By Lewis Ball, CSIRO
The future looks very bright for Australian radio astronomy but it was somewhat clouded earlier this year when CSIRO’s radio astronomy program took a dramatic hit in the Australian federal budget.
CSIRO has cut its funding for radio astronomy by 15%, down A$3.5 million to A$17 million for the 2014-15 financial year. The result will be a reduction of about 30 staff from the plan of just three months ago.
The cuts will impact most heavily on CSIRO’s in-house astronomy research, on the operation of the Parkes radio telescope – instantly recognisable from the movie The Dish – on the less well known but tremendously productive Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri and on the Mopra Telescope near Coonabarabran, all in New South Wales.
About two-thirds of ATNF’s staffing reduction will be effected through not filling planned new roles, most prominent of which was to be a CSIRO “SKA Chief Scientist”. A third of the reduction will be through involuntary redundancies. Eight staff across sites in Sydney, Parkes, Narrabri and Geraldton have already been informed that their roles are expected to cease.
The speed of implementation of such a substantial funding reduction forces swift action. This has unsettled staff and the broader astronomy community, but it hasn’t changed the broad direction of CSIRO’s astronomy program.
World leaders in radio astronomy
Australian scientists and engineers are world leaders in radio astronomy, both in understanding our universe and in developing some of the most innovative technologies used to gain that understanding, and have been for 50 years.
CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF) has been integral to the discovery of the first double pulsar system (a long-sought holy grail of astronomy), the identification of a previously unknown arm of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and the invention of Wi-Fi now so embedded in everyday communications.
For the past decade CSIRO has been steadily changing the way it operates its radio astronomy facilities. CSIRO’s highest priority is the pursuit of science enabled by the development of an innovative new technology that provides an unprecedented wide field of view.
This uses “Phased Array Feeds” (PAFs) as multi-pixel radio cameras at the focus of dishes. PAFs are being deployed in the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP), in Western Australia, which will be the fastest radio telescope in the world for surveying the sky.
ASKAP is in the early stages of commissioning. It is just now starting to demonstrate the new capabilities obtainable with a PAF-equipped array.
ASKAP is an outstanding telescope in its own right but is also a pathfinder to the huge Square Kilometre Array (SKA). This enormous project will build the world’s biggest astronomy observatory in Australia and southern Africa. It’s also the most expensive at a cost of around A$2.5 billion.
Cutbacks at The Dish
To resource these exciting developments, CSIRO has been reducing costs and staffing at its existing facilities, including the venerable Parkes Dish. This is a painful but necessary process. The most recent funding cuts will result in more pain.
Astronomers will no longer have the option of travelling to the Compact Array to operate the telescope to collect their data. They can run the telescope from CSIRO’s operations centre in Sydney, or from their own university, or from anywhere in the world via an internet connection.
Astronomers who use the Parkes telescope have been doing this for the past year after a very successful program to make the 50-year-old dish remotely operable. That is pretty amazing for a machine built before the advent of modern computers.
For many decades Parkes staff have swapped detector systems or “radio receivers” in and out of the focus cabin, the box at the tip of the tripod that sits about 64 metres off the ground. Each receiver operates at different wavelengths and offers quite different types of science.
It seems likely that CSIRO will offer just two Parkes receivers for at least the next six to 12 months, since it will no longer have the staff needed to swap receivers. Similar reductions in the capability of the Compact Array will also be needed to fit within the budget.
While the current changes are painful, the future is incredibly exciting. The direction of Australia’s astronomy is described in the Decadal Plan for Australian Astronomy for 2006–2015. It identifies participation in the SKA and access to the world’s largest optical telescopes as the two highest priorities for Australian astronomy.
We are making progress on both fronts, despite some significant challenges. The process to develop the plan for the next decade is well in hand under the stewardship of the National Committee for Astronomy.
Phased arrays are also at the heart of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), another innovative SKA precursor that has been in operation for a little over a year.
ASKAP and the MWA are located in the Murchison region of Western Australia, chosen because it has a tremendously low level of human activity and so astonishingly little background radio noise.
