Weekend with the stars

Dark foreground with the silhouette of a megalithic rock and trees on the horizon, and a starry sky above.

Stunning: the Milky Way over Uluru. Photo: Peter Ward.

National Science Week has just wrapped up for another year. One of the week’s final events was a special astronomy weekend at Uluru, in the heart of Australia’s red centre, that brought together some of Australia’s leading astronomers with people keen to learn more about our Universe.

Here, our own Professor Ray Norris gives his account of this special weekend with the stars…

For the closing weekend of National Science Week (22-24 August 2014), I was lucky enough to be part of a brilliant astronomical outreach event at Uluru (Ayers Rock).

It had been widely advertised and so the resort was packed — not just with amateur astronomers but with families and individuals who wanted to combine a trip to this national icon with a taste of what cutting-edge science has to offer.

For three days my colleagues and I gave talks and participated in discussions, gave guided tours of the sky, and just sat and chatted with people over the odd beer or two.

Professor Steven Tingay from Curtin University got schoolkids and grandfathers working together to build a real working radio telescope.

Professor Bryan Gaensler from Sydney University showed how the extreme Universe can stretch our minds, while Professor Rachel Webster from Melbourne University exposed the dark side of the Universe.

And I described the depth and complexity of ancient Aboriginal astronomical knowledge, which has not only provided Aboriginal people with calendars and navigation, but shows how Aboriginal people thousands of years ago figured out how the sky works.

Five people on stage: one standing and two seated on each of two lounge chairs.

Dr Karl with (from left) Rachel Webster, Steven Tingay, Ray Norris and Bryan Gaensler. Photo: Kate Gunn.

The highlight for me was probably the panel sessions, in which members of the audience would toss us some curly question about the Universe, invariably resulting in an argument between the astronomers on stage, brilliantly hosted by science celebrity Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. “What’s the next Big Discovery?” “Dark Matter!”, “Dark Energy”, “No it’s something we haven’t thought of yet!”

Or maybe the highlight was when someone over dinner asked me about the expansion of the Universe, something that had puzzled them for years: “Where’s the centre of the expansion? What’s it expanding in to?”. Questions like these are bread and butter to most astrophysicists, and it’s incredibly satisfying to work through that knowledge in a one-on-one discussion with someone with a thirst for understanding.

Or was the highlight standing under the ink-black sky, pointing out the Aboriginal ‘Emu in the Sky’ constellation, hearing the unprompted gasps of amazement as people suddenly ‘got it’ for the first time. No, don’t look at the stars, look at the dark spaces in between, and it’s not that big, it’s T-H-A-T big!

Or perhaps the highlight was when I was describing my own research on the evolution of galaxies, and I suddenly saw it from the perspective of the audience.

In our work-life as astrophysicists, we tend to immerse ourselves so deeply into our subject, so focused on the details, that we sometimes lose sight of why this is important, how privileged we are to be employed to tackle some of the biggest questions in the history of the Universe. One of the things I love about outreach is that it reminds me why I do astrophysics!

There were many other highlights, too numerous to list here.

Transplanting cutting-edge astrophysical knowledge into a magical place with an incredible landscape and stunning skies, immersed in an Indigenous tradition going back thousands of years, was a brilliant coup. It resulted from a partnership between CAASTRO (the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics), with which the astronomers are affiliated, and Voyages, the company that manages Ayers Rock Resort.

As we caught our plane back to Sydney, I found out from my fellow passengers, who had been in the audience, that they had enjoyed it as much as me! But I wonder if they realised that I learned as much from the weekend as they had?

8 stunning sky shots win David Malin Awards 2014

Swirling dust and star-forming gas, solar explosions and dancing dishes. These are among the eight photographs and videos that have won top honours in this year’s David Malin Awards, Australia’s premier astrophotography competition.

Renowned photographer Dr David Malin judged the awards, which are run by the Central West Astronomical Society.

“The winning entries show both technical skill and an ability to capture the beauty of the sky in a visually pleasing way,” said John Sarkissian, CSIRO Operations Scientist at Parkes radio telescope – ‘the Dish’ – and organiser of the awards.

