Murchison telescope goes live in outback WA

By AAP with AG staff 10 July 2013
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A powerful new telescope aims to detect solar storms and offer glimpses into the early universe.

ASTRONOMERS ARE PREPARING for a wave of revelations, following the launch of the $51 million Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope in Western Australia this week.

The MWA, which was officially opened on Tuesday, is part of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in a remote part of the state’s mid-west, where radio frequency interference is almost non-existent.

The MWA is a precursor to the $2 billion international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio astronomy project. It comprises 2048 antennas that capture low frequency radio waves – some more than 13 billion years old – allowing scientists to image the first stars and galaxies to form after the Big Bang.

New telescope the ‘frontier of astronomical science’

The MWA will also step up observations of the Sun to detect and monitor massive solar storms, offering an early warning system that could save billions of dollars for countries threatened with a loss of power. Another MWA program will investigate the possibility that stray FM radio signals can be used to track dangerous space debris.

“Each of these programs has the potential to change our understanding about the universe,” says Professor Steven Tingay, MWA director and a radio astronomer at Curtin University in Perth. “Right now we are standing at the frontier of astronomical science.”

The low-frequency portion of the SKA will eventually have 2.5 million antennas, but in the meantime, the much smaller MWA is already producing breathtaking insights.

Murchison Widefield Array offers extreme clarity of images

Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker, who is responsible for imaging and calibration at the MWA, says data that has been produced in the past few days is already leaps ahead of what has come before it.

Supernova remnants, which looked like blobs using last year’s instruments, now appear as glowing gas clouds.

“It’s an extremely exciting development,” Natasha says. “This first data is a glimpse of what we’ll be able to see with the SKA. We’ll have much better resolution and more frequency coverage – it’s a much bigger instrument – but all of the data that we’re looking at now will have the same challenges that we’ll have to overcome with the SKA.”

Challenges, Natasha explains, include ionospheric turbulence, a symptom of working at such low frequencies, which can produced distorted images.

With the new clarity of images, Natasha says her team is preparing to capture a significant event in September.

“There’s a gas cloud that’s about to fall into a supermassive black hole at our galaxy centre,” Natasha explains. “We should see a huge flare of radiation from the centre of the galaxy as that gas flare gets swallowed up.”