Claire-Elise Green wants to time travel. She wants to peer into the stellar nursery of the cosmos and understand how stars are formed, in their infancy, billions of years ago. To do this she needs access to multi-billion dollar telescopes, astronomical amounts of data and the time to work with the best and brightest in the field. Not something you can just Google.
Read more on our news@csiro blog: Uncovering the mystery of stellar nurseries.
By Helen Sim
It’s been a long journey, but the first scientific results from our Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope are being unveiled in Melbourne this week.
Carried out with six ASKAP antennas used by the team for commissioning activities, these early results have been written up and will appear as scientific papers over the coming months. But astronomers at the OzSKA meeting are getting a sneak peek.
Three key results promise success for some of the big projects planned for ASKAP.
Dark clouds, silver lining
In the first project, CSIRO astronomer Paolo Serra and his colleagues have found that a galaxy called IC 5270 has a couple of shady companions.
They appear to be dark (starless) clouds of hydrogen gas (HI), each with more than a billion solar masses of the stuff. In fact the clouds account for a third of the total HI mass associated with IC 5270.
It’s likely that this gas was stripped out of IC 5270 by gravity when other galaxies passed close by.
Dark clouds like the ones near IC 5270 have been found before. But the finding is important for ASKAP’s forthcoming WALLABY survey, which is designed to detect HI over three-quarters of the sky and so study how galaxies evolve. It shows that WALLABY will have the sensitivity and resolution to establish (or rule out) evidence for gas stripping for thousands of galaxies, giving us a better handle on how galaxies change over time.
A part-time pulsar
Another team, led by CSIRO astronomer George Hobbs, has been using ASKAP to follow up an unusual pulsar (one of those small, spinning stars that produce regular radio pulsars).
This pulsar, called J1107–5907, spends a good deal of its time ‘turned off’, or at least not producing pulses that we can detect.
Hobbs’ team observed the sky around the pulsar for 13 hours, taking a snapshot every two minutes. The data were processed with a ‘pipeline’ developed for a survey of transient sources, rather than the processing software usually used for pulsar surveys.
J1107–5907 showed up nicely, suggesting that ASKAP’s going to be an ideal telescope for discovering these part-time pulsars. But the way to find them will be with a survey for transient sources, such as VAST (Variables and Slow Transients — one of ten large ASKAP Survey Science projects planned for ASKAP), not a traditional pulsar survey that looks for a regular train of pulses.
Only a few intermittent pulsars are known but many more may be waiting to be discovered.
A well-behaved pulsar (animation). Credit: CAASTRO / Swinburne Astronomy Productions.
Dip shows galaxies are down the road
A third piece of work has shown that ASKAP will be able to detect galaxies other telescopes can’t.
A team led by CSIRO’s James Allison detected a five-billion-year-old radio signal from the distant galaxy PKS B1740-517. Stamped on it is the ‘imprint’ of hydrogen gas (HI) that it travelled through on its way to Earth. This gas absorbs some of the original radio emission, creating a little dip or nick in the signal.
The dip is tiny and at many observatories there is so much radio ‘noise’ that it wouldn’t be seen. But ASKAP’s home, the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, is so beautifully ‘radio quiet’ that the dip stands out clearly.
Most galaxies have lots of HI and these absorption dips are an excellent way to detect them. The trouble has been knowing where to look, especially how far out. But the signal from PKS B1740-517 was found in a ‘blind’ (unguided) search, which opens up the whole field.
In particular, it means that one of ASKAP’s forthcoming large surveys, FLASH (First Large Absorption Survey in HI), is set to find thousands of galaxies. Moreover, they’ll be ones that are five to eight billion years old. These should help us understand why the rate of star formation in the Universe fell after its peak ten billion years ago.
Fifty years ago, speaking on the value of space exploration, the then Prime Minister of Australia, (Sir) Robert Menzies, in an address to staff and honoured guests at the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Instrumentation Facility (TDSIF), said:
“The stretching out of the borders of our own technological knowledge is so important, …we perhaps direct too much attention to some distant end result and too little to the fact that in this century, increasingly in this century, the country that is backward in these fields will be backward in a hundred ways that may not appear to be closely connected with what is going on. Therefore this is a great step forward, a notable event in this technological period of our lives.”
‘A great step forward’ was exactly what was taken at the official opening of the TDSIF, now known as the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) on the 19th March 1965.
Those first steps have since seen both human and robotic space explorers take great strides across the Solar System and beyond. Throughout the last five decades it has been the role of CDSCC to provide uninterrupted, two-way radio contact with these voyages into deep space.
CDSCC is a part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN). Three tracking stations, equidistantly located around the world and featuring giant radio dish antennas that relay commands and receive data from dozens of spacecraft exploring the Sun, planets, moons, comets and asteroids of our solar system.
As you might imagine, a lot has happened in the last 50 years. The first interplanetary probes have lead to a flotilla of sophisticated robotic spaceprobes now traversing the surfaces of or orbiting around virtually every major celestial body in our region of space.
The early technology, with buildings full of refrigerator-sized computers and consoles full of dials, gauges, switches and buttons have become the high-speed computer processors and multitasking digital screens of today.