“More than 200 entries were submitted this year. With such stiff competition, to have received any one of these awards is a great honour. Congratulations to all of the finalists and winners.”

And the winners are…

Winning photographs and videos in the David Malin Awards 2014. Click on the images in the gallery above for larger versions.

Overall winner and winner Deep Sky category: ‘Dust and Gas’, Paul Haese

The Deep Sky category is for photographs taken with a telescope. Paul Haese’s winning entry shows the Great Nebula in the constellation Orion, a star-forming region located 1,300 light years from Earth. The nebula is 24 light years across and Paul’s image shows all the dust and gas in the region.

“This is the best true-colour image of the Orion nebula I have seen for a long time,” said David Malin. “It has everything. The basics are well covered by a realistic-looking colour balance and the dynamic range, which makes the heart of the nebula look brighter than everything else, which is as it should be. But the other things are right too, including the delicate, faint nebulosity that fills the field and the careful handling of the bright stars, which don’t dominate the image. Fantastic!”

Winner Wide-Field category: ‘Dusty Heart of the Milky Way’, Phil Hart

“This is a two-frame mosaic of the bright and dusty central regions of our Milky Way Galaxy. The view is toward the centre of the Galaxy in the direction of the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius,” said Phil Hart. The Wide-Field category is for photographs taken without the use of a telescope.

Winner Open Theme – The Moon category: ‘Marine Moonset’, Phil Hart

This year’s open-themed section sought innovative and imaginative images of the Moon, in any of its phases and guises. Phil Hart’s winning entry captured the full Moon as it set over the shipping channel in Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay, as seen from St Kilda an hour before sunrise on 14 May 2014.

Winner Solar System – Hires category: ‘Mars 2014’, Stefan Buda

The Solar System – Hires category is for high-resolution images involving subjects that appear smaller than the diameter of the full Moon.

“Every two years and two months, the Earth and Mars approach each other. This image represents a record of the appearance of the planet Mars between January and May 2014,” said Stefan Buda of his winning entry.

Winner Solar System – Wide-Field category: ‘Prominence’, Paul Haese

The Solar System – Wide-Field category is for wide-field shots of scenes greater than the diameter of the full Moon.

“The Sun is a dynamic and active star,” said Paul Haese. “From time to time we see massive prominences that are released from the Sun’s surface. This shot shows a massive prominence that was released on 8 October 2013.”

Winner Photo Editor’s Choice: ‘The Horsehead and Flame Nebulas’, David Fitz-Henry

Steve Grove, Photographic Manager with News Corporation Australia, chose David Fitz-Henry’s shortlisted image for this year’s ‘Photo Editor’s Choice’ award.

The Horsehead Nebula is a dark nebula in the constellation of Orion. It lies approximately 1,500 light years from Earth. The Flame Nebula lies to the lower-left of the image and is part of the same molecular cloud complex.

Winner Animated Sequences – Scientific category: ‘Shine On’, Peter Ward

Scientific animations are short sequences that have an obvious scientific purpose. These sequences usually require great skill and/or perseverance in first obtaining the data and then in collating them to reveal an aspect of scientific merit.

Peter Ward’s winning entry is a time-lapse sequence of the solar chromosphere. Individual sequences were taken over several weeks, around Easter 2014.

Winner Animated Sequences – Aesthetic category: ‘Dance of the Dishes’, Alex Cherney

Aesthetic sequences are animations that are visually pleasing in some way, where the use of appropriate music and editing is encouraged, but always with a strong astronomical component.

“Very smoothly edited and professional-looking sequences of the [CSIRO] Australia Telescope Compact Array telescopes at work, and I especially like the fish-eye sequences of the dishes nodding at each other as they scan the Milky Way. Great stuff,” commented David Malin.

David Malin Awards 2014 on show

All of the shortlisted and winning entries are included in a year-long exhibition at the CSIRO Parkes Observatory’s Visitors Centre from 20 July 2014. A second touring exhibition, organised by the Powerhouse Museum, will travel to selected venues beginning with Sydney Observatory in August 2014.

