP Digital Systems team.

“What we’ve learned over several years will now allow us to dramatically shorten our design cycle for ASKAP’s digital systems, as well as potentially feed into future development work that will be required for the SKA,” says CSIRO SKA Director, Dr Brian Boyle.

Much of the funding for the SKAMP project was provided by the Commonwealth Government under the second round of the Major National Research Facilities program. The Australian Research Council has also contributed substantial funding.

In a synergy with the SKAMP project, CSIRO has built a similar correlator for the international Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) consortium, which is building a low-frequency radio telescope at the same site as the ASKAP telescope (the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia). MWA too will demonstrate technology for the SKA project.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO / University of Sydney.

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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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Keeping a weather eye on space

An aurora seen from space shuttle Discovery in 1991.

An aurora seen from space shuttle Discovery in 1991. Aurorae occur when charged particles from space get caught in Earth's magnetic field and spiral into the atmosphere.

The University of Sydney’s School of Physics, together with Australia’s space weather agency IPS Radio and Space Services, have been awarded a 2010 Australian Research Council Linkage grant of $360,000 to fund space weather prediction via automated data analysis systems over the next three years.

The project will build world-recognised capabilities in forecasting space weather events at Earth ensuring protective measures can be taken for any forthcoming space exploration.

It leverages the new Automated Radio Burst Identification System developed by the University’s physicists Dr Vasili Lobzin, Professor Iver Cairns and Professor Peter Robinson.

Space weather is an umbrella term for the conditions in space near the Earth, and includes the study of magnetic fields, charged particles and radiation. The Sun is a major contributor to space weather, blowing a continual wind of particles into the Solar System.

The awakening Sun

Professor Iver Cairns said the funding would help identify and analyse solar drivers of space weather and modelling interplanetary space.

“With our reliance on satellites, space stations and robotic space probes, this funding will help astronomical and space scientists gain a better understanding of space weather conditions and how these impact on space equipment and even space exploration,” he said.

“The project will enhance Australia’s human capital and its role in global space efforts.”

“With the Sun awakening from a long solar minimum and Australia increasingly dependent on space-based technology we do need to have a better understanding of what’s happening in space.”

Professor Peter Robinson said the funding would help Australia’s scientific standing.

“Funding space weather prediction will definitely help strengthen our expertise and infrastructure in space science, complex systems, and multiple fields of physics,” he said.

“Better space weather predictions will increase the utility of services by IPS Radio and Space Services to customers in government, industry, and society. This will lead to better communications, more assured access to space services and reduced risks of damage to critical infrastructure.”

Adapted from information issued by the University of Sydney / NASA.