22 December 2015

There are many unanswered questions about the formation of our universe and the important role stars played in creating solid matter.

However, a new ARC grant will allow researchers in our west to boost their viewing might to make further important discoveries about our universe.

A $1 million ARC Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) scheme grant was recently awarded to researchers at Curtin University of Technology.

Curtin’s Professor Steven Tingay, Director of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), will lead a team to expand the capability of the array.

The $1 million grant enables the number of telescope antennas to be doubled—to 256—and quadruple the footprint of the MWA to 28 square kilometres.

Professor Tingay said the upgrades would make the telescope ten times more powerful in its exploration of the evolution of the universe.

“By increasing the number of telescope antennas and the surface area of the MWA, the telescope will strengthen tenfold, like a weightlifter capable of lifting 100kg suddenly being able to lift 1000kg,” Professor Tingay said.

The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) is a low-frequency radio telescope operating between 80 and 300 MHz. It is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia, the planned site of the future Square Kilometre Array (SKA) lowband telescope, and is one of three telescopes designated as a precursor for the SKA.

The MWA is at the centre of an Australian-led research collaboration that involves 16 organisations from countries including India, New Zealand, and the United States. As a result of the new funding, two new organisations will be added to the MWA consortium: the University of Western Sydney; and the University of Toronto, Canada, increasing the MWA’s national and international reach.

The MWA is designed to look back into the very early history of our universe to when the very first stars formed less than a billion years after the big bang, which took place 
13.8 billion years ago.

At the announcement of the ARC’s major grants in October, Professor Tingay told the audience that the MWA was like a time machine.

“All of the solid matter that you will ever experience in the course of your lives has been created in stars, including all the various bits and pieces that make up you and me.

“The air we breathe, the mineral wealth that we extract from the ground, all created in stars and deposited here on earth when it formed some four and a half billion years ago.

“The MWA is therefore a time machine, sitting in the western Australian desert, designed to look back into the origins of life.”

Professor Tingay and other researchers are using the MWA to tune in to incredibly weak radio signals that have travelled the entire breadth of space to discover fundamental new physical laws, and answer those difficult questions that still linger about the origins of the universe and the nature of matter.

At first glance the array looks like a field of overgrown stationary metallic ants. However, looks can be deceiving!

The data that the array has captured to date is vast and this data capture will only improve with the new expansion.

“The MWA has been operating for almost three years. We’ve produced over seven petabytes of data, which is the equivalent of half a billion hours of high definition video—unprecedented in radio astronomy.

“We store and analyse these data at the new and world leading Pawsey Supercomputing Centre based in Perth.

“We’ve produced over 70 research publications in this time already and have received prestigious awards for publication citation impact (from Thomson Reuters).

“With the upgrade that this grant provides, we will be able to collect even more and better data, helping to advance our understanding of the last unstudied phase of cosmic evolution,” said Professor Tingay.

The new LIEF funding from the ARC will improve the performance of the radio telescope by a factor of ten for less than 5% of the original capital outlay.

“I think that’s pretty good value in anyone’s language,” said Professor Tingay.

Professor Tingay also highlighted the important roles the MWA is playing in building a strong research team for the future and industry application.

The MWA’s success has been possible due to the successful marrying of infrastructure funding with careful building of a “smart, young, enthusiastic, persistent team of researchers” around the science engineering and ICT challenges.

“Some of these people have spread beyond astronomy and now work around the country in other sciences and in industry settings, in particular the rapidly growing area of data analytics.

“This is only possible because we’ve engaged industry partners like CISCO, IBM, NVIDIA and local SMEs early in our design and manufacture process,” he said.

The success is also driven by diverse funding streams, including: the ARC, CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), the NBN (National Broadband Network), NCRIS (National Collaborative Research Infrastructure scheme), EIF (Education Investment Fund), bilateral Australia-India funding, the Western Australia Government, Curtin University of Technology and university partners around the world.

Professor Tingay emphasises that the MWA is only the first step towards a radio telescope 100 times more powerful—the billion dollar Square Kilometre Array.

With ARC funding support, the MWA is helping to lay the foundation for the international “mega-science” infrastructure of the future.

For more information about this research project and the MWA, please visit the MWA website or contact Professor Steven Tingay


Image: MWA Project.
Image courtesy: Curtin University of Technology.