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    From CSIRO via AFR: “The Square Kilometre Array: going to infinity and beyond” 

    CSIRO bloc

    Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation


    The Australian Financial Review

    Feb 24 2017
    Tess Ingram

    In the red dust of WA, telescopes are already tuning in to the faint signals from the very edge of the universe. TREVOR COLLENS

    Thunderstorms are common in the Murchison region of Western Australia in January but for Luke Horsley the 21 millimetres of rain that drilled into the red dirt overnight are problematic.

    It is 6am in an old stone cottage at Boolardy Station. Horsley grabs the receiver of a black landline telephone and tells a colleague 330 kilometres away in Geraldton not to make the bumpy four-hour drive from the coast. The roads might be closed.

    The landline, which would look commonplace in any city office, stands out at Boolardy. Horsley may be working as an engineering support technician at a $400 million high-tech facility but using a mobile phone or even a humble Wi-Fi network is not an option. The radio waves they produce would obliterate the science he is working on – radio astronomy.

    Horsley and his colleagues are here in the middle of nowhere working on the world’s largest science project – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

    SKA Square Kilometer Array

    A multibillion-dollar endeavour first dreamt up in 1991, the SKA is in essence a vast radio telescope that will literally look back through time to the dawn of the universe. To call its mission ambitious is to redefine understatement – the SKA aims to resolve some of the most profound unanswered questions of our time. Was Einstein right about gravity? When did the first stars, galaxies and black holes form? What is dark energy? And, quite possibly, are we alone in the universe?

    A racehorse goanna explores one of the tiles in the Murchison Widefield Array. Trevor Collens

    To achieve this ten countries have joined forces to build the SKA – a telescope so large it will eventually have a collecting area of more than a million square metres. Australia won the right to host part of the project in 2012 after a hotly contested 8-year bidding process conducted by the SKA Organisation, the not-for profit dedicated to overseeing its design, construction and operation.

    South Africa will share the prize, ultimately hosting 2000 dishes probing the universe as far as six billion light years away. And here in the red dust of the Murchison a million individual antennas, each resembling a Christmas tree, will eventually tune in to the faint signals from the very edge of the universe – “light” emitted by events more than 13 billion years ago.

    SKA Murchison Widefield Array,SKA Murchison Widefield Array, Boolardy station in outback Western Australia, at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO)
    SKA Murchison Widefield Array,SKA Murchison Widefield Array, Boolardy station in outback Western Australia, at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO)

    Before the storm

    It is the day before the thunderstorm and here in the low-lying mulga scrub even the racehorse goanna look like they’re over the 38-degree temperatures and enervating humidity. Until a few years ago Boolardy was a cattle station and my visit coincides with that of the former manager and his daughter, here to round up the last escapee livestock.

    The Murchison shire, which is roughly the size of Denmark, is an ideal site for radio telescopes. It is so isolated it describes itself as “the shire with no town” – and claims to be the only one in Australia. During the SKA bidding process the Australian government protected it with a 260-kilometre “radio quiet zone”. Given the 50,000-square-kilometre area is home to just 113 people – most in the local Pia Wadjarri Indigenous community as well as a few remaining station owners – the chances of unwanted radio activity are slim.

    Dr Balthasar Indermühle and Brett Hiscock in front of some of CSIRO’s 36 ASKAP radio telescope dishes in the Murchison scrub. TREVOR COLLENS

    Still, visitors aren’t encouraged. An “emergency flipchart” on the wall of a site office has instructions for dealing with an “unaccounted visitor” alongside “fire and explosions” and a “bomb threat response”. Disrupt the science at your peril.

    In the airvconditioned comfort of a control building buffered by two double-door “airlocks”, CSIRO experimental scientist Dr Balthasar Indermühle is working on a radio-frequency interference (RFI) monitoring system he is building. The Swiss-born scientist is here from his home in Sydney and his job is to keep the two radio telescopes that currently occupy the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) as clean of radio interference as possible.

    Indermühle was an airline pilot in Switzerland. Flying through the sky at night is about as close as you can get to space travel without leaving the planet and from his vantage point in the cockpit, he would regularly contemplate the universe. After exchanging airplanes for software development and founding a company called Inside Systems, Indermühle was drawn back to the night sky. Having already tinkered away at a Masters in astronomy online, he left for Australia to undertake a PhD in astrophysics at the University of New South Wales.

    Indermühle’s main interest lies in making this pursuit as easy as possible by minimising the amount of “earth noise” the radio telescopes pick up. This is no easy feat. To detect such weak radio signals from space, the telescopes need to be ultra-sensitive.

    The MRO is at the centre of a 500km wide radio quiet zone where no mobile phones are allowed. TREVOR COLLENS

    “The entire energy that has been received by all the radio telescopes on the planet since the beginning of radio astronomy, the energy equivalent of that is ash from a cigarette dropping one centimetre in height,” Dr Indermühle explains as we circle one of the dishes hard at work.

    “That is how sensitive our equipment is. We could see a mobile phone that is a light year away.” A mobile phone on the moon heard via these telescopes would be booming, let alone one at Boolardy.

    Indermühle is one of a small crew of engineers and scientists, from the CSIRO and The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), who are pushing the frontiers of astronomical science at the MRO, which will host the SKA and is already home to the MWA and ASKAP telescopes.

    SKA/ASKAP radio telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Mid West region of Western Australia
    SKA/ASKAP radio telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Mid West region of Western Australia

    Horsley, his ICRAR colleague Mia Walker and Dutch intern Ric Budē are braving the heat at the MWA to undertake repairs and prepare for the rollout of an expansion. The remainder of their team, former firefighter Dave Emrich and intern Kim Steele, who was part of a “student army” that helped build the array and is now working on the project full time, are in the MRO’s control building working on the spaghetti strands of cables that feed the data from the MWA into a complex computing system. Steele’s own journey is about to take a new turn when she jets off to Finland to undertake her PhD.

    Former firefighter Dave Emrich says “when you look up at the sky at night and see all the stars; it makes you think”. Trevor Collens

    Everywhere else is dead quiet.

    Dark stuff

    If a mechanic told you he only understood about 5 per cent of your car, you wouldn’t be filled with confidence. Unfortunately, this is the awkward situation astronomers are in.