The David Malin Awards are run as part of the Central West Astronomical Society’s annual AstroFest. They are supported in 2014 by CSIRO, Canon Australia, Parkes Shire Council and Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.

If you liked these photos, take a look at our previous post on the shortlisted entries in this year’s awards: ‘Catching stars’.

Entry to the Parkes Observatory Visitors Centre is free; it’s open daily from 8.30am to 4.15pm. For more information see www.csiro.au/parkes.

Apollo 11’s Magic Orange Carpet Ride

By Glen Nagle
CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science


It’s funny the things you remember from your childhood. For me, my two outstanding memories are of those first steps on the Moon and a bright orange carpet.

This week marks the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the surface of the Moon. At 12.56pm on the 21st of July 1969, an estimated 600 million people around the world were transfixed to their black and white television sets as astronaut Neil Armstrong placed his booted foot on the grey lunar soil. The grainy images relayed around the world from dish-like antennas in Australia.

Deep Space Station 46 now located at the CSIRO managed Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is the dish which relayed the first images of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon. Image: CDSCC

Deep Space Station 46 now located at the CSIRO managed Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is the dish which relayed the first images of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon. Image: CDSCC

I was one of those 600 million viewers, then 7 years old, but today working as the visitor centre manager at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) and the CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope better known to most people as – The Dish.

CSIRO's Parkes Radio Telescope helped to receive and relay the majority of the moonwalk around the world. Image: CSIRO

CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope helped to receive and relay the majority of the moonwalk around the world. Image: CSIRO

I still remember that moment as if it happened yesterday. Our school in the southern suburbs of Sydney didn’t have a television set and I was determined to watch the astronauts walking on the Moon, so I nagged my parents to let me stay home and see it. They agreed to let me be ‘home alone’ as long as I didn’t move from this bright orange carpet mat they had placed in front of the TV along with some milk and biscuits.

Needless to say, I never moved. I sat glued to the screen watching those amazing images. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that 45 years later I could sit in my office in either Canberra or Parkes and look out the window to the very dishes that brought those images into my lounge room.

The original dish from the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station in the Australian Capital Territory (later relocated to CDSCC), captured the first 8½ minutes of the moonwalk and beamed that ‘one small step’ around the world. The Parkes dish came in at that point and handled the last two hours of the astronaut’s activity on the Moon’s surface.

Video technician Ed von Renouard at the TV console at Honeysuckle Creek July 21, 1969. Image: Courtesy www.honeysucklecreek.net

Video technician Ed von Renouard at the TV console at Honeysuckle Creek July 21, 1969. Image: Courtesy http://www.honeysucklecreek.net

It was certainly a magic carpet ride to that young boy all those years ago. It was a moment that set me on a path to loving science and sharing that passion with other people. I’ve been fortunate to have met a number of the astronauts who walked on the Moon and many of the people behind the scenes at the tracking stations that made that mission and those TV images possible.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin and an excited 7 year old Glen Nagle (now 52) meet in Canberra. Image: Supplied

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin and an excited 7 year old Glen Nagle (now 52) meet in Canberra. Image: Supplied

I ache though for the generation growing up now who never experienced that moment and hope that one day they get to take their own magic carpet ride, be it orange or any other colour.

exhibitThat next ‘giant leap’ will probably be as we take our first steps on the surface of Mars sometime in the 2030s.  I hope that a memory like that will take them from their childhoods and on a journey to places that they never thought possible.

The Parkes Radio Telescope’s visitor centre is currently running an exhibition of photos from the Apollo missions that will run until the end of September 2014.

Entry to the centre is free and is open 7 days, 8.30am to 4.15pm.

Catching stars

The stars look so vibrant that you could just reach out, catch them and put them in your pocket. But you don’t even have to step outside to see them.

They’ve already been captured by the talented photographers whose entries have been shortlisted in the ‘wide-field’ category of this year’s David Malin Awards, Australia’s premier astrophotography competition.

