On this day: Compact Array unveiled

By Jacqueline Outred 7 November 2013
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
One of the world’s most sophisticated radio telescopes was opened in New South Wales.

One of the world’s most sophisticated radio telescopes was opened in New South Wales.

ON 2 SEPTEMBER 1988 then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke drove a large satellite dish along sliding tracks to celebrate the opening of the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) – the only one of its kind to in the Southern Hemisphere to date.

A crowd had gathered at the site 24km west of Narrabri in NSW to witness this significant moment in Australia’s scientific history.

The telescope has run constantly since then and is used exclusively for scientific research, rather than any military activity. Astronomers still come from all over the world to use the facility because of its unique ability to study the southern sky.

By collecting radio-wave data that is emitted from space, the compact array can provide detailed images of other galaxies, sometimes millions of light years away.

Most sophisticated southern radio telescope

Ron Ekers, the first director of the Australia Telescope National Facility, explains that creating an image from radio waves collected by the compact array, is like creating a hologram. “The image improves in quality each time you change the distance between the telescopes,” he said when he spoke to Australian Geographic recently.

The final stages of construction of the Australia Telescope Compact Array in 1988. (Credit: CSIRO)

All six telescopes in the compact array are movable along railway-like tracks. The tracks run east to west as well as north to south, making many configurations possible.

This mobility makes the ATCA one of the most sophisticated telescopes in the world.

Bob Frater, who was the chief of the CSIRO Division of Radio Physics at the time, lead the project. “[Before the Compact Array] radio astronomy was in a fairly sad state,” he says.

The southern sky, which can only be observed from the Southern Hemisphere, was lacking an instrument that was capable of finding its far flung secrets with detailed radio images.

After World War II, for a time Australia was a world-leader in radio astronomy. But, by the ’80s investment had slowed, Australia was no longer competitive with nations like the United States.

Renewing investment in radio technology in Australia was part of Bob Frater’s vision. “We started thinking about how we could put together a concept that would be saleable and that would deliver some real benefits in astronomy,” says Bob.

Proving Australia’s technological expertise

Delivering benefits to Australian industry was also a priority. “We particularly wanted the technologies involved to be able to flow into other application areas such as satellite dishes for telecommunications work,” he adds.

The ATCA was manufactured almost solely in Australia and the technologies developed were taken into south-east Asia to establish telecommunication networks in the ’90s.

The success of the project proved Australia had the capability in developing world-class technology onshore, says Ron. “It demonstrated that we have the technical and engineering capability to build the most sophisticated instruments that are being built anywhere in the world.”

Each year, 500 scientists come from all over the world to conduct research on the southern skies using the Compact Array.

– Jacqueline Outred