    “Astronomers are incredibly ignorant of the universe we live in,” explains ICRAR executive director Peter Quinn, an astrophysicist who once worked on the Hubble Telescope with NASA. “There’s about 95 per cent or more of it that’s been called ‘dark’.” Roughly 25 per cent of that is considered dark matter and 70 per cent dark energy. Scientists have little idea what they are.

    Quinn heads up ICRAR in Perth, a research facility set up specifically to help interpret data from the Murchison telescopes and run jointly by Curtin University and the University of Western Australia. It is part-funded by the WA government. Like so many of the others I meet while researching the SKA, Quinn’s journey into the deep space world has – much like the project itself – had unlikely stops and starts but never been short of interesting.

    Quinn began at the University of Wollongong and moved on to the prestigious California Institute of Technology before joining the Hubble institute at NASA’s Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. He returned to Australian National University to lead a global search for dark matter. His work did indeed find early evidence of dark matter and in 1991 graced the cover of Nature. From there Quinn went to the European Southern Observatory headquarters in Munich and ultimately to ICRAR. He has spent the bulk of this career trying to crack the “dark” mystery.

    “I wanted to understand why all these galaxies looked like they looked,” Quinn tells me. “Why are some round and some flat and some green and some blue? When you start down that path, you all of a sudden realise what you’re looking at is just the frosting on the cake.

    “What the universe really made is all this black stuff which sits underneath. This dark stuff is driving everything, its presence, its shape, its physics. If you want to understand galaxies, you have to understand this dark stuff.

    “That’s probably the biggest, in my mind, unsolved mystery in the universe.”

    He is hopeful the SKA might provide an end to the “frustrating search” during his lifetime. Resolving this mystery is one of the five core science drivers of the project.

    A movie of the deep past

    Murchison Widefield Array Project Manager Randall Wayth switched from computers to space. TREVOR COLLENS

    After the Big Bang, which is thought to have occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, the universe was transformed from an expanding ball of hot particles into a cool sea of gas, predominantly hydrogen. This is thought to have occurred over about 380,000 years.

    Inflation to gravitational waves derived from ESA/Planck and the DOE NASA NSF interagency task force on CMB research, Bock et al. (2006, astro-ph/0604101); modifications by E. Siegel.
    Inflation to gravitational waves derived from ESA/Planck and the DOE NASA NSF interagency task force on CMB research, Bock et al.

    There was no light during this time, aptly known as the Dark Ages, so no optical telescope has ever been able to observe this phase of the universe’s evolution.

    At some point – probably about 400 million years after the Big Bang – there was the “cosmic dawn” when the first galaxies and stars are thought to have burst into existence.

    Cosmic dawn. BBC

    But it took until about 1 billion years after the Big Bang for radiation from those stars and galaxies to clear the hydrogen “fog” and allow light to escape. That period of about 600 million years is known as the “Epoch of Reionisation” and it is one of the last frontiers in cosmology.

    Epoch of Reionisation

    The MWA telescope is already working to define what happened.

    Trick of the light

    It may sound impossible to delineate something so massive but it works like this.

    Human eyes can only collect and focus a certain range of the electromagnetic spectrum – what we call visible light. But in order to understand the universe, we need to study astronomical objects over the broad range of wavelengths they emit – from the gamma rays emitted from emerging stars to the radio waves released from black holes.

    Radio waves are simply “invisible” light and astronomers have developed telescopes to pick up this light in wavelengths ranging from a fraction of a millimetre to metres long. The more sensitive the telescope, the clearer picture it can create of weaker signals. The older the signal, the weaker it is because it has stretched out as it has travelled – just like when you look at the sun, you are seeing it as it was 8.2 minutes ago because that is how long it takes sunlight to travel to Earth.

    Therefore, the most powerful radio telescopes are essentially time machines.

    FAST radio telescope located in the Dawodang depression in Pingtang county Guizhou Province, South China
    FAST radio telescope located in the Dawodang depression in Pingtang county Guizhou Province, South China, the world’s most powerful radio telescope

    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres
    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres, cureently the world’s most productive installation for millimeter and submillimeter astronomy

    Dr Balthasar Indermühle’s main interest lies in minimising the amount of “earth noise” the radio telescopes pick up. Trevor Collens

    Time travel

    For scientists like MWA director Randall Wayth, time travel comes with its challenges.

    Wayth, a software consultant who followed his passion to become an astrophysicist, says the Epoch of Reionisation project is the most challenging project the telescope is seeking to complete.

    “It is really difficult because the signal we are looking for is about a million times fainter than all of the other stuff that’s in the sky,” he says.”This is like looking for a little torch next to a really big spotlight.”

    Wayth spent five years in software consulting before deciding to opt for “something a bit more meaningful” – a phD in astrophysics at the University of Melbourne. “It turns out that the whole radio astronomy side of things is an astonishingly good use of everything that you learnt in your engineering degree,” Wayth says. “And with modern radio astronomy as well it’s everything you learnt in your computer science degree because it’s all computers. No one actually goes and looks through an eyepiece anymore.”

    He returns to the Epoch of Reionisation.

    “We know about the very early universe. We know about today and halfway back in time,” he says. “Then there is this period that we almost know nothing about. That is what we’re trying to get to with the Epoch of Reionisation experiment.”

    At first glance the 2048 squat, spider-like antennas that constitute the MWA radio telescope are not at all impressive. But it is the MWA that has the honour of reaching back to the cosmic dawn and directly informing the design of the SKA’s future low-frequency antennas, which will be much more powerful. The MWA receives signals within the 80 to 300 megahertz bandwidth, the same low frequencies we typically broadcast FM radio and television signals on. It has been surveying the southern hemisphere since 2013.

    “The MWA would detect the Epoch of Reionisation and see things within it, but then the SKA would come along and see it in much greater resolution,” says Wayth.

    “We’re not sensitive enough to directly make images, which is kind of the holy grail, but SKA will be able to do that. What we can do is say, ‘yes, it happened over this time range and the kind of objects that are involved must have been X-ray emitting objects or small galaxies’ or whatever it was. So, we’ll be able to tie it down to some space and then SKA can go in.”

    So what has the MWA found in it’s three years of searching the southern skies? A big part of the answer is its GaLactic and Extragalactic All-sky MWA (GLEAM) survey. GLEAM produced a catalogue of 300,000 galaxies, picking up radio waves which, when translated into images, showed the sky in 20 primary colours – far better than the three humans can manage. With these images astronomers are already planning where to zoom in on when SKA comes online next year.