Shortlisted images in the ‘wide-field’ category of the 2014 David Malin Awards. Click on the photos in the gallery above for larger versions.

And these are just a taste of the amazing images and videos that have been shortlisted this year. Other categories include: theme – “the Moon”, Solar System, deep sky, and animated sequences. Head on over to the awards website to take a look at all the images and videos on the 2014 David Malin Awards shortlist.

Judging is now complete and all the winners will be announced at a special ceremony on Saturday 19 July 2014.

The David Malin Awards are run by the Central West Astronomical Society and judged by renowned astrophotographer Dr David Malin. (The Central West of NSW is the region in which our Parkes radio telescope – ‘The Dish’ – is located.) They’re run as part of the Central West Astronomical Society’s annual AstroFest and are supported in 2014 by CSIRO, Canon Australia, Parkes Shire Council and Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.

For more information on the awards see our previous post on the 2013 competition: ‘Phenomenal photos from the David Malin Awards’.


Radio astronomy: the next generation

Black background with a mosaic of colourful images depicting the types of science to be done with the Square Kilometre Array. Background photo credit: Luigi Strano. Science image credits and acknowledgements: Djorgovski et al, (Caltech) (EoR image); Casey Reed (Pulsar image); NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSC (Galaxy evolution image-NGC 3190 Field); NASA/Stanford-Lockheed Institute for Space Research’s TRACE Team (Cosmic Magnetism image – Sun’s Corona); NASA/JPL-Caltech (Cradle of life image).

The Square Kilometre Array will further our understanding of the Universe and fundamental physics. Image: SKA Organisation.

Game changing, fascinating, exciting, inspiring. There was no shortage of positive adjectives used to describe the science that will be possible with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in the Twitter chatter that exploded last week.

Most of the world’s most influential radio astronomers were gathered in Giardini Naxos – at the base of Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano – for the ‘Advancing Astrophysics with the Square Kilometre Array’ conference*. And there was an explosion of tweets, presentations and conversations on the scientific direction that the world’s largest radio telescope will take.

The astronomers were there to discuss the ‘science case’ for the SKA, a 130-chapter document that will highlight the types of science – from cosmology, pulsar science and gravitational wave astronomy to cosmic magnetism and the search for life beyond our Solar System – that will be done with the observatory.

The last SKA science case was published 10 years ago. The updated case, to be released later this year, will reflect the advances in radio astronomy and engineering that have been made over the past decade.

Dr Naomi McClure-Griffiths was one of the CSIRO astronomers who participated in the meeting: “For me, the highlight was seeing the incredible breadth of science that will be done with the SKA.

“The SKA will be a very powerful telescope set to answer some essential questions about the Universe. But as [fellow CSIRO astronomer] Ray Norris reminded us, probably the most exciting discoveries will be things we have not yet thought of,” says Naomi.

There were several SKA science ‘headlines’, which included:

  • By using pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars, the SKA is expected to be able to detect gravitational waves, conduct tests of gravity in extreme conditions, and further our understanding of how gravity works
  • Through studying the emission of neutral hydrogen, the SKA will ‘look’ back to the Epoch of Reionization, the early period of the Universe when stars and galaxies started to form, and even earlier to the Dark Ages, and
  • By mapping cosmic magnetic fields beyond current capabilities, the SKA will advance our understanding of star formation and the structure of the Universe, the ‘cosmic web’.

And some of the first science images taken with ASKAP – our own SKA precursor telescope – were unveiled.

But it wasn’t just science with the next generation of radio telescopes getting everyone excited.

“I have been going to SKA meetings for over 10 years but this one felt very different,” says Naomi. “There’s a new, young, fresh community getting involved in SKA science now and they are coming up with ideas that we hadn’t dreamed of 10 years ago.”

“I definitely came away from the week feeling renewed excitement about all that the SKA will bring.”

The ‘Advancing Astrophysics with the Square Kilometre Array’ conference was held in Giardini Naxos, Italy, 8-13 June 2014.

*Fortunately the conference wasn’t held this week: Mount Etna started erupting on 15 June.

