Australian astronomers take on the Universe

MELANIE JOHNSTON-HOLLITT CHAIRS THE NEW ZEALAND SQUARE KILOMETRE ARRAY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT CONSORTIUM. CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE.
MELANIE JOHNSTON-HOLLITT CHAIRS THE NEW ZEALAND SQUARE KILOMETRE ARRAY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT CONSORTIUM. CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE.

The nature of dark energy and dark matter, the processes of star formation, the creation and evolution of galaxies, the origin of cosmic magnetism, the formation of planetary systems, the prospects for extra-terrestrial life—these are just some of the areas of astronomy in which expatriate Australians are playing a significant role.

Travel to just about any country with an active astronomy program, and there you will find Australian astronomers plying their trade. Over the past several decades, the 24 Australian universities with astronomy programs—in collaboration with the nation’s sophisticated telescope facilities—have consistently graduated about 20 astronomers with PhDs each year. With their specialist skills and hands-on training, half of them are quickly snapped up overseas—not a large contingent, but a vital shot-in-the-arm for international collaboration.

Astrobiologist and planetary astronomer Victoria (Vikki) Meadows, for instance, is an associate professor in the University of Washington’s Astronomy Department in the US, and also a Principal Investigator at the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory. Vikki trained at the University of Sydney.

She leads an international team of scientists using the world’s most advanced supercomputers to determine the likely characteristics of habitable planets orbiting other stars. Their work has helped NASA to plan space-based observatories that will search for life on other worlds and planets similar to Earth.

Medium-sized black holes

Expatriate X-ray astronomer Sean Farrell, a PhD graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, specialises in black holes. He led the international team which used the European Space Agency’s XMM Newton X-Ray space telescope to discover in 2008 the first medium-sized black hole ever found. More than 500 times the mass of the sun, it bridged the gap between small black holes and those of the super-massive variety.

Lisa Kewley, until recently a Hubble Fellow at the Institute of Astronomy of the University of Hawai’i, studies the evolution of galaxies from a billion years after the Big Bang. Still in her 30s, she has already won two top American Astronomical Society Awards—the 2005 Annie Jump Canon Award and the 2008 Newton Lacy Pierce Prize—for discovering the links between oxygen and the evolution of galaxies. As a by-product, she calculated that most of the oxygen atoms we breathe today were created five to 12 billion years ago.

Closer to home, Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, an Australian radio astronomer at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, chairs the New Zealand Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Research and Development Consortium, linking New Zealand astronomers, engineers, physicists and other research scientists, industry and government in a conjoint effort with Australia to win and participate in the project.

EMU survey

In her day job, Melanie leads a research group studying the physics of galaxy clusters, the largest gravitationally bound structures in the Universe. Her group is using some of the world’s most powerful radio, optical and X-ray telescopes to establish how these clusters have evolved.

And she also heads one of ten working groups of scientists involved in the Evolutionary Map of the Universe (EMU) projects. This is an all-sky radio survey of the southern sky to commence in 2013 using Australia’s powerful new Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope, now under construction at the site of the proposed SKA in Western Australia (see Australia’s SKA demonstrator already booked out).

Harvey Butcher, Director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories at the Australian National University, Canberra, says the limited number of funded positions in Australia contributes to the expatriate exodus, but also that the facilities of modern astronomy are so expensive astronomers around the world necessarily work in teams, and successful astronomers need to follow the work.

Foundation Director of CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility, CSIRO Research Fellow and past president of the International Astronomical Union Ron Ekers urges Australian astronomers to recognise the competitive advantage of their distinctiveness.

“Australians are so successful overseas not because we’re so clever but because we’re different. The value of internationalism is that we’ve grown up in a different system with a different education and a style of research, where we’ve learned to do things as well as teach them.”

PHOTO: MELANIE JOHNSTON-HOLLITT CHAIRS THE NEW ZEALAND SQUARE KILOMETRE ARRAY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT CONSORTIUM. CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE.

 

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