This radio quietness is the equivalent of the dark skies so important for optical astronomers. Less noise means astronomers are better able to detect and study the incredibly weak radio signals from the most distant parts of the universe.
This freedom from radio interference is a unique resource available only in remote parts of Australia and is essential for ASKAP, MWA and much of the science targeted by the SKA.
The wide fields of view of ASKAP and the MWA enable unprecedented studies of the entire radio sky. Astronomers will measure the radio emission of millions of galaxies and complete massive surveys that for the first time will connect radio astronomy to the more mature field of optical astronomy.
Mapping the sky with EMU and WALLABY
Both will survey millions of galaxies and together they will trace the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and massive black holes to help us explore the large-scale structure of the universe.
The MWA is already producing great science targeted at the detection of intergalactic hydrogen gas during what’s known as the “epoch of reionisation” when the first stars in the universe began to shine.
With the SKA we aim to understand what the mysterious dark matter and dark energy are. We may also provide another spin-off such as the Wi-Fi technology, which came from CSIRO efforts to detect the evaporating black holes predicted by Stephen Hawking.
Advances in data-mining or processing techniques driven by the astonishing data rates that will be collected by the thousands of SKA antennas deployed across the Australian and African continents might provide the most fertile ground of all, illustrating once again the long-term benefits of investing in cutting-edge science.
Lewis Ball has received funding from the Australian Research Council. CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science receives funding from a variety of government sources, and from NASA/JPL.
By Nola Wilkinson
Ever wondered what there is between the stars? Dr Naomi McClure-Griffiths not only wonders about it, she’s on a mission to find out.
Naomi is fascinated with the life of stars, the behaviour of interstellar gas, and how gas and stars interact. “As an astronomer, I’d like to understand how the galaxy formed and how it’s living its life,” she says.
“The galaxy is much more frothy and bubbly than we ever thought. It looks like the head on a glass of beer.”
Very large stars, 8-20 times the size of our sun, experience dramatic supernova explosions that push gas out of the galaxy via solar winds travelling at up to 1000 kilometres a second.
It is these solar winds that blow bubbles in the gas between the stars, creating a frothy, foamy appearance.
Watch this video to find out more about Naomi and her amazing work:
By Lisa Harvey-Smith, CSIRO
The first images from Australia’s Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope have given scientists a sneak peek at the potential images to come from the much larger Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope currently being developed.
ASKAP comprises a cluster of 36 large radio dishes that work together with a powerful supercomputer to form (in effect) a single composite radio telescope 6km across.
What makes ASKAP truly special is the wide-angle “radio cameras”, known as phased array feeds, which can take up to 36 images of the sky simultaneously and stitch them together to generate a panoramic image.
Why panoramic vision?
Traditional radio telescope arrays such as the Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri, NSW, are powerful probes of deep-space objects. But their limited field of view (approximately equivalent to the full moon) means that undertaking major research projects such as studying the structure of the Milky Way, or carrying out a census of millions of galaxies, is slow, painstaking work that can take many years to realise.
The special wide-angle radio receivers on ASKAP will increase the telescope’s field of vision 30 times, allowing astronomers to build up an encyclopedic knowledge of the sky.
This technological leap will enable us to study many astrophysical phenomena that are currently out of reach, including the evolution of galaxies and cosmic magnetism over billions of years.
For the past 12 months a team of CSIRO astronomers has been testing these novel radio cameras fitted on a test array of six antennas.
The first task for the team was to test the ability of the cameras to image wide fields-of-view and thus demonstrate ASKAP’s main competitive advantage. The results were impressive!
One of the first test images from the ASKAP test array is seen above. The hundreds of star-like points are actually galaxies, each containing billions of stars, seen in radio waves. Using CSIRO’s new radio cameras, nine overlapping images were taken simultaneously and stitched together.
The resulting image covers an area of sky more than five times greater than is normally visible with a radio telescope. The information contained in such images will help us to rapidly build up a picture of the evolution of galaxies over several billion years.