Mystery Planets

Worlds discovered to date. Image: exoplanets.org

Worlds discovered to date. Image: exoplanets.org

It seems that nearly every week there is another announcement of a new planet being discovered somewhere – out there! Most are gas giants, some are smaller rocky worlds. Most are in close orbits to their stars while a handful sit in the so-called “Goldilocks” or “habitable” zone.

These planets follow the “rules” of planetary formation models, but then there are some worlds that break those rules.

One recent announcement for a new ‘exoplanet’ (planets that orbit stars in other solar systems) was the discovery of a large ‘rocky’ world that is estimated to be more than twice the size of the Earth. Nothing unusual in that.

An artist concept shows the Kepler-10 system, home to two rocky planets. In the foreground is Kepler-10c, a planet that weighs 17 times as much as Earth and is more than twice as large in size. Image: NASA

An artist concept shows the Kepler-10 system, home to two rocky planets. In the foreground is Kepler-10c, a planet that weighs 17 times as much as Earth and is more than twice as large in size. Image: NASA

Designated Kepler-10c, the planet though has scientists a bit mystified because their calculations show that its mass is 17 times more than that of the Earth. A planet of that mass should gravitationally attract an envelope of gases around it to form a much larger, perhaps ‘Neptune-sized’ world or larger, but Kepler-10c is just this massive rock in space.

Orbiting its star every 45 days, temperatures on the sun-facing side would make it a place too hot to support life. Located 560 light-years from Earth in the constellation Draco, astronomers are at a loss to figure out how the planet would have formed without turning into a gas giant.

This isn’t the only mystery world however.

The rollercoaster orbit of planet Kepler-413b. Image: NASA and ESA

The rollercoaster orbit of planet Kepler-413b. Image: NASA and ESA

Tucked away in the Cygnus constellation about 2,300 light years from Earth, the planet Kepler-413b is literally on a wild amusement park ride. The planet’s 66 day orbit is like a rollercoaster, travelling in a wave-like pattern around its parent stars, a pair of orange and red dwarfs. The planet also wobbles on its axis up to 30 degrees over only an 11 year period, compared to the Earth which wobbles on its axis over 26,000 years.

Astronomers think that the gravitational influence of other planets in this solar system or possibly a third nearby star may be exerting an influence.

Kepler-413b is a Neptune-sized world, 65 times the mass of the Earth. Due to its close but erratic orbit to the binary stars, temperatures would most likely be too hot to allow liquid water to exist making the planet an unlikely candidate for supporting life as we know it.

At the other end of the scale is a world so far away from its sun-like star that is should be nothing more than a frozen ball of rock and ice. Planet HD 106906b however is a gas giant world, 11 times the mass of Jupiter.

Processed image depicting the relative distances of Neptune's orbit compared to HD 106906b from its parent star. Image: NASA

Processed image depicting the relative distances of Neptune’s orbit compared to HD 106906b from its parent star. Image: NASA

The planet is challenging planetary formation models. At a distance over 20 times further away from its star than Neptune is from our sun, HD 106906b is only a relatively young world at around 13 million years old.

Detected by its infrared signature, HD 106906b is still quite hot at 1,500 degrees Celsius due to the residual heat from its formation. The mystery is how such a planet could have formed so far away from the star it is orbiting and the disk of dusty and rocky material surrounding that star where planets would normally coalesce.

It’s possible that the planet may have formed in a completely separate cloud of material around another nearby but failed star. As its new parent star travelled through the galaxy it was caught by its gravity in a sort of celestial adoption process.

Then there are those planets that are orphans.

Artist’s impression of the free-floating planet CFBDSIR J214947.2-040308.9v Image: ESO

Artist’s impression of the free-floating planet CFBDSIR J214947.2-040308.9v Image: ESO

CFBDSIR2149 is a free-floating planet seemingly with no nearby star. Around four to seven times the mass of Jupiter, the planet is 100 light years from Earth and appears to be travelling through the galaxy in parallel with the AB Doradus star cluster.

