Tracing cosmic rays from radio pulses

‘THE DISH’ AT PARKES. CREDIT: SETH SHOSTAK
‘THE DISH’ AT PARKES. CREDIT: SETH SHOSTAK

The energy of ultra-high energy (UHE) cosmic rays that strike the Earth’s atmosphere make the energy produced from particle collisions by the Large Hadron Collider look puny. A team based in South Australia is now developing the techniques and technology to find out where such energetic particles could possibly originate. They ultimately hope to use the proposed SKA telescope to conduct their search.

“We think some cosmic rays are produced in the remnants of supernovae—exploding stars—but where the most energetic ones come from, that’s a mystery,” says Justin Bray, a PhD student hunting for their source as part of the LUNASKA (Lunar Ultra-high-energy Neutrino Astrophysics using SKA) project led by Ray Protheroe at the University of Adelaide and Ron Ekers at CSIRO. Continue reading Tracing cosmic rays from radio pulses

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

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

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

Profiling and fingerprinting the stars

This story continues from Galactic archaeology— digging into the Milky Way’s past

RAVE PROJECT MANAGER, FRED WATSON, WITH THE UK SCHMIDT TELESCOPE. CREDIT: SHAUN AMY.
RAVE PROJECT MANAGER, FRED WATSON, WITH THE UK SCHMIDT TELESCOPE. CREDIT: SHAUN AMY.

But already, another Australian-led innovation in astronomical instrumentation is providing researchers with the critical information they need to understand the motions of stars within different parts of our galaxy, such as its main body, the bulging core, and the extended halo that surrounds it. Researchers are also searching for evidence of galactic cannibalism—swarms of stars that could be remnants of dwarf galaxies consumed by the Milky Way.

The innovation, called the 6dF instrument, is being used by a multinational consortium, the RAdial Velocity Experiment (RAVE), to measure the radial velocities of more than half a million stars. It is mounted on the Australian National University’s UK Schmidt Telescope at Siding Spring in New South Wales. Radial velocity is movement toward or away from the observer along the light of sight, as distinct from motion across the line of sight. The survey, which began in 2003, will be completed in 2011. Continue reading Profiling and fingerprinting the stars

Galactic archaeology— digging into the Milky Way’s past

ASTRONOMERS ARE HUNTING ‘FOSSIL’ STARS FROM GALAXIES DEVOURED BY THE MILKY WAY CREDIT: HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM (AURA/STSCI/NASA/ESA)
ASTRONOMERS ARE HUNTING ‘FOSSIL’ STARS FROM GALAXIES DEVOURED BY THE MILKY WAY CREDIT: HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM (AURA/STSCI/NASA/ESA)

Ken Freeman is hunting for fossils. But he’s not looking for old bones—he’s exploring the very origin and history of our Milky Way galaxy.

Conventional theory says that our galaxy grew big by engulfing smaller ones. If this is correct, stars from the original galaxies should be still identifiable within the main mass of stars via several tell-tale signs, from unusual velocities to spectral types. These stellar fossils would point to the galaxy’s birth and growth. Continue reading Galactic archaeology— digging into the Milky Way’s past

Nurturing super astronomers at home

SUPER SCIENCE FELLOW DR JAMES ALLISON AT NARRABRI DURING AN OBSERVING RUN AT THE AUSTRALIA TELESCOPE COMPACT ARRAY. CREDIT: ANANT TANNA.
SUPER SCIENCE FELLOW DR JAMES ALLISON AT NARRABRI DURING AN OBSERVING RUN AT THE AUSTRALIA TELESCOPE COMPACT ARRAY. CREDIT: ANANT TANNA.

Advanced telescopes need advanced astronomers to run them. Australia is matching the millions of dollars it is investing in new telescope technology with funds to help train the rising stars of Australian astronomy.

“We’ve had big investments in infrastructure, and now we need young scientists with the expertise to use them,” says Elaine Sadler, professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sydney and chair of the National Committee for Astronomy.

One new tranche of research funding for early career astronomers comes in the form of three-year Super Science Fellowships from the Commonwealth Government. In 2011, 14 young astronomers became Super Science Fellows, joining the 17 who started work in 2010. All up, astronomy will receive one-third of the Federal Government’s $27 million commitment to the Fellowships program. Continue reading Nurturing super astronomers at home

Is the Red Rectangle a cosmic Rosetta Stone?

THE RED RECTANGLE IS A PECULIAR NEBULA WITH SOME STRANGE CHEMICAL PROPERTIES. CREDIT: NASA/ESA/ HANS VAN WINCKEL (CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF LEUVEN) /MARTIN COHEN (UCB).
THE RED RECTANGLE IS A PECULIAR NEBULA WITH SOME STRANGE CHEMICAL PROPERTIES. CREDIT: NASA/ESA/ HANS VAN WINCKEL (CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF LEUVEN) /MARTIN COHEN (UCB).

Cracking the puzzle of unusual molecules in deep space that absorb some wavelengths of starlight is like unlocking the secrets of the Rosetta Stone, according to Rob Sharp of the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “It’s the longest-standing problem in astronomical spectroscopy,” he says.

The identity of the molecules has been a mystery for 80 years, but Rob has now joined forces with chemists at the University of Sydney to try to crack the molecular code. Continue reading Is the Red Rectangle a cosmic Rosetta Stone?

SkyMapper’s 268-megapixel camera

On a mountaintop in northern New South Wales sits a new telescope equipped with Australia’s largest digital camera. The Australian National University’s (ANU) SkyMapper facility has been established at Siding Spring Observatory to conduct the most comprehensive optical survey yet of the southern sky.

Fully automated, the telescope is measuring the shape, brightness and spectral type of over a billion stars and galaxies, down to one million times fainter than the eye can see.

SKYMAPPER AT SIDING SPRING, NORTHERN NEW SOUTH WALES. CREDIT: AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY.

Continue reading SkyMapper’s 268-megapixel camera