Pathfinder Telescope

Pathfinder Telescope

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) is CSIROs new radio telescope currently under construction at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in the Mid West region of Western Australia.

It will be made up of 36 identical antennas, each 12 metres in diameter, working together as a single instrument. Incorporating novel receiver technologies and leading-edge ICT systems, ASKAP will be one of the worlds premier radio telescopes and will help to answer fundamental questions about our Universe.

As well as being a world-leading telescope in its own right, ASKAP will be an important testbed for the Square Kilometre Array, a future international radio telescope that will be the worlds largest and most sensitive.

Pathfinder Telescope

IT IS not even finished yet but Australias newest radio telescope is effectively booked out for the first five years.

Due to be completed next year and operational in early 2014, CSIROs Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder telescope in Western Australia has local and international scientists lining up to use it.

Already, 350 Australian and international scientists have secured time on the telescope, which accounts for 75 per cent of the available time in the first five years.

The telescope isnt even finished and we've got a massive international group of people that are really heavily involved, the telescopes project scientist Ilana Feain said. And by involved . . . I mean they actively have got funding to hire people to work on projects so that come day one, they are ready to go.

Dr Feain said that four years ago, when a call for expressions of interest was first issued, 363 researchers from 131 institutions around the world responded. While not all proposals made the cut, most scientists have been able to secure a spot on a research team.

The Pathfinder telescope will focus on 10 major projects, including scanning the universe for pulsars, hunting out rare flashes of light known as transients and measuring cosmic magnetic fields.

As its Pathfinder name suggests, the telescope is being built as a demonstrator project. It is key to Australia and New Zealands joint bid to host the worlds largest and most sensitive radio telescope, the $2.5 billion Square Kilometre Array.

South Africa is the only other contender. Next week, the SKA site advisory committee, made up of independent experts, will recommend a preferred site to the SKA board of directors. Negotiations with the preferred site could span weeks before an official announcement is made in March or April.

Should Australia and New Zealand win the right to host the SKA, the 36-dish Pathfinder telescope will grow to become a 3000-dish telescope . Dishes will spiral out from Australias west coast to the tip of New Zealands South Island, some 5500 kilometres away.

The enthusiasm and interest for ASKAP all bodes extremely well for the SKA, Dr Feain said. In the last few years we've found we cant hire people from overseas fast enough. We have incredible interest coming from people who want to live in Australia and do astronomy in Australia.

Astrophysicist Virginia Kilborn, from Swinburne University, is among the Victorian scientists to have secured a spot on the Pathfinder. As part of the Wallaby research team, she will be searching galaxies for hydrogen gas - which make up stars.

Hydrogen gas is the raw material for stars to form, she said. We want snapshots of galaxies in different stages of evolution, so some are young with lots of gas and lots of star formation and others are old and they have used up their gas. We want to see how galaxies evolve from being young and gas-rich to an older galaxy.

When the Pathfinder telescope begins operating in 2014, it will be the fastest survey telescope in the world, allowing scientists to survey half a million galaxies at once, so wide and deep is its field of view. Currently, the biggest surveys look at about 25,000 galaxies. Its a very exciting prospect, Dr Kilborn said.

MurchisonWestern Australia

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