24 December 2013

How fast is our universe expanding? How old is it? How many stars are being formed in distant galaxies? These are all questions that hope to be answered following Australian Government investment in new research infrastructure.

Australian universities recently received almost $32 million for 63 new research projects from the Australian Government for important infrastructure and equipment through the Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) scheme.

Minister for Education, Hon Christopher Pyne MP, announced the funding on 8 November at a ceremony in Adelaide and noted the importance of providing our researchers with the tools they need to undertake their research and make world-first discoveries.

A $350 000 grant to the Australian National University will support the construction of the TAIPAN—a high-performance spectrograph which, through the use of the UK Schmidt Telescope, will survey the southern sky and measure the rate at which gas is being converted into stars.

Professor Matthew Colless is the lead chief investigator on the project and said at the announcement that the 25 researchers from 12 institutions involved in the project aim to give Australians a great return on this investment.

He said TAIPAN will answer many questions about our universe by enabling the largest spectroscopic survey of the Southern Hemisphere.

"It will look at two million stars in the Milky Way and half a million galaxies beyond.

"It will quadruple the number of both stars and galaxies that have been surveyed previously.

"TAIPAN will map the large scale structure of the universe. It will look at it in unprecedented detail and measure its expansion rate, and thereby measure its age.

"It will do so with a precision of 1%, which is four to five times better than the best existing independent measurements."

Professor Colless said TAIPAN will also give us new information on the nature of the mysterious dark energy—the strange force which is accelerating the expansion of our universe.

"For the first time we hope to usefully discriminate between theories that try to explain this dark energy and understand the physical origin of this effect."

The new LIEF research projects will commence next year and universities will collaborate with 84 organisations and industry partners from across the globe as part of that research. Collaborating organisations will also contribute cash and in-kind to these projects to the value of more than $64 million.

The LIEF scheme enables higher education researchers to participate in cooperative initiatives so that expensive infrastructure, equipment and facilities can be shared between higher education organisations and also with industry. The scheme also fosters collaboration through its support of the cooperative use of international or national research facilities.

For more information about these funding outcomes please visit the ARC website or view the media announcement kit.


Image: Pleiades the Seven Sisters. Image Courtesy: ©iStockphoto.com / Manfred_Konrad