    Wayth and Emrich have similar backgrounds. Both studied electrical engineering, with Emrich tacking on computer systems and Wayth computer science. After years as a professional engineer and then bush firefighter, an opportunity came up for Emrich to apply his background to a persistent passion of his, astronomy.

    He can trace his fascination with space back to his grandparents who took him camping in Hyden, a small town about 300 kilometres south-east of Perth popular with tourists because of its large wave-shaped rock, when he was a child.

    “They used to take us out to Wave Rock and Hyden and things to look at the sky at night,” Emrich recalls. “I remember gramps rattling the tent at 3am when we were all asleep and saying ‘you have to have a look at this’ and all of us grumbling about how early it was.

    “I think there is something primitive about human beings that when you look up at the sky at night and see all the stars; it makes you think.”

    He has been involved in the MWA project since 2009 and says he has lost count of how many times he has travelled to the Murchison observatory, probably close to 100. His wife and three teenage children – who live in Perth – don’t mind the time away as much as they did when he was battling bushfires across Western Australia – at least these trips are planned in advance.

    A “radio colour” view of the sky above a tile of the Murchison Widefield Array radio telescope.The Milky Way is visible as a band across the sky and the dots beyond are some of the 300,000 galaxies observed by the telescope for the GLEAM survey. Credit: Radio image by Natasha Hurley-Walker (ICRAR/Curtin) and the GLEAM Team. MWA tile and landscape by Dr John Goldsmith / Celestial Visions. Curtin/ICRAR/JohnGoldsmith

    Kelly’s input

    Patricia Kelly is as responsible as anyone for Australia being chosen to co-host the SKA. A career public servant whose early work included developing social policy, Kelly’s journey took a turn towards science when she she moved to the Industry department in 1995 and began working with the research sector and on innovation policy. In 2007 she became involved with the SKA bidding process through her role as deputy secretary responsible for the department’s science and research streams.

    As the big idea crystallised into action Kelly led a joint bid by Australia and New Zealand to host the entire project. She was in Amsterdam advocating Australia’s case in 2012 when the SKA Organisation decided to split the project between Australia and South Africa. There was, Kelly says, an element of politics in that call. “But I think in the end it has not been a bad outcome. It has made it a truly global project in a way I think it wouldn’t have been if it had gone one way or the other.”

    Today Kelly chairs the Australia-New Zealand SKA Co-ordination Committee (NZ remains involved despite missing out on hosting the science) and is Australia’s representative on the board of the international SKA Organisation, which includes members from Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom and is co-ordinating the whole project.

    There’s a lot to do.

    Two-phase approach

    The SKA is to be constructed in two phases. The first phase, SKA1, will constitute about 10 per cent of the full array and is about three-quarters of the way through its final design phase.

    SKA1 will see about 200 dishes rolled out in South Africa’s Karoo, a lightly populated semi-desert region north of Cape Town, including 64 dishes known as “MeerKAT” that have been acting as a local precursor project. The dishes will cover the 350MHz to 14 gigahertz range of the spectrum.

    SKA South Africa Icon
    SKA South Africa

    Solar panels will provide power for the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. Until now it has relied on diesel-powered generators. Trevor Collens

    In Australia, about 130,000 low frequency antennas will be constructed to cover the 50 to 350MHz range. Although the MWA’s “spiders” have been informing their design, the SKA antennas more closely resemble Christmas trees. The cost of constructing SKA1 has been capped at €675 million, with operations expected to cost another €100 million a year.

    Phase two will see the collective array expand to more than its namesake square kilometre, with a total 2000 dishes in South Africa and other African countries, including Botswana, Ghana and Kenya, and a staggering one million Christmas tree antennas creating a forest above the Murchison scrub.

    It is undoubtedly a huge endeavour with a significant cost. But everyone AFR Weekend speaks with is confident there will be payoffs beyond understanding what happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

    Wi-Fi was the result of CSIRO radio astronomers seeking to detect tiny, exploding black holes. A scientist at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, invented the World Wide Web in 1989 to meet the demand for information sharing between scientists. Hierarchical Segmentation software developed by NASA is now used in medical imaging. Surely the SKA will be no different.

    Kelly, who is also the director-general of IP Australia, says it is most likely the SKA’s spin-offs will be things we are not able to predict.

    “Certainly the amount of data the telescope will generate and how to handle that data will be something that will generate a great deal of information and learning,” Kelly says.

    “The technologies being developed in terms of sensors … will have much broader implication for a range of industries and there is also a real need for ways of powering this telescope in an affordable way, so there is also a lot of work being done on remote energy solutions that, of course, are very much in the national mix at the moment.”

    Hitting top gear

    There are 36 ASKAP dishes dotted across the MRO. Designed and built by the CSIRO, the organisation hopes the pioneering technology will be used by the larger SKA array in South Africa. Trevor Collens

    January has been an exciting month for the CSIRO’s Antony Schinckel. The man responsible for the design, construction and commissioning of the $165 million ASKAP telescope has just seen it click into top gear after extensive testing. And already the results, and the way they are being processed, is encouraging.

    ASKAP, Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, is the more familiar looking telescope at Murchison. It consists of 36 large, white dish antennas that work together as a single instrument. Each one bears a local Wajarri name – including Bundarra (stars), Wilara (the Moon) and Jirdilungu (the Milky Way) – an honour also afforded to Schinckel himself.

    “My Wajarri name is Minga, which is the Wajarri word for ant,” he explains from his office in Sydney. “I am certainly quite honoured to be one of the few people that was given a name.”

    The ASKAP telescope is mapping space out to about 3 billion light years away, using neutral gas to reveal hundreds of thousands of galaxies. The project, expected to take five years, is creating mind-boggling amounts of data. Even operating well below its full capacity the antennas are now churning out 5.2 terabytes of data per second. That’s about 15 per cent of all the data bouncing around the internet on any given second.

    From the telescope, the data goes down an 800km fibre optic cable to the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre and into a new, near automatic data-processing system Schinckel and his team have developed.

    “It’s like a 24/7 prestige car manufacturing plant – the raw materials flow in at one end, you decide what type of car you want to roll off the production line, and therefore what parts you need, and let it go to work overnight. Next morning you get a brand new, never been seen before, high-performance car.”

    While the ASKAP will not be directly used in Australia’s end of the SKA (that job’s for the “Christmas trees”), it as an important demonstrator of a key technology the CSIRO has designed and is being considered for the SKA mid-range telescopes to be rolled out in South Africa.

