All posts by Niall

Managing a data mountain

The world’s largest telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), is expected to generate more data in a single day than the world does in a year at present. And even its prototype, CSIRO’s ASKAP, is expected to accumulate more information within six hours of being switched on than all previous radio telescopes combined.

Such gargantuan streams of data require serious management, and that will be one of the jobs of the $80 million iVEC Pawsey Centre in Perth, which is due to be completed in 2013.

The planned Pawsey High-Performance Computing Centre for SKA Science in Perth (photo credit: Woodhead/CSIRO)

Continue reading Managing a data mountain

Putting Einstein to the ultimate test

CSIRO’s Parkes telescope records pulsar signals to try to detect gravitational waves. Credit: David McClenaghan / CSIRO

Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicts them, and they could be scattered throughout the Universe. But so far, gravitational waves— ‘ripples’ in the fabric of space and time—have never been detected. Several Australian teams of astronomers are trying to catch the first signs of one.

Continue reading Putting Einstein to the ultimate test

Mega star nursery gives birth to new knowledge

THE MASSIVE DENSE CLOUD OF HYDROGEN (SHOWN BY THE RED CONTOURS), CALLED BYF73, APPEARS TO BE COLLAPSING IN ON ITSELF DUE TO GRAVITY, FORMING HUGE PROTOSTARS (SEEN AS RED)
THE MASSIVE DENSE CLOUD OF HYDROGEN (SHOWN BY THE RED CONTOURS), CALLED BYF73, APPEARS TO BE COLLAPSING IN ON ITSELF DUE TO GRAVITY, FORMING HUGE PROTOSTARS (SEEN AS RED)

Enormous collapsing clouds of cosmic gas and dust may yield clues on how massive stars form, which is an enduring mystery of astronomy.

One such cloud, called BYF73, has been studied by a research team using CSIRO’s Mopra radio telescope. Peter Barnes, an Australian researcher working at the University of Florida in the US, leads the team. The massive hydrogen cloud is collapsing in on itself and will probably form a huge cluster of young stars. Continue reading Mega star nursery gives birth to new knowledge

Recording the impact of a super-massive black hole

PARTICLES EMITTING RADIO WAVES STREAM MILLIONS OF LIGHT-YEARS INTO SPACE FROM THE HEART OF THE GALAXY CENTAURUS A. CREDIT: ILANA FEAIN, TIM CORNWELL & RON EKERS (CSIRO). ATCA NORTHERN MIDDLE LOBE POINTING COURTESY R. MORGANTI (ASTRON), PARKES DATA COURTESY N. JUNKES (MPIFR).
PARTICLES EMITTING RADIO WAVES STREAM MILLIONS OF LIGHT-YEARS INTO SPACE FROM THE HEART OF THE GALAXY CENTAURUS A. CREDIT: ILANA FEAIN, TIM CORNWELL & RON EKERS (CSIRO). ATCA NORTHERN MIDDLE LOBE POINTING COURTESY R. MORGANTI (ASTRON), PARKES DATA COURTESY N. JUNKES (MPIFR).

At the centre of a nearby galaxy lurks an object of huge interest, a super-massive black hole. CSIRO scientists have used their radio telescopes to take a picture of the galaxy surrounding it, a task some thought could not be done, because of the sheer size and radio brightness of the scene. The image of Centaurus A took about 1,200 hours of observations and a further 10,000 hours of computer processing to put together, but the work is already beginning to bear fruit.

“We didn’t generate this image just to make a pretty picture,” says lead scientist Ilana Feain of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science. “We want to understand in detail how the energy from super-massive black holes influences the formation and evolution of their host galaxies.” Continue reading Recording the impact of a super-massive black hole

Alice Springs—gateway to the stars

A BALLOON LAUNCH AT ALICE SPRINGS. CREDIT: R. SOOD.
A BALLOON LAUNCH AT ALICE SPRINGS. CREDIT: R. SOOD.

Scientists are using the unique advantages of Australia’s Red Centre to conduct high-altitude balloon flights for astronomical research. The clear air and low population of central Australia make it the ideal location for balloon-based research.

For most types of astronomy, observatories are typically built high on the tops of mountains, far out in space or high in the sky, dangling from 150-metre-tall helium balloons. Continue reading Alice Springs—gateway to the stars

Japanese spacecraft calls Australia home

AN ARTIST’S IMPRESSION OF THE HAYABUSA SPACECRAFT APPROACHING THE ASTEROID ITOKAWA. CREDIT: A. IKESHITA/MEF/ISAS.
AN ARTIST’S IMPRESSION OF THE HAYABUSA SPACECRAFT APPROACHING THE ASTEROID ITOKAWA. CREDIT: A. IKESHITA/MEF/ISAS.

