I would like to start by offering a message of support to all those who continue to be affected by the bushfires and floods earlier this year and the current COVID-19 events. CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, is delivering several scientific research initiatives needed to tackle each of these challenging events.
Whilst the Observatory is closed to visitors outside of WA, the telescopes are still running scheduled observations, with the support of our site engineering and operations team.
Due to the current COVID-19 situation, engagement throughout the region and the way we are working and interacting with everyone in the community has been impacted. As with many organisations, we have permission to continue to travel to our place of employment (the MRO), however we are determined to ensure our activities have no detrimental impact on the local community, so we have limited our external meetings to online or telephone only.
In addition, and to reduce any potential risk of COVID-19 transmission to the Pia community, there are no Pia residents currently working at site. We will do our best to ensure the Pia staff are back at work as soon as it is safe to do so.
And while we certainly shouldn’t ignore the impact that communities everywhere continue to endure throughout the early part of 2020, we hope to update you with some of the recent events and activities occurring on and around the MRO, in this edition of the MRO News.
I’m inspired by the ongoing ingenuity demonstrated by our engineers who work on maintaining ASKAP and all the site infrastructure, and the teams that visit the MRO to work on MWA, EDGES and the SKA prototypes. Prior to the travel restrictions, we hosted several visits, and we look forward to the return of these teams, when it is once again safe to travel.
And I’m pleased to be able to highlight a 'first' for the Mid West, with the Mid West Port Authority achieving a significant step forward for research and development in the region, with a successful application to work with the Pawsey Supercomputer in Kensington, Perth.
This is likely to be my final opening address for the MRO News, as I have the pleasure in being able to introduce you to Ms Rebecca Wheadon. Some of you already know and will have previously met Rebecca, due to her long-term involvement with the MRO, ASKAP and the SKA programme while employed by Aurecon. Rebecca has recently joined CSIRO as the MRO Site Entity Leader and will take on the responsibility of continuing to ensure you are kept informed, and up to date on events affecting the MRO.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity of helping ensure that you remain informed on what is happening ‘over the fence’ and within the neighbourhood. I should also clarify that I remain in my role as CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science (CASS) Head of WA Operations, and as such I will remain a presence in the region, and will very likely bump into some of you, while hopefully remaining in contact with all of you. Until then, please welcome Rebecca into her new role, and thank you.
Please stay safe and healthy.
Kevin Ferguson, CSIRO
Photo credit: Kevin and Rebecca #stayathome
In an interesting start to the year for our site operations team, we have dealt with several ASKAP telescope maintenance issues, both expected and unexpected.
I’m really pleased to report that we were able to put in place temporary arrangements, enabling the continuation of observations, which meant the astronomers have been able to collect some great data.
Credit also goes to our science operators as they managed to keep programs running and the science teams are excited by the large data sets collected by ASKAP for them to study. I look forward to seeing the final results when they're published!
We were also able to host a few visitors to site before restricting access due to the current COVID-19 situation. These included a journalist from the prestigious international science journal Nature, escorted by Ant Schinckel; Italians (from INAF), testing the latest prototype SKA Low antenna; a local film crew planning a future production; and a group working on aspects of the SKA.
We also hosted the ‘EDGES’ team from Arizona State University (ASU), and along with two new members of their team, they made the long journey from Arizona, USA to the MRO, WA. The EDGES team were planning a return trip in the next few months, but with the situation as it is right now, that visit will be delayed.
Unfortunately, shortly after these visits occurred, we (and of course globally) have been impacted by the COVID-19 situation, with many planned visits and work requirements having to be postponed as a result of reduced access to the facility.
Access issues haven’t prevented operational challenges from occurring though, and recently our MRO SESKA power station (CSIRO renewable part of the power station) presented us with a couple of issues. The follow-up investigations have enabled us to learn more about the equipment and to identify appropriate measures to prevent those problems recurring.
With such a dry start to the year it was quite nice to see several decent localised falls over the last few weeks, with plenty of water holes now full.
On accommodation camp news, we have a new apprentice chef and the site crew has really enjoyed sampling a range of wonderful new dishes.
All the best, until next time.
Brett Hiscock, CSIRO
Photo credit: Brett Hiscock
Before the travel restrictions, I had the opportunity to participate in a heritage survey of a small area of the SKA site.
The surveys, or ‘walkovers’ are conducted by a Wajarri Heritage Service Provider and their team, with support from an archaeologist and anthropologist, and are intended to identify areas of heritage value.
This was an incredible experience that really brought home to me the raw beauty of the land. I’m drawn to the idea that the next generation of astronomers will be using an instrument located on land inhabited by the people with the longest history of astronomy. I think that’s fitting.
Progress towards the construction of the telescopes in Australia and South Africa continues to pick up speed. The SKA Organisation recently endorsed the preparation of construction and operations proposals that will underpin the project’s development.
