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The challenge

Speeding up radio astronomy

Radio telescopes use specialised cameras, called receivers, to detect and amplify faint radio waves from space. Most of these cameras only see a small part of the sky at once, which makes surveying large parts of the sky a time-consuming process.

For more than a decade we've been developing receivers with a larger field-of-view, and these have been used on our own Parkes radio telescope as well as other world-leading instruments.

Our response

Phased array feeds – a radical new approach to radio astronomy

For our newest radio telescope, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder – ASKAP, we've developed innovative 'phased array feed' receivers with a wide field-of-view.

[Image of four radio telescopes under a night sky appears on screen]

Narrator: Since humans first looked skyward the star filled heavens have been a source of constant fascination and amazement, inspiring us to better understand the cosmos, as well as our place within it.

[CSIRO logo appears as image changes to an aerial view of a CSIRO building situation in a remote desert location]

Australia's CSIRO has long supported this quest for understanding, developing innovative technologies for radio astronomy, a key science that allows investigation in to the complex history of the universe. [Image changes to different pictures of radio telescopes and different CSIRO staff members]

For more than 60 years our engineers and technicians have worked together in developing leading edge technologies needed to receive, amplify and process the cosmic radio waves that travel through the incomprehensible distances of space. [Image changes to a picture of space, then back to a beaming radio telescope]

A key challenge facing radio astronomers is the limited region of sky that can be seen by conventional telescope receivers at any one particular time.

[Image changes to show different shots of the new receiver]

Now, we've developed a revolutionary new receiver, the Phased Array Feed, or PAF, that will address this challenge. It will open up an antenna's field of view and increase survey speeds by more than a factor of 20. [Image changes to Dr Lewis Ball, Chief, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science]

Dr Ball: The Phased Array Feeds will revolutionise all of radio astronomy by offering us the opportunity view a large part of the sky all at once, and to survey the entire sky very quickly and repeatedly.

We'll just be able to get a totally different perspective on the universe that we're a part of.

[Image changes to Dr Stuart Hay, Principal Research Scientist CSIRO]

We're opening up a new area of technology with this innovation that has this ability to operate over a very large frequency range with full sampling of the electro-magnetic wave front. It combines electro-magnetics, electronics of low noise devices that are embedded in to this antenna, and also real time digital signal processing. [Image changes to show Dr Ball and a colleague at work on the receiver] There's no receiving technology of this form at the moment, and it will enable astronomy programmes that would take ten years to be completed in a matter of months. [Image changes to Dr Iain Collings, Research Program Leader CSIRO]

Dr Collings: Certainly it's attracted people already to Australia, through the Square Kilometre Array programme. But well beyond that, the other applications and the spin-offs of the technology include medical imaging of the human body, security and surveillance applications, and a whole range of other areas. And that's a challenge that an engineer just loves, because its cutting edge new research, and it's practical.

[Image changes back to show the four radio telescopes under a night sky]

Narrator: The PAF will transform the way we survey the sky, and have a major impact, enabling breakthroughs in the way we understand the universe.

[CSIRO logo appears]

PAFs are one of leading edge technologies we're developing to receive, amplify and process the cosmic radio waves that travel through space.

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Each phased array feed is made up of 188 individual receivers, positioned in a chequerboard-like arrangement. Alongside the receivers are low-noise amplifiers, which greatly enhance the weak radio wave signals received. These components are housed in a water-tight case mounted at the focal point above each of ASKAP's antennas. Together with specialised digital systems developed for ASKAP, the phased array feeds create 36 separate (simultaneous) beams to give a field-of-view of 30 square degrees on the sky.

Phased array feeds have been fitted to ASKAP's 36 antennas and commissioning results have been outstanding. This pioneering technology makes ASKAP the fastest radio telescope in the world for surveying the sky, taking panoramic snapshots over 100 times the size of the full Moon.

ASKAP is also able to detect extremely distant objects, including a recently-discovered galaxy 5 billion light years away. It's also produced the best radio image yet of the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that is slowly merging with the Milky Way.

Along with colleagues in The Netherlands, Canada and the USA we're also developing phased array feeds as rapid-imaging devices for potential use by the much larger Square Kilometre Array telescope, and for wider use throughout the world's leading radio-astronomy observatories.

Phased array feed technology also has enormous potential outside astronomy. Much like our fast wireless LAN technology (which was developed from our expertise in radio astronomy and led to 'fast Wi-Fi', the way most of us now access the internet without wires), phased array feeds could make a positive impact in a variety of alternative applications including satellite communications.

Our phased array feed technology won Engineers Australia's national Engineering Excellence Award in 2013, and was overall winner in The Australian Innovation Challenge in 2014.

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