The first antennas were relatively small, single-purposed dishes that have now given way to the massive, super-sensitive, multi-receiver and multi-spacecraft capable antennas that daily transmit to and receive from 40 missions representing more than 20 nations exploring the cosmos.
For CDSCC at Tidbinbilla, the valley has undergone massive changes as well. When opened in 1965, the site had a single antenna and a few of buildings to support its operation. In 2015, five dishes dominate the landscape, with a sixth antenna currently under construction.
CDSCC has been involved in many of space exploration’s greatest moments, from receiving the first images of NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft as it made the first close-up flyby of the planet Mars in July 1965, through to the recent landing of the European Space Agency’s Philae probe on the surface of Comet 67P Churuymov-Gerasimenko.
The tracking station supported every Apollo lunar mission and handled telemetry, command and control communications for the landings of NASA’s twin Mars Rover – Spirit and Opportunity – as well as the dramatic ‘skycrane’ arrival of the Curiosity rover on the red planet.
Leaving our Sun’s influence behind, the two Voyager spacecraft are still in contact with Earth through Tidbinbilla’s giant 70-metre dish, Deep Space Station 43, the largest steerable antenna dish in the southern hemisphere.
Look up a mission into deep space (the Moon and beyond) and CDSCC has probably played a major role in its success.
Even now, the tracking complex is gearing up for the July arrival of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft which will take humanity’s first close up view of Pluto and will help bring the world some of the very first images of that distant world.
It’s been a remarkable 50 years but none of the astounding technological feats would have been possible without the tireless dedication of the hundreds of men and women who have worked at the Complex.
Some have spent only a few short years there, while others have worked for 20, 30 and 40 years in the business of spacecraft tracking and communications. The true pioneers who have taken us from the days of grainy, black and white images of the Moon, to the high resolution, 3D colour imagery we enjoy today from places like Mars and Saturn.
It’s their dedication that makes space exploration possible. Next time you watch a spacecraft land on Mars at 3am in the morning on Christmas day (and CDSCC has done that), know that it took a skilled team of Aussie engineers, technicians, antenna operators and support staff to do it.
By the way, since 2010, that team have been all CSIRO employees – every day making the impossible, possible.
While the feats of the last 50 years have been incredible, it will be the feats, as yet unimagined, of the next fifty years that will continue to define the story of this remarkable facility.
Follow CDSCC on Twitter @CanberraDSN
Exactly 5 years to the day from its original ground-breaking ceremony in 2010, the newest antenna dish in NASA’s Deep Space Network was officially commissioned on 25th February 2015, at the CSIRO-managed, Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC).
Hosted by CDSCC Director, Dr Ed Kruzins, VIP guests included Mr Badri Younes and Mr Pete Vrotsos from NASA’s Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) division, and Dr David Williams, Executive Director CSIRO National Facilities & Collections and Dr Lewis Ball, Director of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science. They were joined by representatives from government, industry and CSIRO-CDSCC staff at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to usher the new antenna into deep space operations.
The new dish, Deep Space Station 35 incorporates the latest in Beam Waveguide technology that increases the sensitivity and capacity for tracking, commanding and receiving data from spacecraft located billions of kilometres away across the Solar System. NASA has invested $55 million in the first of the new antennas and is currently investing an equal amount in a second dish – Deep Space Station 36 – due to come online in late 2016.
“Through NASA, Australia and the United States have worked together in the exploration of space for over 50 years,” Mr Younes said.
“We broke ground on this new antenna project in 2010 and it is of immense pride and satisfaction that we have now reached this milestone and that the antenna will now be able to break new ground on the frontiers opening up to us in space.”
The milestone comes one day before the 55th anniversary of the signing of the original space communication and tracking agreement signed between Australia and the United States on the 26th February 1960. It is a partnership that has that has led to many historic firsts and breakthrough discoveries – the first flybys of Mercury and Venus, the vital communication link and television coverage of the first Moonwalk, robotic rover landings on and amazing views from the surface of Mars, the first ‘close-ups’ of the giant outer planets and first-time encounters with worlds such as Pluto.
What future discoveries will be made through Deep Space Station 35, no one can really imagine, but with this new ear on the universe one thing is certain – the sky is no longer the limit.
News this week that astronomers using our Parkes radio telescope have detected a short, sharp flash of radio waves from an unknown source up to 5.5 billion light years from Earth is the latest chapter in a cosmic ‘whodunnit’ mystery. We have mounting evidence, a team of detectives, and a good pinch of suspense. All we need now is to find the body.
‘Fast radio bursts’ are short and bright: they last only milliseconds but give out an enormous amount of energy.
The first burst was discovered in 2007 by astronomers combing old Parkes data archives for unrelated objects. Five more detections were made from Parkes data before researchers using data collected with the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico made the first finding using another facility.
This latest discovery, made by Swinburne University of Technology PhD student Emily Petroff, is the first ‘live’ detection of one of these mysterious bursts. It could have given off as much energy in a few milliseconds as our Sun does in a day.