Where next for ASKAP to look
On the back of this success, the commissioning team turned the telescope to the Sculptor or “silver coin” galaxy to test its ability to study deep-space objects.
Sculptor is a spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way, but appears elongated as it is seen almost edge-on from earth.
This image (above) shows the radio waves emitted by hydrogen gas that is swirling in an almost circular motion around the galaxy as it rotates.
The red side of the galaxy is moving away from us and the blue side is moving towards us. The speed of rotation tells us the galaxy’s mass.
The team has also tested the ability of the telescope to “weigh” the gas in very distant galaxies. The image (below) shows a grouping of overlapping galaxies called a gravitational lens.
Seven billion years ago, radio waves from a distant galaxy were absorbed by a foreground galaxy in this group. That signal was processed by ASKAP to form the spectrum (top right in the above image).
Although not visually pretty, this type of observation has enormous scientific value, allowing astronomers to understand how quickly galaxies use up their star-forming fuel.
The latest demonstration with the ASKAP test array is a movie (below) of layers through a cloud of gas in our Milky Way.
This series of images – similar to an MRI scan imaging slices through the human body – demonstrates the ability of the telescope to measure the intricate motions of the spiral arms of the Milky Way and other galaxies.
Building to the bigger array
These images are just the beginning of a new era in radio astronomy, starting with SKA pathfinders like ASKAP and culminating in the construction of the SKA radio telescope.
Once built, the SKA will comprise a vast army of radio receivers distributed over tens to hundreds of kilometres in remote areas of Western Australia and South Africa.
Just like ASKAP combines signals from several dishes, the SKA will use a supercomputer to build up a composite image of the sky.
Each ensemble of antennas will work together to photograph distant astronomical objects that are so faint, that they can’t be seen at all with current technology.
The SKA will thereby open up vast tracts of unexplored space to scientific study, making it a game-changer in astrophysical and cosmological research.
By Ray Norris, Chief Research Scientist, Astronomy & Space Science
Just one generation ago Australian schoolkids were taught that Aboriginal people couldn’t count beyond five, wandered the desert scavenging for food, had no civilisation, couldn’t navigate and peacefully acquiesced when Western Civilisation rescued them in 1788.
How did we get it so wrong?
Australian historian Bill Gammage and others have shown that for many years land was carefully managed by Aboriginal people to maximise productivity. This resulted in fantastically fertile soils, now exploited and almost destroyed by intensive agriculture.
They mounted fierce resistance to the British invaders, and sometimes won significant military victories such as the raids by Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy.
Only now are we starting to understand Aboriginal intellectual and scientific achievements.
Some Aboriginal people had figured out how eclipses work, and knew how the planets moved differently from the stars. They used this knowledge to regulate the cycles of travel from one place to another, maximising the availability of seasonal foods.
Why are we only finding this out now?
We owe much of our knowledge about pre-European contact Aboriginal culture to the great anthropologists of the 20th century. Their massive tomes tell us much about Aboriginal art, songs and spirituality, but are strangely silent about intellectual achievements.
They say very little about Aboriginal understanding of how the world works, or how they navigated. In anthropologist Adolphus Elkin’s 1938 book The Australian Aborigines: How to Understand Them he appears to have heard at least one songline (an oral map) without noting its significance.
[…] its cycle of the hero’s experiences as he journeyed from the north coast south and then back again north […] now in that country, then in another place, and so on, ever coming nearer until at last it was just where we were making the recording.
How could these giants of anthropology not recognise the significance of what they had been told?
The answer dawned on me when I gave a talk on Aboriginal navigation at the National Library of Australia, and posed this same question to the audience.
Afterwards, one of Elkin’s PhD students told me that Elkin worked within fixed ideas about what constituted Aboriginal culture. I realised she was describing what the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn referred to when he coined the term “paradigm”.
The paradigm problem
According to Kuhn, all of us (even scientists and anthropologists) are fallible. We grow up with a paradigm (such as “Aboriginal culture is primitive”) which we accept as true. Anything that doesn’t fit into that paradigm is dismissed as irrelevant or aberrant.
