Do you know exactly where you are?

Kan Wang from Curtin University. Image credit: Ross Swanborough

We all rely on GPS to tell us where we are and where we’re going. The US government’s global network of 30+ satellites guides planes, ships, cars, tractors and much more. The latest GPS systems can provide mm- to cm-accuracy using advanced equipment and technique.

But GPS isn’t the only game in town. There are other global systems, and regional systems that we can tap into.

Curtin University researchers have explored the potential of regional navigation satellite systems (RNSSs) for Western Australian users. Two such systems are the QZSS operated by Japan and the IRNSS operated by India.

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Kimberley corals are true Aussie battlers

Zoe collecting samples for further molecular analysis. Photo WA Museum
Zoe colleacting samples for further molecular analysis. Photo WA Museum

While coral reefs around the world are feeling the heat, little-known reefs in Australia’s Kimberley region are prospering, despite living in some of the toughest conditions—and scientists aren’t yet sure why.

The discovery has particular significance this summer with fears of a severe coral bleaching event to hit our northern waters—the result of steadily rising sea temperatures and a strong seasonal El Niño.

WA researchers have found that while coral reefs all around the world are feeling the heat of rising temperatures, some inshore reefs in the Kimberley region’s Bonaparte Archipelago are prospering, despite living in some of the toughest conditions. Continue reading Kimberley corals are true Aussie battlers

Citizen science: eyes in the skies and on the seas

Australian citizen scientists are helping to catch shooting stars in the vast skies of outback Australia and to track the impact of climate change on species in our warming oceans.

Kevin Wilson recorded a Red Emperor 300 km further south than previously recorded. Credit: Kevin Wilson

Curtin University’s Fireballs in the Sky project invites people to use a smartphone app to record and submit the time, location, trajectory and appearance of meteors they spot.

By triangulating these reports with observations from an array of cameras in remote Western and South Australia, scientists can try to determine where the meteorite may have come from and where it landed.

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Mill mapper keeps mines working

If your pepper mill wears out, it’s annoying. But for mines it’s disastrous when their grinders can no longer smash rocks, often costing them $100,000 an hour in downtime.

Photo: Scanalyse/Outotec won the Eureka Prize for Commercialisation of Innovation for their innovative laser scanning technology that measures wear and tear in key mining equipment. Credit: ScienceNetworkWA/Eureka Winners via YouTube

Now, a three-dimensional laser system, which takes 10 million measurements in 30 minutes, can take over the dangerous work of manually evaluating mining machinery conditions.

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Telescope of tiles

No moving parts – a new kind of radio telescope
The Murchison Widefield Array is a telescope with no moving parts. Credit: David Herne, ICRAR

Far outback in Western Australia, 32 tiles—flat, stationary sensors—each carrying 16 dipole antennas have begun collecting scientific data.

These first tiles will ultimately form part of a much bigger array of 512 tiles, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA)—Australia’s second Square Kilometre Array (SKA) demonstrator project. Like CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP), the MWA is being built at the remote, radio-quiet Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO). Continue reading Telescope of tiles

Looking forward to the Square Kilometre Array

Big science tackling the big questions

The race is on to win the right for Australia to host the biggest telescope project that the world has ever seen. Known as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), it will consist of thousands of separate radio dishes and other antennas spread across an area the size of a continent.

CSIRO’S NEW ASKAP ANTENNAS AT THE MURCHISON RADIO-ASTRONOMY OBSERVATORY (MRO) IN WESTERN AUSTRALIA, 2010. CREDIT: WA DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE.
CSIRO’S NEW ASKAP ANTENNAS AT THE MURCHISON RADIO-ASTRONOMY OBSERVATORY (MRO) IN WESTERN AUSTRALIA, 2010. CREDIT: WA DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE.

Merging the signals received by each of the antennas will effectively produce one giant antenna hundreds or thousands of kilometres wide—providing the sharpest-ever pictures of the sky, along with incredible sensitivity to faint signals.

A combined Australia-New Zealand effort— ‘Team anzSKA’—is competing with a southern African-based group of countries for the right to host the facility. Team anzSKA comprises the Australian Government, the New Zealand Government, CSIRO and the Government of Western Australia.

If successful, the core of the facility will be at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) site in remote Western Australia, about 300 kilometres northeast of Geraldton; but hundreds of the antennas will be scattered across Australia and New Zealand.

Australian scientists are confident that the anzSKA bid will have what it takes to win the hosting rights. “Our candidate core SKA site in outback Western Australia offers the outstanding radio quietness needed to maximise the scientific potential of the SKA,” explains Brian Boyle, SKA Project Director for Australia and New Zealand. “To capture the faint radio signals of the cosmos, a radio telescope as sensitive as the SKA needs almost perfect radio quietness,” Brian notes. “Radio noise, the bane of radio astronomers, is typically generated by human activity and the use of roads, railways, farm equipment, home electrical devices, radios and mobile phones. The MRO is the ideal environment for the SKA— naturally radio quiet and located in a region where population density and activity is extremely low.”

