Greg Hunt

Federal Member for Flinders | Minister for Health | Minister for Sport

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Australian telescope project helps unlock history and secrets of the universe

Monday, 16 January 2017

One of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes, based in the Western Australian outback, has begun processing mind-boggling amounts of data which will help scientists explore the secrets and history of the Universe.

The antennas of CSIRO’s $188 million Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope are now processing 5.2 terabytes of data per second – the equivalent of around 15 per cent of global internet traffic.

ASKAP is a precursor of the global Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project involving 20 countries, to create the largest and most capable radio telescope ever constructed.

This will help scientists answer some of the most fundamental scientific questions about the origins of the universe, such as:

• How were the first black holes and stars formed?
• How do galaxies evolve and what is dark energy?
• What generates giant magnetic fields in space?
• Are we alone in the universe?
• Was Einstein’s theory of general relativity right?

Turning data into images used to take weeks of toil but the revolutionary ASKAP technology does it overnight.

Astronomers are using these observations to look for hydrogen gas – the raw material for making stars – in and around galaxies. This is the first step in making a census of hydrogen in galaxies far back in the Universe’s history.

ASKAP is an incredibly exciting project and once again we see CSIRO research and technology leading the world.

Situated 300 kilometres inland from Geraldton at the one of the quietest places on earth, ASKAP is made of 36 identical 12-metre wide dish antennas that all work together, 12 of which are currently in operation.

The telescope’s antennas feature innovative ‘phased array feed’ technology, specialised radio ‘cameras’ that look at a large area of sky at once, developed by CSIRO for ASKAP.

The phased array feed technology has attracted international interest with CSIRO recently building one under contract for a German institution (the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy) and will supply a second to Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK.

Until now, CSIRO astronomers had been taking data mainly to test how ASKAP performs. Having shown the telescope’s technical excellence, they have now started to gather data that will be used by international project teams for science.

The telescope data is processed on-site by a special-purpose computer then streamed to the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth.

The data is then processed by CSIRO-developed software on the Galaxy supercomputer and recorded to disk, at the rate of 956 gigabytes for each 12-hour observation.

Thirty ASKAP antennas have been fitted with phased array feeds with the rest to follow in 2017.

In the second half of 2017, more than 350 astronomers from over 120 institutions will start to use ASKAP for ten major survey science projects.

Data from ASKAP will complement surveys carried out with Australia’s leading optical telescopes, a synergy that gets the best scientific value from all the projects.

Further information on the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, visit: http://www.ska.gov.au

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