Consideration of these proposals will be the first order of business for the new SKA Observatory, the organisation which will be responsible for constructing and operating the telescopes, when it is created this year.
After many years in planning, it’s exciting to see things starting to come to fruition.
David Luchetti, Australian SKA Office
Photo credit: Ant Schinckel
This year has seen significant work by the international team led by Curtin University with the Aperture Array Verification System (AAVS), as we continue to learn about the SKA-Low antenna performance, and explore calibration questions and other tests.
The Square Kilometre Array Office (SKAO) headquarters in the UK has been managing a process to look at the impact of various levels of minor design changes that typically occur for a range of reasons in the later phases of telescope design. This has involved interactions with many stakeholders, especially the science working groups, to ensure that any such changes have minimum impact on science outcomes.
Teams are also now focusing on the process to respond to such design change requests, along with any System Critical Design Review (CDR) related changes, with the goal of then finalising the design and beginning the creation of procurement material, ready for construction approval late in 2020 (or possibly later due to potential delays caused by the COVID-19 situation).
Operations planning has also ramped up with workshops held in February, and a further one scheduled for late April, which will now be a late-night videoconference (as many of our meetings are!).
Working through details of operations modes and maintenance activities has allowed us to determine staffing levels. This information is now available and being fed to the critical next steps, including the physical sizing of facilities to support these groups. This includes the Science Operations Centre (SOC, Perth), the Engineering Operations Centre (EOC, Geraldton) and the Boolardy Permanent Accommodation Facility (BAF - at Boolardy). As a result, we are now beginning the next phase of the work on how we acquire these facilities.
Ant Schinckel, CSIRO
Photo credit: ICRAR/Curtin
The first quarter of 2020 brought a truly extreme set of weather conditions to Australia, with huge fires through to major floods. All within days of each other in some cases.
Heritage walkovers continued during Summer and significant progress was made in several areas, though the weather did curtail some of the activities. Further surveys were scheduled for mid-March and early April; however as with so many activities, they have been deferred due to the COVID-19 situation.
In terms of land access for the SKA, 2020 is a big year, with leases, collaboration agreements and ILUAs all due. We have had further discussions with DISER (formerly DIIS - now the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resource) and the WA Government on the lease for Boolardy and the transition to a new lease, ready for the SKA.
ILUA meetings have also continued with a meeting between DISER, CSIRO and the Principal Contacts of the Wajarri negotiating team in February. Further meetings with the full team were scheduled for April, but have been delayed due to COVID-19, and associated community meetings are expected to follow later in the year.
The WA Government has commenced work on upgrading the road from Mullewa to Boolardy, as part of WA State Government’s support for the SKA.
Ant Schinckel, CSIRO
Photo credit: Brett Hiscock
CSIRO has a goal to enable the delivery of a range-land recovery programme for Boolardy Station.
Subsequently, CSIRO is supportive of mustering stray livestock off Boolardy Station and has recently sent an email to the neighbouring pastoral stations, advising of the process required to access Boolardy for the purpose of conducting mustering activities. This process will also support CSIRO’s obligations to ensure all activities are compliant with the Australian Radio-Quiet Zone WA (ARQZWA) legislation, applicable to the MRO.
Back in March, the Midwest Research and Development Committee (MWR&DC) meeting was held in Geraldton, and was attended by several local representatives, including CSIRO. Of significance was the notification that the Mid West Ports Authority has successfully applied to utilise the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre for a research project they are currently conducting.
I understand this is the first time a Geraldton-based organisation has identified and submitted a candidate application for time on Pawsey! My congratulations to both the Mid West Ports Authority and Pawsey, and I wish you great success with the project.
Kevin Ferguson, CSIRO
Photo credit: Brett Hiscock
Periodic maintenance programs continue to be conducted for the relevant infrastructure located at the MRO. In addition, checks were recently conducted on the operation of the new Boolardy accommodation bores.
Feral animal surveys were recently undertaken on parts of Boolardy to assist in determining the level of activity on the site. Activities were also conducted to control feral animal numbers across the site.
The procurement selection process is still in progress with regards to both the major MRO road maintenance work (9km driveway to the MRO Control building) and the Boolardy Services and Logistics Contract.
Brett Hiscock and Kevin Ferguson, CSIRO
Photo credit: Brett Hiscock
The extremes of summertime in the Murchison can be hazardous to telescopes too!
When we design and install our equipment, we must keep the effects of high temperatures and electrical storms in mind. In late February, the MWA operations team and contractors from GCo Electrical spent a couple of days on site providing maintenance to antennas that had been operating autonomously over the Summer.
The team was joined by Nature reporter Nicky Philips and engineers from the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF). The large party gave our fieldwork coordinator Andy the chance to try out a 4x4 bus, or ‘moon vehicle’ as it was affectionately dubbed.
In some exciting science news from the telescope, the MWA was part of a team of telescopes around the world that observed the biggest explosion ever seen in the Universe! A supermassive black hole, in a distant galaxy, released five times more energy than the previous record holder.