With up to 50 times the sensitivity and 10,000 times the survey speed of current radio telescopes, the $2.5-billion SKA will be the world’s landmark astronomical facility for the first half of the 21st century, driving innovations in antenna technology, signal transmission and processing, and super-computing.

The facility will enable researchers to tackle numerous outstanding problems in astrophysics, with particular emphasis on five key projects:

  • studying the extreme environments of pulsars and black holes to put Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity, to its most exacting test yet
  • understanding how the three major components of the Universe—matter, dark matter and dark energy—have evolved
  • investigating the end of the cosmic ‘Dark Ages,’ when the first black holes and stars appeared
  • probing for places and conditions where life might have arisen elsewhere in the Universe, and
  • examining the origin and evolution of one of the Universe’s most enigmatic features— cosmic magnetism.

“The SKA will help unlock some of the biggest mysteries of the Universe—but more intriguingly, it is likely to make future discoveries that we can’t even begin to imagine,” says Brian, summing up the scientific potential of the SKA.

The SKA will be an international facility, funded by all the member countries. A final decision on the winning proposal will be made in 2012. Construction will begin in the second half of this decade, with completion expected by the mid-2020s.

However, astronomers won’t have to wait that long to start using powerful new radio telescopes. As part of the ‘run off’ to host the SKA, the two competitors are each building demonstrator facilities. In southern Africa it is MeerKat. In Australia, two key demonstrators are being built: CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP); and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), which is run by a consortium of universities and managed by Curtin University in Perth. Both will be located at the MRO.

PHOTO: CSIRO’S NEW ASKAP ANTENNAS AT THE MURCHISON RADIO-ASTRONOMY OBSERVATORY (MRO) IN WESTERN AUSTRALIA, 2010. CREDIT: WA DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE.

CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science
Tony Crawshaw, Tel: +61 (2) 9372 4528, Tony.Crawshaw@csiro.au, www.ska.gov.au

Also in this section:

Australia’s SKA demonstrator already booked out
Tracing cosmic rays from radio pulses
Managing a data mountain
Telescope of tiles

The art of astronomy

THE BEYOND VISIBILITY: LIGHT AND DUST EXHIBITION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY, SYDNEY GALLERY. CREDIT: PAUL PAVLOU AND UTS GALLERY.
THE BEYOND VISIBILITY: LIGHT AND DUST EXHIBITION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY, SYDNEY GALLERY. CREDIT: PAUL PAVLOU AND UTS GALLERY.

The fact that we are a tiny part of an awe-inspiring universe is all too apparent at night in the rural and remote parts of Australia. Skies crammed with glittering stars, planets, galaxies, comets, meteorites and cosmic dust surround us. That’s why, from the earliest times, astronomy has been a formative element in Australian culture. It calls forth—demands—a response, and has been a significant source of inspiration to artists.

The Aboriginal peoples were among the world’s first astronomers, naming constellations and tracking them across the sky. They recorded and used their observations for navigation, and they timed and followed the seasons using the positions of the stars and planets (see Dreaming of the Sky). Not surprisingly, the night sky figures large in their visual arts.

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Seeing fish through rocks

Dr Kate Trinajstic has used synchrotron light and CT scanning to see through rock, in the process discovering how ancient fish developed teeth, jaws and even a womb. Her work is increasing our understanding of how life on Earth evolved.

Seeing fish through rocks
The winner of the 2010 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, Kate Trinajstic. Credit: Ron D’Raine
About 380 million years ago in what is now the Kimberley Ranges in Western Australia, a vast barrier reef formed. In what would have been the inter-reef basins, large numbers of fish were buried relatively intact. Protective limestone balls formed around them and preserved them. When these balls are treated with acetic acid, the main component of vinegar, the surrounding rock dissolves, leaving only fossilised fish bones.

But in the course of studying hundreds of these dissolving balls, Kate began to see what looked like muscle fibres between the bones. She was eventually able to convince her colleagues that irreplaceable soft tissue detail was being lost in the acid treatments.
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No moving parts – a new kind of radio telescope

Murchison Widefield Array
The Murchison Widefield Array is one of the first telescopes with no moving parts. Credit: David Herne, ICRAR

Far outback in Western Australia, at the Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory located on Boolardy Station, 315 km north-east of Geraldton, 32 tiles each carrying 16 dipole antennas have begun to collect scientific data on the Sun. At the same time they are providing engineering information to be used to extend the facility to a much bigger array of 512 tiles – the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA).

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Rapid expansion in NZ and WA astronomy

Teams from Australia, India and North America are collaborating to creat the Murchison Widefield Array Radio Telescope. Credit: David Herne, ICRAR
Teams from Australia, India and North America are collaborating to create the Murchison Widefield Array radio telescope. Credit: David Herne, ICRAR

Western Australia’s International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) is only three months old but is rapidly expanding—much like the early Universe. ICRAR’s scientists have ambitious projects ahead contributing to global science and engineering through the SKA.

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