On 13 June 2010, a Japanese spacecraft bearing pieces of another world parachuted down to Australian soil after a seven-year-long journey through deep space.

During its journey, the spacecraft, called Hayabusa, encountered the 530-metre-long asteroid called Itokawa in November 2005, and briefly landed on it. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) designed Hayabusa to collect samples of the asteroid’s surface. Hayabusa then landed at the Department of Defence’s remote Woomera Prohibited Area in the South Australian desert. Fifty years ago, Woomera was one of the most active rocket launch sites in the world. It is still the largest land-based test range on the planet. Continue reading Japanese spacecraft calls Australia home

A student’s out-of-this­-world experience

DANIEL TRAN RECEIVING A FRAMED PRINT OF HIS OBJECT OF FASCINATION, THE GLOWING EYE NEBULA.CREDIT: DAVID MARSHALL.
DANIEL TRAN RECEIVING A FRAMED PRINT OF HIS OBJECT OF FASCINATION, THE GLOWING EYE NEBULA.CREDIT: DAVID MARSHALL.

Daniel Tran, a year ten student at PAL College in Cabramatta, a suburb in southwestern Sydney, has photographed the Glowing Eye Nebula, a ghostly cloud of gas that has lasted at least 3,000 years and surrounds a dying star some 7,000 light years from Earth.

Daniel took the photograph using one of the world’s biggest telescopes—the giant 8.1­metre Gemini South telescope in Chile, in which Australia has a 6.2 per cent share. His precious hour’s worth of observing time on the telescope was the 2009 prize for winning the Australian Gemini School Astronomy Contest, which aims to inspire the next generation of Australian astronomers by involving students in the process of real astronomy at a major professional facility. Continue reading A student’s out-of-this­-world experience

Bringing undiscovered Earths into focus

USING A NEW OBSERVATORY BEING BUILT NORTH OF HOBART, RESEARCHERS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TASMANIA ARE GEARING UP TO FIND WHETHER THE UNIVERSE HARBOURS MORE PLANETS LIKE EARTH. CREDIT: JOHN GREENHILL, UNIVERSITY OF TASMANIA.
USING A NEW OBSERVATORY BEING BUILT NORTH OF HOBART, RESEARCHERS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TASMANIA ARE GEARING UP TO FIND WHETHER THE UNIVERSE HARBOURS MORE PLANETS LIKE EARTH. CREDIT: JOHN GREENHILL, UNIVERSITY OF TASMANIA.

How many of the planets scattered across the Universe have the potential to harbour life? An observatory being built in Tasmania is poised to help answer just that question.

Astronomers at the University of Tasmania (UTas) currently use the Mount Canopus Observatory in Hobart to search for Earth-like planets orbiting distant suns—but the growing city is compromising the observatory’s view of space. “Light is driving us away,” says John Greenhill, the Observatory’s director. Continue reading Bringing undiscovered Earths into focus

An amateur crashes onto the scene

THE DARK SPOT ON JUPITER FIRST DISCOVERED BY AMATEUR ASTRONOMER ANTHONY WESLEY, AS PHOTOGRAPHED BY THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE ON 23 JULY 2010. CREDIT: NASA/ESA/H. HAMMEL (SPACE SCIENCE INSTITUTE, BOULDER, COLO.)/THE JUPITER IMPACT TEAM.
THE DARK SPOT ON JUPITER FIRST DISCOVERED BY AMATEUR ASTRONOMER ANTHONY WESLEY, AS PHOTOGRAPHED BY THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE ON 23 JULY 2010. CREDIT: NASA/ESA/H. HAMMEL (SPACE SCIENCE INSTITUTE, BOULDER, COLO.)/THE JUPITER IMPACT TEAM.

Modern astronomy seems dominated by huge, expensive and powerful machines staffed by highly trained professionals. Yet significant findings can still be made by people like Anthony Wesley, a computer software engineer and amateur astronomer who lives just north of Canberra.

About 12.40 am on 20 July 2009, Anthony—who loves to keep an eye on Jupiter with his 14.5 inch (36.83 cm) diameter reflecting telescope— noticed a small black spot near the south pole of his favourite planet. It was in the wrong place and the wrong size to be a moon, he says, and also it was moving too slowly. In fact, it was moving at the same pace as a nearby storm. Continue reading An amateur crashes onto the scene

Stellar immigration

DUNCAN FORBES IS IDENTIFYING ALIEN STARS. CREDIT: PAUL JONES.

If the Milky Way did grow by swallowing up smaller galaxies, then another team suspects it knows where in the Milky Way some of those alien stars are hiding.

Duncan Forbes of Swinburne University of Technology and his Canadian colleague Terry Bridges are using Hubble Space Telescope data to identify clusters of alien stars, using the fact that their age and chemical composition differs from their neighbours.

Continue reading Stellar immigration