Only 200 years ago, people discussed whether Aboriginal people were “sub-human”. Ideas change slowly, and the underlying message lingers on, long after it has been falsified.
As late as 1923 Aboriginal Australians were described as “a very primitive race of people”.
Not so primitive
The prevailing paradigm in Elkin’s time was that Aboriginal culture was primitive, and Aboriginal people couldn’t possibly say anything useful about how to manage the land, or how to navigate.
So an anthropologist might study the Aboriginal people as objects, just as a biologist might study insects under a microscope, but would learn nothing from Aboriginal people themselves.
Even now, the paradigm lives on. In my experience, well-educated white Australians, trying so hard to be politically correct, often still seem to find it difficult to escape their childhood image of “primitive” Aboriginal people.
We must overcome the intellectual inertia that keeps us in that old paradigm, stopping us from recognising the enormous contribution that Aboriginal culture can make to our understanding of the world, and to our attempts to manage it.
As Thomas Kuhn said:
[…] when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them.
Still to learn
In recent years, it has become clear that traditional Aboriginal people knew a great deal about the sky, knew the cycles of movements of the stars and the complex motions of the sun, moon and planets.
There is even found a sort of “Aboriginal Stonehenge”, that points to the sunset on midsummers day and midwinters day. And I suspect that this is only the tip of the iceberg of Aboriginal astronomy.
So in the debate about whether our schools should include Aboriginal perspectives in their lessons, I argue that kids studying science today could also learn much from the way that pre-contact Aboriginal people used observation to build a picture of the world around them.
This “ethno-science” is similar to modern science in many ways, but is couched in appropriate cultural terms, without expensive telescopes and particle accelerators.
So if you want to learn about the essence of how science works, how people learn to solve practical problems, the answer may be clearer in an Aboriginal community than in a high-tech laboratory.
By Dave Williams, Group Executive Information Sciences
Who can forget the hit movie The Dish and Australia’s role in beaming the first live television pictures of man’s first landing on the moon?
Well, the filmmakers did play with the truth a bit but it did show Australia’s long history of working with NASA on space exploration.
This week CSIRO with NASA are celebrating more than five decades of working together on space exploration through the Deep Space Network, known as the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. CSIRO operates this facility on NASA’s behalf.
When it all began
Australia has been an integral part of every deep-space mission NASA has flown, going back to 1957 when it ran tracking facilities at Woomera. In 1962, CSIRO Parkes telescope supported NASA’s Mariner 2 mission.
The 1960s saw three space-tracking stations built in the Australian Capital Territory – the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla in 1964, a second station at Orroral Valley in 1966, and a third, at Honeysuckle Creek, in 1967.
Why the ACT? It combined a field of view essential to the missions with a relatively “radio-quiet” environment for receiving signals and proximity to a major city.
It was actually Honeysuckle, supported by Tidbinbilla and CSIRO’s Parkes telescope, that brought to the world the sight and sound of Neil Armstrong taking that first momentous step onto the Moon.
As NASA’s programs evolved, the functions of the Honeysuckle and Orroral Valley stations were wound up or merged into those of Tidbinbilla, and the two former stations were closed.
Tidbinbilla was brought on air in December 1964 to support Mariner 4 which flew by Mars in July 1965. As the signal was very weak the station asked the civil aviation authorities to divert any aircraft that could come between Mars and Tidbinbilla at the time of closest approach.
Is that a UFO?
At the critical time, when Mariner 4 had gone behind Mars, the direct phone from Canberra Airport rang and the station was asked if it was experiencing interference from a UFO! The offending object was later identified as a weather balloon.
Mariner 4 was quickly followed by Surveyor 1 which was sent to the Moon to check out the surface in preparation for the lunar landings.
As a satellite moves away from the Earth a deep-space tracking station is used for controlling the direction and rate of travel as well as receiving data from the satellite.
Tidbinbilla is one of three such stations worldwide that collectively run the satellites. The others are in California and Spain, near Madrid.
Along with the images of the first moon walk the Deep Space Network has received amazing views from the surface of Mars, and the first “close-ups” of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It sends commands to the Mars rovers and receives data from some of NASA’s space telescopes.