    Called a phased array feed (PAF), the technology is essentially an advanced version of a traditional radio telescope receiver, which detects and amplifies radio waves. Traditionally receivers have only been able to take snapshots of small pieces of the sky at once but the PAFs, with 188 individual receivers positioned in a chequerboard, allow a dramatically wider field of view.

    Schinckel, who spent 17 years at high-profile observatories in Hawaii, says the CSIRO has already sold one PAF to the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany and is building a second for the Jodrell Bank Observatory in England. The next step could be its use in other fields.

    “In many ways we don’t know enough to know what those other uses might be,” Schinckel says.

    “They might be in medical imaging, for example, in tomography. It might be in ground imaging from aeroplanes or satellites. It could be in communications in cities where you have extremely high density communications and there are limits that that imposes. We simply don’t know at this juncture.

    “When you typically look back about five or ten years after a telescope was built, and you look to see what was the really exciting science that came out of it, often only about 30 per cent of the science that’s come out of it was what you had predicted or planned right back at the start,” he says.

    The big challenge

    Making sure the SKA has the computing power and data processing systems to handle the deluge of data is the big challenge for ICRAR’s director of data intensive astronomy, Andreas Wicenec.

    Phase one of the SKA alone will produce five times 2015’s global internet traffic. The data collected in a single day would take nearly two million years to play back on an iPod and will require the power of computer processing systems around ten times the size of today’s biggest machines.

    “This is a very important part of the project because this is the limiting factor essentially,” ICRAR’s Quinn says. “Unless they can manage the data, then the telescope doesn’t work.”

    The challenge of ensuring the SKA can process this unprecedented volume of data in near real-time is being tackled by institutes and companies across the globe, including tech powerhouses Amazon, Intel, IBM and Cisco Systems which are all providing input into how the systems should function.

    The brain – data flow

    From Perth, Wicenec is sharing valuable insights with the SKA design teams from the data journey of the spidery-MWA. He is also taking a leading role in designing the “brain” of the SKA – the science data processor.

    After a correlator on site at the MRO has conducted a first filter of the mass of data, reducing it in size, it will travel down the fibre optic cable to Perth’s Pawsey Supercomputing Centre.

    SKA correlator

    Here the “brain” extracts unwanted radio noise, from an errant mobile phone or the odd aircraft that flies overhead, and turns the data into something scientists can use, such as an image which can then be distributed to scientists across the globe,

    In terms of data flow, the MWA is a factor of 20 larger than the last project Wicenec worked on, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile, an ambitious array perched atop a plateau more than 5000 metres above sea level.

    “That’s already a big step but what we are talking from MWA to SKA is actually a factor of 1800 in terms of data flow,” Wicenec says, explaining the SKA’s jump in scale also delivers an increase in resolution, compounding the data deluge.

    And if that wasn’t hard enough, scientists from across the globe, ranging from the Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden to the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics of India, need the data to be sent out again.

    “We are actually sending about three to four times more data out [from the MWA] than what we are receiving, so that means about a good gigabyte or 1.2 gigabytes a second out to people every single day,” Wicenec says.

    Managing the project

    If you think managing tradies on your home renovation is tough, spare a thought for David Luchetti. As general manager of the Australian SKA Office, he heads the agency responsible for co-ordinating Australia’s commitment to the project – everything from federal funding to site access – and has unrivalled knowledge on its progress. For a public sector veteran who took on the role with little understanding of astronomy, building knowledge of the science has been a learning curve.

    “Even now, after my eight years [in the role], it makes you realise that there’s some seriously smart people out there,” Luchetti laughs. “There’s been a certain process of osmosis, I think, in actually absorbing some of the collective wisdom of the people.”

    He says the biggest challenge in a role co-ordinating a highly complex, multibillion-dollar project has been to keep momentum going on its many and varied streams of work. There’s finalising the design, securing funding, signing the Indigenous Land Use agreement and liaising with the WA government.

    “It’s not a sequential project, in the sense that once you do ‘A’ then you move on to ‘B’,” he says. “Keeping all of them moving at the same time is probably the main challenge.”

    Luchetti says the global effort is like a duck, “it’s quite serene on top but there is a lot happening below the surface”. He has also been responsible for translating “scientist” into “politician”. A key hurdle for sciences such as astronomy is to translate researchers’ excitement about the unknown into funding. The idea of “we will find something or there will be a spin-off but we can’t tell you what it will be” does not sell easily.

    The Australian government has understood the vision, contributing about $400 million to SKA-related activities to date, with the West Australian government spending about a further $111 million on radio astronomy, most linked to the SKA. Premier Colin Barnett says the SKA could add more than $100 million to the state’s economy over the next 20 years through locally supplied goods and services. And managing all those terabytes of data would bring valuable experience to WA.

    Alien life

    But what about the aliens? The first thing that comes to many peoples’ minds when they think about what else could be out there is aliens. Is there other intelligent life? SKA could provide an answer.

    The man heading the entire SKA project, Phil Diamond, director general of the SKA Organisation.

    “The public think that [looking for aliens] is what we do,” Diamond says. “It is not actually what radio astronomers do. However, SKA will be the most capable machine that human kind has ever developed to hunt for that signal from intelligent extraterrestrial civilisations.

    “We do have people within our science working groups who are focused purely on that aspect but it is definitely not the main stream of what we do.

    “However if we detect the signal, I think the interest will rise enormously.”

    Enormously is an understatement. If an artificial signal which suggests intelligent life, for example a distant airport, is detected by the SKA, another radio telescope would be used to verify the signal. And then, Diamond explains there is actually an astronomical protocol for how it should be dealt with.

    “There is no way it could remain secret because with the prevalence of social media these days, it gets out,” he says. “It would be global news within 24 hours.”

    For Diamond, a 35-year radio astronomer, his key interest is not in the extraterrestrial but rather how our own galaxy has evolved.

    “I am quite interested in the theme we have dubbed ‘the cradle of life’ which will look at how planets form and evolve, detecting the molecular signals of amino acids and things like that in space,” he says.

    Two key focuses

    But before the science, Diamond has a big job on his hands.

    “We are dealing with more than 600 scientists and engineers in more than 10 countries… people in almost every time zone you can imagine from New Zealand to Western Canada and all the cultural and language differences that go with that,” Diamond says.

