Science and Australia's place in the world

Space collaboration

Page 7 of 10

I’d like now to stretch your minds a little more, to an area of science we will never know enough about, and where Australia’s remoteness and vast distances provide new opportunities - space. 

When I look to the future of communication, data handling and even how we do science, I talk to our astronomers.

Space is the ultimate wireless frontier. Just look at little Voyager 1 spacecraft now about 17 billion kilometres from the Sun - about twice as far away as Pluto - and operating on less than 20 watts of power, similar to the light in a fridge. At NASA’s Deep Space Communication Complex in Tidbinbilla our people still communicate with Voyager 1.

 As our astronomers and deep space communicators listen to these faint signals they are defining the future of wireless communication on earth.

Who would have known that the efforts in the 1970s of our astronomers to listen to the whispers of black holes would have led to the chip technology that permitted the development of the now ubiquitous wireless LAN.

Used in over 1 billion devices and soon to be in over 4.5 billion devices world-wide.

And our vision is expanding.

Almost 20 years ago, scientists had a vision of a telescope so large and so powerful that it could answer some of the most fundamental questions in astronomy and physics.

That vision was the beginning of the Square Kilometre Array project.

The SKA will be the world’s most impressive telescope, linking several thousand antennas together, up to 5000 km apart, to act as one giant telescope. It will be capable of looking back to the dawn of time to observe the first stars and the most distant galaxies.

Australia’s proposed core site for the SKA in Murchison, Western Australia, is in one of the most sparsely populated, radio quiet regions on the planet.

In an exciting development in  May radio telescopes in Parkes, Narrabri, Hobart, Ceduna and  Warkworth in New Zealand and the ASKAP antenna at the Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory linked up to act as one giant telescope.

This was the first time in Australasia that telescopes had been linked over such a distance. This new 5500 km east-west baseline capability has 10 times the resolution of the Hubble telescope and our astronomers have already looked into the heart of a galaxy called Centaurus A. Lurking in this galaxy is a black hole that shoots out jets of radio-emitting particles at close to the speed of light.

The galaxy is more than 14 million light-years distant from us, and making the new image was like photographing the head of a pin from 20 kilometres away.

And if our astronomers are pushing the boundaries of communication they are also pushing computing and data handling.

The multidisciplinary team working on this project will be bringing data never before seen from the sky, at a volume never before managed, to the biggest super computer in the world, using the latest energy technology.


References

Boyle B. 2010. ANZSKA Forum Presentation (unpublished).

ASKAP Science update, October 2010. www.ska.gov.au/media/pubs/Documents/ASKAP_Science_Update_4.pdf [external link].