One of the big unknowns of fast radio bursts is their distance. The characteristics of the radio signal – how it is ‘smeared out’ in frequency from travelling through space – indicate that the source of the bursts is in the distant Universe. This new burst was up to 5.5 billion light-years away, while others have been up to 11 billion light-years away.
The team of detectives
Since the first burst was discovered astronomers worldwide have been vying to explain the phenomenon.
Confident that she would spot a burst in real-time, Emily had an international team poised to make rapid follow-up observations, at wavelengths from radio to X-ray.
After the Parkes telescope saw the latest burst go off, the team swung into action on 12 telescopes around the world – in Australia, California, the Canary Islands, Chile, Germany, Hawaii, and India – as well as space-based telescopes.
What could be the origin of these mysterious bursts? While evidence is mounting, astronomers are developing and discounting theories.
According to Simon Johnston, CSIRO’s head of astrophysics, based on these latest observations we can rule out some ideas because no counterparts were seen in the optical, infrared, ultraviolet or X-ray. It’s also unlikely that they’re caused by radio interference from man-made sources on Earth, atmospheric phenomena, gamma-ray bursts or evaporating black holes. That they’re caused by a neutron star imploding into a black hole remains a possibility.
A whole new area of astrophysics?
While it’s still early days in the detection and description of fast radio bursts, who knows where it might lead?
Pulsars, the rapidly spinning remnants of supernova explosions that send out regular flashes of radio waves much like a lighthouse’s beacon, were discovered in 1967. In fact, the first pulsar was famously named LGM-1 for ‘little green men’. While the alien theory was quickly quashed, pulsars are now being used by astronomers to look for gravitational waves and to test Einstein’s theory of relativity; they also offer potential as extremely accurate clocks and are possible alternatives to satellite-based global positioning systems. Our Parkes radio telescope has detected over 50% of the more than 2000 known pulsars.
But back to the case at hand. It seems that identifying the origin of these mysterious fast radio bursts is now only a matter of time.
The finding is published today in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Emily Petroff is co-supervised by CSIRO and Swinburne University of Technology, which is a member institution of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO).
Reblogged from CSIRO News
Originally posted on News @ CSIRO:
By Glen Nagle
The town of Parkes, NSW – home of our infamous Parkes Radio Telescope – has slipped on its Blue Suede Shoes.
In the second week of January each year, Parkes marks the birthday of Elvis Presley with a massive festival celebrating everything Elvis. It started over 20 years ago as a one-day get together of just a few hundred fans. In 2015, the festival has grown to cover a week of events, shows, parades and exhibits and over 15,000 visitors more than doubling the town’s population.
Along with one of the largest collections of Elvis memorabilia on permanent display at the Henry Parkes Visitor Centre (donated by Wiggles performer, Greg Page), the Parkes Elvis Festival is one of the town’s major icons.
The other great icon of course is the Dish – our very own Parkes radio telescope – so combining…
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I guess we all love to sleep in on a Sunday morning, maybe just snoozing under the doona, laying there for a few hours before getting up for a late brunch. Ah! Luxury.
On Sunday 7th December 2014, the New Horizons spacecraft, 5 billion kilometres away from the warmth of Earth, had little time to sleep in. It was ‘wake up’ day. The final awakening from hibernation for the next 2 years until well after its encounter with rapidly approaching dwarf planet, Pluto, set for the 14th July 2015.
Waiting back on Earth to hear the spacecraft’s morning ‘alarm’ go off was the giant 70 metre antenna dish at the CSIRO-managed, Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex – Deep Space Station 43 (DSS43).
Covering a distance of nearly 4.8 billion kilometres, New Horizons signal was travelling through space at the speed of light, telling home that it had awoken from final hibernation – periodic times during the mission when the spacecraft’s instruments are shutdown to preserve the systems during the nine year long journey. Nearly 80% of New Horizons journey has been spent in this sleep-mode.
The spacecraft’s transmission was received 4 hours and 26 minutes later at DSS43, with NASA confirming, at 1.53pm (AEDT), the news that the New Horizons team wanted to hear, “It’s Alive!”
Over the next few weeks, the mission team will do the final checkouts on all the spacecraft’s systems and on January 25th will commence an imaging campaign taking a photo of Pluto and its large moon, Charon from 203 million kilometres away.
Nearly daily images will be taken to further refine the understanding of Pluto’s position and the precise locations of its five known moons. This information will allow the mission to plan any changes required to the spacecraft’s trajectory should a previously unknown moon or debris material pose a threat to the mission.
As the spacecraft continues to approach the Pluto system, the resolution of images will dramatically increase, and this far off place will no longer be just a fuzzy point of light – as the Hubble space telescope sees it now – but be revealed as a whole new world to learn about and explore.
The mission team at NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are making final preparations for the spacecraft’s historic encounter with Pluto. The antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network, including the dishes in Canberra, stand ready to receive their discoveries.
After nine years, 5 billion kilometres and travelling at nearly 16 kilometres per second through the cold blackness of space, New Horizons is awake, wiping the sleepy dust from its eyes and getting the robotic version of its morning coffee.
So what did you do with your Sunday morning?
For more information on the New Horizons mission, visit its website.