    “Pulling all of that together has been one of the biggest challenges. I do say to my staff here that the communications in this project will be perfect the day we switch the telescope off,” which is expected to be about 50 years after it fires up.

    The SKA Organisation has two key focuses at the moment – signing off on a final design and inking a binding SKA treaty between the 10 member countries, committing them to funding and contracts for the commencement of construction, targeted for late-2018.

    But even Diamond admits hitting that construction target will be a tough ask.

    “That is going to be very tight,” he says. “There are multiple things that have to happen before we can start construction. On the design side we have to deliver a design that has been validated and is ready to go out to industry for tender. On the other side the governments have to deliver a convention, the governance structure and the legal organisation that enables us to receive money from the governments and go out and pay industry.

    “These things have to converge on the right time scale. So far everything is pointing in the direction that will happen … but it is very tight.”

    Diamond can control the design process but the speed of the governments is out of his hands. For example, all of the Brexit legislation that has to go through the British government could slow the nation ratifying its end of the treaty.

    As it reaches the end of the design process, the SKA Organisation is also re-examining its €675 million cost target for the construction of SKA1.

    “Like all major scientific projects like this, our cost estimates are coming in a little higher than we had hoped,” Diamond says. About 30 per cent to be exact.

    “So we are looking at if there is any reuse of technologies and software from the precursors that can help us reduce the costs. This is a normal project process, it is nothing out of the ordinary.”

    While all of that is a long way from the MWA team assembling more spidery antennas in the scorching heat of the Murchison, there is a palpable excitement that their telescope could now play an even bigger role in the world’s largest science project.

    As they make the 40km drive back to Boolardy from the MRO, lightning flashes overhead. Everyone is praying the storm doesn’t target its science – last year it claimed thousands of dollars worth of antennas atop CSIRO’s radio interference tower.

    The night passes and while the lightning has not been an issue, the rain has. Horsley was right to be worried, all but one of the roads has been closed. And the forecast for tomorrow is no better.

    The ICRAR team cuts their site trip three days short and piles into the back of rented four-wheel drives, dodging lizards and kangaroos on their way back to Geraldton.

    The radio waves are from 13 billion years ago, they can wait another month.

    The reporter travelled to the MRO courtesy of ICRAR.

    See the full article here .

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    CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.

    • richardmitnick 10:59 pm on February 25, 2017 Permalink | Reply

      The sciencesprings blog is shown on Twitter. The Twitter feed for this post resulted in 63 retweets.
      I am thrilled.


  • richardmitnick 4:16 pm on December 13, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , CSIRO ASKAP, WTF - Widefield ouTlier Finder   

    From CSIRO: “A machine astronomer could help us find the unknowns in the universe” 

    CSIRO bloc

    Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

    13th December 2016
    By Pr[o]fessor Ray Norris, Honorary Fellow – CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, and School of Computing, Engineering, & Maths – Western Sydney University.

    Part of CSIRO’s ASKAP antennas at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia. Australian SKA Office/WA Department of Commerce, CC BY-ND

    What have pulsars, quasars, dark matter and dark energy got in common? Answer: each of them took the discoverer by surprise. While much of science advances carefully and methodically, the majority of truly spectacular discoveries in astronomy are unexpected.

    Many of our telescopes are built to discover the known unknowns: the things we know we don’t know, such as identifying the stuff that makes up dark matter.

    But the real breakthroughs are the unknown unknowns. These are the things we don’t even suspect are out there until we accidentally find them.

    For example, of the ten greatest discoveries by the Hubble space telescope, only one featured in the proposal used to justify its construction and launch. That one, measuring the rate of expansion of the universe, is a known unknown.

    In other words, we had a question about something that we knew about, and we thought Hubble could answer the question. Most of the other discoveries are unknown unknowns: we didn’t know what they were until we stumbled across them.

    They include the discovery of dark energy, the only Hubble discovery (so far) to win a Nobel prize, in 2011.

    A chance discovery

    Consider pulsars. They were discovered in the 1960s when a bright young PhD student in the UK, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, was studying the twinkling of radio waves by electrons in space (a known unknown).

    She noticed odd bits of what she called “bits of scruff” on her chart recorder, and realised they were something much more startling than mere tractor interference, and thereby discovered pulsars – an unknown unknown – for which her supervisor Antony Hewish won the 1974 Nobel prize for physics.

    So how did she make that discovery?

    Apart from being a bright, persistent, open-minded student, Bell Burnell was also observing the universe in a way in which it had never been observed before. By looking at rapid changes in the radio waves, she was observing the universe using a parameter – in this case short timescale observations – that hadn’t been used before.

    Other discoveries happen when people observe with a different parameter, such as faintness, or area of sky, that hasn’t been observed before. Together, these parameters make up our parameter space.

    Most major astronomical discoveries seem to happen when somebody observes a new part of parameter space; observing the universe in a way it hasn’t been observed before.

    This new way might consist of looking more deeply, or with better resolution, or on a larger scale, or maybe just seeing much more of the universe. Extending any of these parameters into their unexplored regions is likely to lead to an unexpected discovery.

    Right now several next-generation telescopes are being built, boldly going where no telescope has gone before. They will significantly expand the volume of observational parameter space, and should in principle discover unexpected new phenomena and new types of object.

    For example, CSIRO’s A$165-million ASKAP telescope, now nearing completion, is exploring several areas of uncharted parameter space, with an excellent chance of stumbling across a major unexpected discovery that could shake the scientific world.

    But will we recognise it when we see it? Probably not.

    Bell Burnell discovered pulsars by laboriously sifting through all her data, and noticed a tiny anomaly that didn’t fit her understanding of the telescope.

    How much data?

    If Bell Burnell were observing with ASKAP, she would have to sift through about 80 petabytes of data a year, from a machine that is so complex that nobody truly understands every bit of it. Sorry, not even Bell Burnell’s brain is up to the task of sifting through that amount of data.

    We cannot possibly examine all that data by eye. So the way we do our science is that we decide on the scientific question we are asking, and turn it into a data query.

    We then mine the database looking for those bits of data that will answer our question.

    This is a very efficient way of answering the known unknowns. Sadly, it is useless at finding the unknown unknowns. We only receive answers to the questions that we ask, and not to the questions that we didn’t know we ought to ask.