Free-floating objects like CFBDSIR2149 are thought to form either as normal planets that have been booted out of their home systems, or as lone objects like the smallest stars or brown dwarfs.

Artists’s cartoon view gives an impression of how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Artists’s cartoon view gives an impression of how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser

These are a handful of examples of the planets that don’t quite fit the scientific models out of the multitude of solar system that have been discovered so far.

Surveys suggest that there could be as many as a trillion planets in our galaxy, actually outnumbering the stars in the Milky Way. Just based on what has been found so far, there are likely to be many more weird, wonderful and mysterious worlds out there just waiting to be discovered.

Our ACES team aces it


CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope, ASKAP.

When our team saw what they’d done with our ASKAP telescope in Western Australia, they almost fell off their chairs.

After just a few months of commissioning, they have the telescope functioning like one that’s been around for years. (Well, almost.)

Think of the sculptor Michaelangelo. He started with a block of marble and, after hacking away, ended up with ‘David’.

There must have been a moment when he thought: “It’s a real statue now”.

Michaelangelo's statue of David

From a hunk of stone to a hunk: Michaelangelo’s “David”. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The ASKAP Commissioning and Early Science (ACES) team has reached that point.

The proof? A couple of images that have blown astronomers’ minds.



A 12-hour observation of an ASKAP test field, near the south celestial pole, showing a number of distant galaxies (the white dots). The Moon (which is about half a degree across) is shown for scale. The circles indicate the nine overlapping ‘beams’ (regions of sky the telescope ‘sees’) from which the image was created: the large circle is an enlargement of beam number 6, showing details of the radio sources. This image was made from radio waves with a frequency of 800 MHz. Credit: Ian Heywood and the ACES team / CSIRO

First, this image showing a number of distant radio galaxies (the white dots).

It was made from nine overlapping regions of sky, or ‘beams’, captured simultaneously.

To you, it may look like just … a bunch of dots. But hardened scientists were left speechless by the lack of imaging ‘artefacts’ in each ‘beam’.

They swooned over the dynamic range (50,000 to 1). And they were delirious over the size of the image, ten square degrees on the sky — 50 times larger than the full Moon.

(When ASKAP achieves its full 30-square-degree field of view, we’ll have to give them tranquillisers.)

As if that weren’t enough, a lovely image of the galaxy NGC 253 gave further cause for joy.

This one basically assures us that ASKAP is giving a proper ‘weighting’ to the different frequencies of radio waves that were used to make the image.

This is ASKAP’s first image of cold atomic hydrogen gas — the ‘fuel’ for making stars — in a galaxy. It’s essentially a snapshot, with the data having been taken over a mere 11 hours. It stacks up extremely well against an image made with a much longer observation time on our trusty Compact Array telescope.

“We did it so easily,” said one astronomer. “Everybody was dancing.”



The ASKAP ‘snapshot’ of the galaxy NGC 253, imaged over 11 hours. The galaxy was observed at 1.4 GHz, the frequency of the radio waves emitted by cold atomic hydrogen gas. The ‘hole’ in the centre of the galaxy is a region where radio emission is absorbed by the overlying gas. The colours represent information about the velocity of the gas, and show that the galaxy is rotating: the blue regions are moving towards us and the red regions are receding. Credit: Paolo Serra and the ACES team / CSIRO


After you’ve built a telescope, you can’t just flip a switch and have everything work perfectly, first time.

Commissioning is the process of getting all the complicated telescope systems to work together properly, and understanding the characteristics of the data the telescope produces.

ASKAP incorporates novel technology, such as the phased array feeds and the third axis of rotation. It takes a while to ensure that these systems are operating as planned.

In fact, it is ASKAP’s two new features that are delivering the goods.

As the telescope tracks radio sources, the third axis of rotation keeps the phased array feed in a fixed orientation to the sky. And, as we’ve explained elsewhere, that helps make really high-quality images.

As the ACES team leader Dr Dave McConnell said, “We’ve never had a telescope like this before”.

Go team!

People at work in a large open office space.

The importance of being earnest: the ASKAP Commissioning and Early Science (ACES) team at work.


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