It was first seen by a space-based telescope with x-ray vision, and then confirmed to be a slow-motion explosion when the MWA and another radio telescope in India took a look. MWA Director, Professor Melanie Johnston-Holitt was part of the team that made the discovery.
Mia Walker, Murchison Widefield Array
Photo credit: Prof Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, MWA/Curtin
ASKAP is continuing to observe its first major science program since completing the construction of the telescope last year.
The pilot surveys that we are conducting now, are designed to test out the long-term plans developed by hundreds of astronomers from around the world in preparation for the next few years of full-scale operation.
At the end of last year we released data from the first pilot survey program to complete observation and data processing for its full 100 hour allocation of time. The Evolutionary Map of the Universe (EMU) pilot survey has detected about half a million radio galaxies, many of which will turn out to be new discoveries.
More recently, we have been hard at work observing and processing some of the spectral line pilot surveys, which involve sifting through even more data than EMU, searching not only for new galaxies, but using the detailed frequency structure of their radio signal to map the density and velocity of gas inside!
The image above shows an example of neutral hydrogen gas in the Eridanus cluster of galaxies. We have also continued the search for enigmatic fast radio bursts, leading the worldwide effort to determine what sort of galaxies they come from, and using them to study the material that exists between galaxies!
ASKAP is also working with another new science facility – the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). LIGO made worldwide headlines with the first ever direct detection of a signal in the form of gravitational waves rather than electromagnetic radiation, and we’ve been using ASKAP to search for radio signals from the same objects that LIGO has found.
Aidan Hotan, CSIRO
Image: Dr Karen Lee-Waddell
Step into the digital world to look at the future SKA telescopes.
All you’ll need is a tablet or smartphone and some colouring-in materials, pencils, textas etc.
While everyone has been busy prepping for the next stages of the SKA project and preparing the MRO, we’ve created a colouring sheet that will let you design your own paint job for the telescope and take a look at what it will look like on site once built.
Print out the colouring sheet, colour it in and then use your device and the Quivervision app (free!) to see both antenna designs of the SKA on their sites in South Africa and Australia brought to life (with your design!).
Once you’re in the app you can explore the SKA antennas in augmented reality and see how the SKA-Low antennas will be laid out.
The augmented reality experience has been developed by the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research with New Zealand firm Quivervision, and funding from SKA Australia and the Australian Government.
Give it a go
Kirsten Gottschalk, ICRAR
Image credit: ICRAR
Bernadette McCormack is our newest staff member at CASS Geraldton.
She is the MRO & MSF support officer, and provides support in finance, site visit logistics, MSF reception and other administrative tasks. Circumstances haven’t allowed a visit to the MRO yet, but we’ll rectify that as soon as we’re able. Bernadette took a bit of a circuitous route to us, and she has plenty of experience with remote locations. Read on for the story of Bernadette’s migration west.
In 2010, we moved from Bulli in NSW (approx. 75 kilometres south of Sydney) to a small town in the Goldfields located 368km north of Kalgoorlie, called Leinster. There’s about 250 houses in the whole town! The town had a lot of services at the time, which surprised me. There was a caravan park, supermarket, beautician, hairdresser, service station, gym, pool, coffee shop and a school. It’s a closed site and many residents have lived there for 10, 15, even 20 years. It is a great environment for children and always something to do. I worked for the community resource centre which provided services to the community, including 4WD tours, courses, exam supervision, an internet hub, children’s craft and movie sessions, monthly markets where people could sell their goods, like home-made chocolates, candles, Thai food, and craft supplies.
In 2015, we moved from Leinster to Christmas Island, which is a dot in the Indian Ocean, located 2600km north-west of Perth, Western Australia. Even though it is an Australian Territory, its closest neighbour is Java, 360km away.
When we first arrived on the island, our shed in the backyard was knee-high in coconut husks and we couldn’t work out why. We cleaned the shed out so we could see the floor again but once we’d cleaned it the husks would return. Some investigation and chatting to the locals revealed we had a robber crab living in our shed! He’d come out at night, climb the backyard coconut palm, collect the coconuts and roll them into the shed where he’d husk and eat them, and use the husks for a bed! We decided to leave the shed to the crab!
Wild chickens and roosters roam around the island by day and sleep in the trees at night. Rooster morning starts at around 2am, so that’s when the neighbourhood would wake up.
During the red crab migration season, most roads are closed. The main road usually remains open and if you drive at sunrise or sunset, you’re required to have a broom in your car, to sweep the crabs off the roads, so you do not squash them. This is also true for the runway at the airport, before and after the plane is due, the staff go out and try to remove as many robber crabs as they can.
It was a wonderful community and I’d recommend travelling to the Island. We’re now in Geraldton, having relocated and happily settled in the Mid West.
Bernadette McCormack, CSIRO
CSIRO acknowledges the Wajarri Yamaji as the traditional owners of the MRO site.