    Now remember the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy science fiction/fantasy series by author Douglas Adams? When a giant computer, Deep Thought, found the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” to be 42, another, even bigger, computer had to be built to find out what the actual question was.

    So can we design a machine, or a piece of software, to replicate Bell Burnell’s brain in detecting unknown unknowns but working comfortably with petabytes of data and unbelievably complex telescopes?

    WTF into the unknowns

    I think we can, and we’ve already started the project WTF, which stands for Widefield ouTlier Finder, with the progress so far published just last month. The WTF machine will sift through the petabytes of data, searching for something unexpected, without knowing exactly what it’s looking for.

    The trick is to use machine learning techniques, where we teach the software about all the things we know about, and then ask it to find things we don’t know about.

    For example, it might plot a graph of radio brightness against optical colour. On that graph, it would find a cluster of quasars grouped together, another cluster of galaxies like the Milky Way, and so on.

    Maybe it will find another cluster of objects that we didn’t expect and didn’t know about. Our puny brains couldn’t make more than a small dent into all the possible graphs that need to be plotted, but WTF will take these in its stride.

    This process won’t be easy. At first, WTF will probably turn up things we forgot to tell it, and it will also find radio interference and instrumental artefacts.

    As we gradually teach it what these are, it will start to recognise truly new objects and phenomena. More significantly, it will start to learn new things from the data that are made invisible to our brains by their sheer multidimensional complexity, but will be grist to the mill for WTF.

    We expect WTF to become smarter than us, able to find those rare discoveries buried in the data. Perhaps WTF may even win the first non-human Nobel prize.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    CSIRO campus

    CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.

    • Greg Long 4:49 pm on December 13, 2016 Permalink | Reply

      The sad thing is that history demonstrates that evidence does not change people’s beliefs 😦


  • richardmitnick 9:20 am on September 23, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , CSIRO ASKAP, , ,   

    From AARNet: “Building the Square Kilometre Array” 



    No writer credit found

    AARNet is among the Australian participants in the global Square Kilometre Array project

    SKA Square Kilometer Array

    The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is an ambitious global scientific and engineering project to build the world’s largest most sensitive telescope co-located in remote desert regions of southern Africa and Western Australia. The project is currently in the design and pre-construction phase. Australia and New Zealand collaborated to establish the SKA candidate site in Western Australia and also to build the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope now located there.

    SKA/ASKAP radio telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Mid West region of Western Australia
    SKA/ASKAP radio telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Mid West region of Western Australia

    When the SKA is operational, hundreds of thousands of antennas will hugely increase the ability of astronomers to explore the far reaches of the universe and address mysteries around dark energy, gravity and life elsewhere.

    Watch this video produced by the Australian Government Department of Industry for an explanation about the project and the role Australia plays:

    You can also learn all about the SKA project at the SKA Organisation website.

    More than 250 scientists and engineers from 18 countries and nearly 100 institutions, universities and industry will be involved in ‘work packages’ for different elements of the design. Australian industry and research institutes will participate in seven of the eleven work packages, with AARNet working with CSIRO in Signal and Data Transport (including synchronisation) (SaDT).

    Expanding the network to meet the needs of the SKA

    To enable Australia’s participation in the SKA project, AARNet expanded its network across the Nullabor, from Adelaide to Perth and on to the Murchison Radio Observatory (MRO), the future home of the SKA in remote outback Western Australia.

    The newly deployed terrestrial network is capable of transmission speeds of up to 8 Terabits per second (Tbps). The network expansion is a component of the National Research Network (NRN) Project, an initiative of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, funded from the Education Investment Fund under the Super Science (Future Industries)

    Connecting the SKA precursor telescopes at the MRO

    To develop technologies for the SKA, two precursor telescopes, the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), have been built and are now operating at the MRO. AARNet Interconnects the telescopes at the MRO with the computer processing required for extracting useful information from the signals. Fast reliable research network connectivity is critical for processing data generated from the new radio telescopes.

    The Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) is an innovative new radio telescope consisting of 36 identical 12-metre wide dish antennas. Plans are in place to add 60 more dishes to the telescope in the SKA’s first phase. The ASKAP uses revolutionary Phased Array Feed (PAF) technology, developed in Australia by CSIRO and others, which enables each dish to survey the sky with a much wider field of view. The volume of data generated by the PAFs and low frequency receivers will be substantial.

    CSIRO and AARNet worked together to connect the ASKAP antennas to the AARNet network. New optical fibres were laid between Geraldton and ASKAP, connecting to the new Geraldton-Perth link constructed by Nextgen Networks for the federal government-funded Regional Backbone Blackspots Program. This enables ASKAP to connect directly via a high-capacity link to the Pawsey supercomputing facilities in Perth.

    The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) is a revolutionary static low-frequency telescope that can be shared by observers studying different parts of the sky at the same time.

    SKA Murchison Widefield Array, in Western Australia
    SKA Murchison Widefield Array, in Western Australia

    Knowledge gained from the MWA will contribute to the development of the low-frequency component of the SKA to be built in Phase two.

    AARNet and CSIRO collaborated to deliver a transmission network for the MWA. The network is installed on fibre optic infrastructure constructed by AARNet for the CSIRO and by Nextgen Networks for the federal government-funded Regional Backbone Blackspots Program.

    AARNet is providing the network services for the transmission of the data between the MWA sensors and the Pawsey High Performance Computing Centre for SKA Science, located 800kms away in Perth.

    The network is scalable to support the needs of the MWA now and into future early phases of the SKA.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    AARNet provides critical infrastructure for driving innovation in today’s knowledge-based economy

    Australia’s Academic and Research Network (AARNet) is a national resource – a National Research and Education Network (NREN). AARNet provides unique information communications technology capabilities to enable Australian education and research institutions to collaborate with each other and their international peer communities.

  • richardmitnick 10:55 am on June 7, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , CSIRO ASKAP, Widefield ouTlier Finder (WTF)   

    From CSIRO: “‘WTF is that?’ How we’re trawling the Universe for the unknown” 

    CSIRO bloc

    Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

    9th October 2015 [Just brought to social media]
    Eamonn Bermingham

    The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder. Credit: Alex Cherney

    Here’s a challenge: how would you go about finding something if you didn’t know what it was you were looking for?

    No, this isn’t an ancient riddle or one of those horrible corporate team building exercises. It’s actually a very real problem being being faced by astronomers using our newest telescope, the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP).

