Just as ecologists are increasing their understanding of the Australian environment through studying Aboriginal stories and talking to tribal Elders, so astronomers are beginning to appreciate Indigenous knowledge of the sky.
When Macquarie University PhD student Duane Hamacher encountered Aboriginal Dreamtime myths involving fiery stars falling to Earth, he decided to see if he could track where these objects had landed. Following several leads, Duane surveyed remote areas of Australia using Google Earth—and discovered a meteor impact site at Palm Valley, about 130 kilometres southwest of Alice Springs. Continue reading Dreaming of the sky→
In 1998, two teams of astronomers —one led by the Australian National University’s Brian Schmidt—independently reached the same conclusion: the expansion of the Universe is not slowing down or petering out, as most people had assumed, it is accelerating.
The discovery has triggered a flurry of activity to understand more about dark energy, the hypothetical driving force pushing the Universe apart counteracting gravity. It has also brought the Nobel Prize for Physics to Schmidt, Adam Riess, and Saul Perlmutter.
Our expanding Universe
“It initially seemed a crazy result,” says Brian Schmidt, the leader of one of the two teams who made the discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. “But we were confident we’d eliminated any errors.”
To calculate the Universe’s rate of expansion, both teams were studying Type Ia supernovae— distant stellar explosions that all appear to have the same intrinsic brightness—as a means of measuring distances across the cosmos. The further away the star, the fainter the stellar explosion appears to us. By combining those distances with the supernovae’s redshifts, where light from receding stars is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum, the astronomers could gauge how fast the Universe was expanding at different stages of its life. Nearby objects, whose light has only been travelling through the Universe for millions of years, were compared to distant objects, the light of which had traversed the Universe for billions of years.
The researchers found that the expansion of the Universe is speeding up. But why? The answer could be ‘dark energy’, a hypothetical energy that fills space and opposes gravity. But its nature remains a mystery.
“We don’t know what it is,” says Brian. “And there are still lingering questions of whether it could be that Einstein’s general relativity equations are wrong in some weird way. One of the things we will be doing over the next 5-10 years here in Australia is testing how gravity works over long distances. If gravity works a little differently to how we think it does, we should get a different answer.”
For their theory-shattering result, Schmidt and his team, along with the second team lead by Saul Perlmutter at the University of California, Berkeley, have not only been recognised by the Nobel committee. They have also won the US$500,000 Gruber Cosmology Prize in 2007 and the US$1 million Shaw Prize in 2006 amongst many honours.
PHOTO 1: TYCHO’S SUPERNOVA REMNANT. CREDIT: NASA/MPIA/CALAR ALTO OBSERVATORY, OLIVER KRAUSE ET AL.
PHOTO 2: PRIME MINISTER JULIA GILLARD CONGRATULATES BRIAN SCHMIDT ON HIS 2011 NOBEL PRIZE FOR PHYSICS. CREDIT: PRIME MINISTER’S SCIENCE PRIZES/IRENE DOWDY.
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).
Born from astronomy… Looking to a star-studded future
In 1768 the British Admiralty sent Captain James Cook to the Pacific to monitor the transit of the planet Venus across the Sun. On his way home to England, Cook mapped Australia’s east coast, and claimed New South Wales.
For about 40,000 years before that, the indigenous peoples of Australia had been developing remarkably sophisticated explanations of the workings of the Southern Sky.
And in the 20th Century, an independent Australia was at the forefront of radio astronomy, receiving the first signals from the Moon.
Today Australian astronomers continue to unravel the mysteries of the southern sky.
Stories of Australian Astronomy 2012 is a collection of stories of Australian astronomy from Science in Public.
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