5 Oct 2012

Aust kicks off giant radio telescope

9:08 pm on 5 October 2012

Astronomers are firing up a radio telescope in Western Australia to probe the origins of stars and galaxies.

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (Askap) in Western Australia's outback is made up of 36 antennas, each 12 metres in diameter, the BBC reports.

The $A152 million Askap is part of the bigger $A3 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) that is set to begin construction in 2016 and to become the world's biggest radio telescope project based in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Later in the project, a data centre is due to be built in New Zealand.

In 2016, a further 60 dishes will be built as part of SKA, which will extend into New Zealand, and in southern Africa several thousand antennas will be built, the ABC reports.

Signals from each antenna are electronically combined to simulate a dish much larger in size, according to Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

CSIRO chief executive Megan Clarke says unlike other current radio observatories, the ASKAP will provide a much bigger view of the sky.

"With these dishes we can take panoramas, where before we could only take small pixels," she said.

"For the first time we'll be able to map the whole sky [quickly]."

For example, Ms Clarke says current radio telescopes take up to 1200 hours to image the galaxy Centaurus A.

"With this telescope we can do that in 10 minutes," she said.

"We're in a new era of mapping the skies."

According to CSIRO, the telescope will allow astronomers to investigate fundamental questions involving dark matter, dark energy, the nature of gravity, the origins of the first stars and galaxies, and more.

"We'll understand how galaxies work, we'll look back into the beginnings of the universe," Ms Clarke said.

Another CSIRO scientist Dr John O'Sullivan, says that while the Askap telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, 315km north-east of Geraldton is not very big, "it is still a very, very powerful survey instrument to start to get a look [at] the origins of galaxies".

"It is the beginning of a great new period, I think," he said.

The remote location means there is limited interference from man-made radio signals.