    In order to understand how galaxies form and evolve, the Evolutionary Map of the Universe (EMU) team will take a census of radio sources in the sky. Along the way they expect to find about 70 million galaxies along the way – which is a substantial increase from the 2.5 million we currently know of. But to do so means trawling through, literally, a Universe of data.

    “With EMU significantly increasing the volume of phase space we’re observing, it’s more than likely we’re going to stumble across some unexpected new phenomena,” said the project’s Principal Investigator, Ray Norris.


    But with the supercomputer only sifting through data collected according to a specific selection criteria, there is a chance that these phenomena may fall through the cracks and lie undiscovered for decades, until an “open-minded researcher” suddenly recognises something odd in the data.

    The truth is out there, but how would the team find it?

    Well, we can tell you how: by developing a cloud computing platform that learns how to stumble across unexpected bits of science that would otherwise be ignored.

    “We had a huge opportunity to analyse the data to look for outliers that might point to some new and interesting discovery, so we looked to cloud computing as a way to mine the massive amounts of data looking for any hidden gems.”

    The result is the Widefield ouTlier Finder (WTF), a project to develop data mining techniques that search for phenomena beyond the limits of current astronomical knowledge.


    Ray says there are three types of outliers they’re looking for. “First are the artefacts, which are important for our quality control, then there are the statistical outliers which are interesting, but the most important are the third kind of outliers – the entirely unexpected bits of science, the ones that make us stop and say – WTF?”.

    “The complexity of the newest telescopes like ASKAP means that we can’t just hope to simply stumble across new phenomena, we have to actively look for it by whatever means we can, or else we’ll end up missing the most exciting science results of the future.”

    A colourful representation of the EMU sky coverage. The area in the top left is the part of the sky not covered by EMU.

    WTF’s cloud-based backend is hosted on Amazon Web Services servers, where the researchers are able to access software for data reduction, calibration and viewing right from their desktop. The team is currently issuing a challenge using data peppered with “EMU (Easter) Eggs” – objects that might pose a challenge to data mining algorithms. This way they hope to train the system to recognise things that systematically depart from known categories of astronomical objects, to help better prepare for unanticipated discoveries that would otherwise remain hidden.

    EMU has received a grant to develop a cloud computing platform for machine learning as part of the AstroCompute in the Cloud collaboration, driven by Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the SKA Telescope. The collaboration is intended to accelerate the development of innovative tools and techniques for processing, storing and analysing the global astronomy community’s vast amounts of astronomic data in the cloud.

    For more information about ASKAP, visit our website.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    CSIRO campus

    CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.

  • richardmitnick 2:19 pm on April 27, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astronomers detect mass of one quadrillion Earths, , , CSIRO ASKAP,   

    From CSIRO: “Astronomers detect mass of one quadrillion Earths” 

    CSIRO bloc

    Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

    27th April 2016
    Fiona McFarlane

    SKA ASKAP Phased Array
    SKA ASKAP Phased Array

    Our scientists have weighed in on the idea of measuring a supermassive black hole and it’s come in at a whopping 3.8 billion solar masses – equivalent to one quadrillion Earths.

    At this mass the supermassive black hole at the centre of the distant galaxy being studied, outweighs our own Milky Way’s supermassive black hole by a factor of approximately 1000, estimated at a mass of just 4 million suns. Maybe it’s just as well our closest black hole is relatively small given the fact that material that gets too close gets sucked in and can never escape – a fact put to good use by the Simpsons. Fortunately for us, astronomers assure us that Earth won’t be sucked in anytime soon.

    But how did our scientists actually get to weigh one of these fascinating and mysterious objects?

    Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith, one of our astronomers working on the ASKAP project, made the measurement using the ASKAP and the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA).

    SKA ASKAP telescope
    SKA ASKAP radio telescope

    Australia Telescope Compact Array
    Australia Telescope Compact Array

    What is a mega-maser?

    An astronomical maser can be described simply as clouds of gas that are amplifying radio waves and creating a luminous effect. They are not a single object in a galaxy but more an effect that is occurring in gas clouds throughout the inner regions of the galaxy.
    What causes a mega-maser?

    This particular mega-maser is a result of a trio of spiral galaxies colliding, causing a disruption and in turn a burst of star formation, resulting in a mega-maser at the centre of the range of galaxies in this system.

    A mega-maser is one million times more luminous than the masers we see in our own Galaxy.

    What does the mega-maser have to do with weighing a black hole?

    The clouds of gas that make up the mega-maser are rotating around the black hole in the centre of this distant galaxy. By measuring the speed of their rotation and using a simple mathematical equation, scientists can estimate the mass of the black hole, which in this case turned out to be a super massive black hole with a mass of approximately 3.8 billion suns.

    In the last decade, scientists have come to believe that black holes are not only common throughout the Universe but they play a fundamental role in the formation and evolution of galaxies like the Milky Way Universe that we inhabit today.

    And ASKAP is key to our ability to unlock further secrets and uncover new phenomena that will help us understand the nature of life on earth.


    An important angle of this research is that it has demonstrated the capacity of ASKAP to provide the data needed by astronomers to study some fundamental questions about the evolution of our Universe. To be sure that the data are accurate, there need to be checks and balances to ensure the ASKAP technology is working as planned. To do this, the team compared two independent data sets, one captured by ASKAP BETA’s array and the other captured by ATCA.

    The results matched, confirming that ASKAP is working as hoped, fulfilling one of its key roles of pioneering revolutionary new technologies as part of Australia’s contribution to the design and development of the international SKA project.

    SKA Square Kilometer Array
    SKA Square Kilometer Array

    For more information about ASKAP, visit our website.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    CSIRO campus

    CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.

  • richardmitnick 2:21 pm on December 22, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , CSIRO ASKAP, ,   

    From CSIRO: “2015: An ASKAP year to remember” 

    CSIRO bloc

    Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

    21 December 2015
    No writer credit

    As the end of the year approaches, now is a time to reflect on the major achievements of the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) project in 2015, thanks to the team staff based in CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science offices across Australia (Sydney, Perth, and Geraldton), those on the ground at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO), and also international collaborators.

    CSIRO Australian ASKAP Telescope

    The year started with an impressive 150 square degree image of the Tucana constellation produced by the commissioning team. Using six Mk I phased array feed (PAF) receivers installed at the MRO – the Boolardy Engineering Test Array, or BETA – to demonstrate the rapid, wide-area survey capability of the ASKAP telescope, this image was over three times the size of previous efforts.

