Solar storms, space junk and the formation of the Universe are about to be seen in an entirely new way with the start of operations today by the $51 million Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope.
The first of three international precursors to the $2 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, the MWA is located in a remote pocket of outback Western Australia. It is the result of an international project led by Curtin University and was officially turned on this morning by Australia's Science and Research Minister, Senator Kim Carr.
Using bleeding edge technology, the MWA will become an eye on the sky, acting as an early warning system that will potentially help to save billions of dollars as it steps up observations of the Sun to detect and monitor massive solar storms. It will also investigate a unique concept which will see stray FM radio signals used to track dangerous space debris.
The MWA will also give scientists an unprecedented view into the first billion years of the Universe, enabling them to look far into the past by studying radio waves that are more than 13 billion years old. This major field of study has the potential to revolutionise the field of astrophysics.
"This collaboration between some of astronomy's greatest minds has resulted in the creation of a groundbreaking facility," Director of the MWA and Professor of Radio Astronomy at Curtin University, Steven Tingay said.
"Right now we are standing at the frontier of astronomical science. Each of these programs has the potential to change our understanding about the Universe."
The development and commissioning of the MWA, the most powerful low frequency radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, is the outcome of nearly nine years' work by an international consortium of 13 institutions across four countries (Australia, USA, India and New Zealand).
The detailed observations will be used by scientists to hunt for explosive and variable objects in the Milky Way such as black holes and exploding stars, as well as to create the most comprehensive survey of the Southern Hemisphere sky at low radio frequencies.
From today, regular data will be captured through the entirely static telescope which spans a three kilometre area at the CSIRO's Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, future home to the SKA.
The data will be processed 800 kilometres away at the $80 million Pawsey High Performance Computing Centre for SKA Science, in Perth, carried there on a link provided by the NBN and enabled by AARNet. The MWA will be the Pawsey Centre's first large-scale customer.
Nine major research programs were announced at the launch, with more than 700 scientists across four continents awaiting the information the telescope has now begun to capture.
"Given the quality of the data obtained during the commissioning process and the vast areas of study that will be investigated, we are expecting to see preliminary results in as little as three months' time," Professor Tingay said.
"This is an exciting prospect for anyone who's ever looked up at the sky and wondered how the Universe came to be.
"The MWA has and will continue to lift the bar even higher for the SKA."
Under Professor Tingay and fellow colleague Professor Peter Hall's guidance, Curtin University has been awarded a $5 million grant by the Australian Government to participate in the SKA pre-construction program over the next three years, with the MWA's unique insight being used to develop a low frequency radio telescope that is expected to be 50 times more sensitive.
The MWA has been supported by both State and Federal Government funding, with the majority of federal funding being administered by Astronomy Australia Limited.
The MWA project recognises the Wadjarri Yamatji people as the traditional owners of the site on which the MWA is built and thanks the Wadjarri Yamatji people for their support, as well as that of Astronomy Australia Limited.
The MWA launch event took place simultaneously at the Astronomical Society of Australia's annual scientific meeting hosted at Monash University Melbourne and the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in the Murchison, Western Australia.
What is the MWA?
A full MWA scientific background document can be accessed here and has been supplied alongside this media release - please refer to this for specific information on the new telescope.
The 13 institutions responsible for the development of the Murchison Widefield Array are:
- Curtin University (Western Australia) - Project Leader
- Australian National University (ACT, Australia)
- Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)
- Swinburne University of Technology (VIC, Australia)
- The University of Melbourne (VIC, Australia)
- The University of Sydney (NSW, Australia)
- University of Tasmania (TAS, Australia)
- The University of Western Australia (WA, Australia)
- Raman Research Institute (Bangalore, India)
- Victoria University of Wellington (Wellington, New Zealand)
- Harvard University/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (Massachusetts, United States)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Haystack Observatory (Massachusetts, United States)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Kavli Institute(Massachusetts, United States)
Inaugural MWA research programs
The following programs and project leaders were officially announced today:
Name: Constraining Xray and Dark Matter heating Before the Epoch of
Reionization (EoR): Preliminary Observations at Low Frequency with the MWA
Project lead: Mr Aaron Ewall-Wice, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA)
Brief overview: Will be looking for exotic emissions from the early stages of the evolution of the Universe.
Name: Epoch of Reionisation (Highest ranked science)
Project lead: Professor Rachel Webster, The University of Melbourne
Brief overview: Will detect the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the Universe, within a billion years of the Big Bang, approximately 13 billion years ago.
Name: Exploiting the MWA field of view to study scintillation and the structure of turbulence in the Milky Way
Project lead: Dr Paul Hancock, University of Sydney (until September 2013) / Curtin University (from September 2013)
Brief overview: Identification of the properties of making up the Milky Way and nearby galaxies through distant radio sources.
Name: Monitoring the Galaxy with MWA
Project lead: Professor David Kaplan, University of Wisconsin (USA)
Brief overview: In depth study of the major explosive events (including exploding stars and material being swallowed and captured by black holes).
Name: Search for Variable and Transient Sources in the EOR Fields with the MWA
Project lead: Dr Nadia Kudryavtseva, Curtin University
Brief overview: Will study the changes in the sky.
Name: Spectral details of extragalactic point sources
Project lead: Dr Andre Offringa, Australian National University
Brief overview: A technical project to determine optimal calibration for the MWA.
Name: A Galactic and Extragalactic All-Sky MWA Survey
Project lead: Professor Lister Staveley-Smith, The University of Western Australia
Brief overview: Will map the entire sky visible from the Murchison.
Name: The MWA long-term radio sky monitor
Project lead: Dr Martin Bell, University of Sydney
Brief overview: Will survey and identify explosive and variable objects across multiple galaxies - including black holes, flare stars and other objects that we don't yet know about.
Name: Unbiased Solar Observations for Burst, Calibration and Quiet Sun Studies
Project lead: Professor Iver Cairns, University of Sydney
Brief overview: An extensive study of the sun - will include monitoring of solar activity, including solar flares and solar storms.
Professor Steven Tingay, Director of the Murchison Widefield Array, will be available for media interviews on Tuesday 9 July, Wednesday 10 and Thursday 11 July.
Project leaders from the inaugural MWA research programs will also be available and will attend the ASA annual meeting:
Professor Rachel Webster, The University of Melbourne, Epoch of Reionisation (Highest ranked science). Professor Martin Bell, University of Sydney, The MWA long-term radio sky monitor.
Still photography and pool vision
A range of still photography and pool vision is available as well as a selection of audio visual material to support this story.
These can be accessed directly via Dropbox and used with appropriate credits.
To arrange interviews or for further information please contact:
Tel: +61 (0)8 9421 3610
Mob: +61 (0)450 668 048
Tel: +61(0)8 9421 3600
Mob: +61 (0)418 918 202