Over the lifetime of the facility NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has funded the operating costs of more than A$800 million. NASA is currently investing A$110 million to add two more antennas to the station’s current three.
That Curiosity on Mars
The complex sequence of events in the landing had never been practised, only simulated: the landing is known as the “seven minutes of terror” by all involved.
Millions of people around the world watched the live coverage. At Tidbinbilla, the public packed out the visitors centre to hear a commentary of the landing, as one stage after another was successfully completed.
As the touchdown signal came through, the live feed from the US showed the mission team erupting into joy. And then there was Curiosity’s first image, showing the rover was alive. All this came through the Canberra station.
Some 50 years ago, the blurry black and white pictures of Mars from Mariner 4 showed us that that planet had large craters. Today we can study rocks the size of blueberries and watch video of dust devils on the Martian surface.
We’ve found water on the Moon and even on Mercury, seen the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan and volcanoes on pizza-faced Io. We’ve measured the super-winds on Saturn, five times faster than an Earthly hurricane.
NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which downloads via the Deep Space Network, has found more than 3,600 possible planets. Most of their solar systems are very different from ours.
The next step
Next year, the New Horizons spacecraft will reach Pluto.
It is already more than four billion kilometres from Earth and radio signals take eight hours to make a return journey.
As it flies by Pluto, it will send back the first close-up images of that dwarf planet — and yes, they will come through the Canberra tracking station.
Then the spacecraft will go on to study Pluto’s neighbours in the Kuiper Belt, a crowded but little-known region of our solar system – once again pushing the limits of exploration.
Celebrating 50 years of space love with NASA today. Didn’t know we collaborated with NASA? Our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is part of the Deep Space Network and has a fascinating history. Read more over on the Universe blog.
Originally posted on Universe @ CSIRO:
Did you know that Australia has supported the US space program for more than 50 years? Australia’s partnership with the USA in space missions formally dates back to February 1960, when an agreement was signed to facilitate the establishment of a deep space tracking facility in Canberra.
The global Deep Space Network is made of up three tracking stations: our dishes at Tidbinbilla (in Canberra), Goldstone (California) and Madrid (Spain); it controls spacecraft travelling through the solar system and receives the data they send back. Together, the three stations provide around-the-clock contact with more than 40 spacecraft, including missions to study Mars, Venus…
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By Angela Beggs
It’s official: after ten years in the making, the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) – or planet hunter if you will – is now up and running in Chile.
The new Gemini takes the title of the world’s most advanced piece of equipment for capturing images and analysing planets around stars. It will help to provide astronomers with new data about a planets atmospheric makeup and characteristics.
This paparazzo of space can snap those hard to see planets that live next to big, bright stars, and probe their atmospheres, even if they have been known to be a little camera shy in the past. It will also help to hunt down and study the dusty disks around young stars.
It is the most advanced instrument to be deployed on one of the world’s biggest telescopes – the 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile – and the first images are almost ten times better than the previous generation of instruments. In one minute, users are seeing planets that previously took up to an hour to detect.
Our scientists contributed to the Gemini’s calibration interferometer (one of the four major systems that make up the GPI) by creating state-of-the-art beam splitters.
What’s a beam splitter you ask? It’s an optical device used to split a beam of light into two. Splitting the beam allows for light from the same source to be used for dual purposes simultaneously, in this case, being a reference point and detecting data.
The beam splitters are used in pairs, and there are a total of eight on board – each one is about the size of a two dollar coin.
Our Precision Optics team was able to draw on their many years of experience in optical fabrication, coating and metrology to help develop these devices.
When they’re not busy helping to create elements that can spy on space, the team specialise in the design and production of ultra-high precision optical systems and components for use in areas like defence, security and medicine. You might even be familiar with their quest to redefine the standard kilogram.
So while the new Gemini might not be great news for the young ‘camera shy’ planets of galaxies far, far away, it’s an astronomical step towards finding out how planets form and evolve and understanding what their atmospheres are like.