New Radio-Astronomy Observatory in the Australian Outback

10/06/2012 06:33 pm ET | Updated Dec 06, 2012

The monotonous Western Australian outback has not changed much in the recent history of our planet and the night sky is majestically dark with no man-made lights as far as the eye can see. It feels like I travelled a few million years into the past, with the only reminders of the 21st century being the dishes of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope.
It seems like a haven for the modern stargazer -- the perfect escape from the light pollution of modern times. Indeed I was very happy to be there filming ASKAP under the night sky just before the official opening of the telescope.


The Milky Way sets behind the ASKAP antennas. Image: Alex Cherney

I captured 19960 images using three cameras during five nights and lots of computer time went into processing the video to showcase ASKAP under the dark Western Australian skies. This footage may be quite unique because after the telescope testing phase is completed, any electronic equipment, including cameras, may not be used near the telescope.

Such a remote location is great not just for the dark skies: it also minimizes the amount of radio-frequency interference. The shire of Murchison, where the telescope is located, covers an area of 41,000 square kilometres (similar to the Netherlands or the state of Maryland) with the population of just 114.


Zodiacal Light or "False Dusk." Image: Alex Cherney

ASKAP, officially opened by CSIRO on October 5th, 2012, is a very impressive telescope with 36 antennas, each 12 meters in diameter, spread out over 4,000 square meters and working together as one. Although it was built as a technology pathfinder for the planned $2 billion Square Kilometre Array -- the project currently underway in Australia and South Africa to create the largest radio telescope in the world -- ASKAP is a cutting-edge radio telescope in its own right.

During its main scientific projects -- EMU (Evolutionary Map of the Universe) and WALLABY (Widefield ASKAP L-Band Legacy All-Sky Blind Survey), the telescope will study over 600,000 galaxies and get the scientists much closer to understanding the evolution of star-forming galaxies and massive black holes as well as explore uncharted regions of space, almost certainly finding new classes of astronomical objects.


The last antenna is being tested for the accuracy of the -- parabolic figure. Image: Alex Cherney

During its operation the telescope will generate enormous amount of data -- 72 Terabit per second, enough to fill 120 million Blu-ray discs each day. To deal with such data volumes, the high speed optical fibre network was built connecting the telescope in the remote Murchison shire with the $21 million Cray supercomputer in Perth.

It was an unforgettable experience -- I stayed at the telescope during the day, helped scripting and testing the antenna movements with CSIRO scientist Maxim Voronkov and just enjoyed the remote location with no mobile phones.