    Regular ‘Busy Weeks’ for the ASKAP Early Science and Commissioning (ACES) team resulted in significant progress and a number of technical memoranda focused on understanding the intricate workings of BETA, including beamforming, polarimetry, PAF performance, antenna pointing, using ASKAPsoft, RFI mitigation and preparation for data processing with the next generation (Mk II) PAFs on the telescope. Over the course of the year, the team collected approximately 192 TB of commissioning data across 2000 scheduling blocks.

    The first initial science papers based on BETA commissioning data were published this year, capitalising on the unique capabilities of the telescope and radio quiet environment of the MRO. From mapping a galaxy group to reveal three previously unknown neutral hydrogen (HI) clouds, to the discovery of HI absorption in a galaxy 5 billion light years away, to confirming theoretical predictions about an ‘exotic’ intermittent pulsar, the results provided a teaser of what the full ASKAP may be capable of in the future.

    Making significant headway towards ASKAP Early Science in 2016 is also the team behind the ASKAP Computing systems, working closely with ACES and the ASKAP Survey Science Teams to deliver the bespoke software, ASKAPsoft. The recent initial release of 3TB of demonstration data will provide valuable insight for the team developing the CSIRO ASKAP Science Data Archive (CASDA) and reinforces the importance of open access to data.

    2015 may have been the year of BETA, but in the coming year the ASKAP Early Science program will take advantage of the significant improvement in performance offered by CSIRO’s next generation of ASKAP receivers – the Mk II PAF.

    Six Mk II PAFs have now been successfully installed on antennas at the MRO, with commissioning activities already bearing impressive results, including the first ever 16 beam image to be produced with the PAF receivers – a record that was quickly broken as the latest number coming from the site is now a 25 beam image with five Mk II systems.

    Back in Marsfield, Sydney, there are around 20 more Mk II PAFs on the production line in the workshop, and a number of completed systems undergoing final system tests or already crated and ready for deployment to site.

    A number of key milestones were also reached this year for the team working on power supply to the MRO, with the appointment of Perth-based EMC for some 6000 solar panels and Australia’s largest battery storage system to help power the MRO, as well as an announcement from the WA State Government approving a funding agreement between Horizon Power and CSIRO. These steps will lead toward the construction of a permanent hybrid power station for the site.

    The international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project experienced a number of key events through the year that has carried the telescope a step closer to the construction phase, including the release of the SKA Science Book, the SKA Science and SKA Engineering Meetings that brought together international scientists and engineers involved in planning and design of the mega-science project, as well the announcement of a permanent headquarters in the UK.

    CSIRO continued its involvement in the SKA project through seven of the 11 SKA R&D consortia (and leading two of these: Dish and Infrastructure-Australia), as well planning with Australian astronomers on the Key Science Projects and working together with Australian industry together towards SKA1.

    Valuable progress in SKA planning was also made from a national perspective as well, as treaty negotiations with SKA member governments – including Australia – began, and a recent announcement from the Prime Minister included provisional funding allocation for the SKA as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

    ASKAP’s achievements of 2015 cannot be denied, but recognition in the award of CSIRO’s highest honour – the Chairman’s Medal – certainly validated the hard work of the whole team that has brought the project to where it is today.

    Heading into 2016, the team looks forward to the start of ASKAP Early Science, the installation and commissioning of Mk II PAFs at the MRO, and the further expansion of the Perth office – especially with an increased expertise in low frequency radio astronomy.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    CSIRO campus

    CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.

  • richardmitnick 7:25 am on February 3, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , CSIRO ASKAP,   

    From ATNF: “Seach for transients aids BETA commissioning” 

    ATNF Header

    Australia National Telescope Facility

    30 January 2015

    The RGB version of the 150 sq degree image, more than three times the size of images previously produced in 2014. Credit: Keith Bannister (observations),Ian Heywood (calibration and imaging),
    ACES/ASKAP team.

    To demonstrate the rapid, wide-area survey capability of the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope, a new image of the Tucana constellation has been produced, over three times the size of previous efforts.

    CSIRO Australian ASKAP Telescope

    The demonstration was part of commissioning activities performed on the Boolardy Engineering Test Array (BETA) telescope – the first six ASKAP antennas installed with phased array feed (PAF) receivers at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO).

    CSIRO Boolardy Engineering Test Array Telescope

    “This a great demonstration of the rapid survey capability of the telescope and it also establishes the stability of the system when performing wide area surveys,” says Ian Heywood, ASKAP commissioning scientist, “Not only that, but it also serves as a pilot transient survey – similar to the sort of survey that VAST will be doing, but on a smaller scale.”

    VAST – an ASKAP Survey for Variables and Slow Transients – is one of ten large Survey Science projects chosen for ASKAP, each designed to make use of the telescope’s unique capabilities. VAST will take advantage of the wide-field survey capabilities of the PAF in order to discover variable and transient phenomena from the local to the cosmological.

    Over the course of a 12-hour observation, BETA was configured to deliver nine beams in a 3×3 square pattern, with the array spending five minutes on each of the twelve pointing positions (repeating each time a cycle is completed). This observation strategy returns an image of 150 square degrees with a (1-sigma) noise level of below 1 mJy, containing around 2000 sources brighter than 5-sigma.

    Three separate observations were made in December 2014, and the resulting images from each were used to create a three colour RGB image. In such an image, sources that are fading would appear red, while brightening sources appear blue.

    “In our image, the sources are mostly white, though there is some colour visible at the edge of the image where the noise is higher,” explains Dr Heywood, “While this might not be as exciting for fans of astrophysical transients it is extremely reassuring to us from a system stability point of view, and highlights the potential for using PAF-based interferometry for studying variable sources.”

    A significant advantage of ASKAP is the rapid survey capability of the instrument and the wide field of view provided by PAFs. Not only will ASKAP be able to detect and investigate transient sources, but it will also have the potential to probe previously unexplored regions of phase space in order to discover new transient objects.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    Australian Telescope Compact Array
    Australian Telescope Compact Array


    CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, operates a number of world-class radio astronomy observatories that are collectively known as the Australia Telescope National Facility or ATNF. The facility offers a powerful view of the southern hemisphere radio spectrum and supports world-leading research by Australian and international astronomers. CSIRO also manages the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, where the Square Kilometre Array telescope infrastructure in Australia is to be centred.

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