Our neighbours know better than anyone of the challenging climatic conditions we encounter working out in the Mid West region of Western Australia - the Summer heat alone can be punishing. On the other hand, Spring brings out the wildflowers.
This seasonal display of native Australian flora is spectacular and also unique, as some of the species we see out here can only be found in the Murchison region. Although I’ve been in WA for eight years, I’ll never tire of this annual spectacle.
On the subject of never tiring, the last few months has been productive for teams on site and also for others further afield planning future works. As you will read in this 5th edition of the MRO News, a number of activities continue to progress well, with the Murchison Widefield Array’s (MWA) recent transition from extended to compact modes, and CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope continuing the countdown to full survey science.
Infrastructure upgrades for the AAVS SKA test system have also been a key deliverable during the winter months and these have enabled additional testing and modelling. Winter may have come and gone, but it has been a busy and productive season throughout.
It’s great to see the MRO evolving and work being done towards realising next generation radio telescopes. A reminder of the importance of Australia’s role in radio astronomy came in July, with the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, in which CSIRO’s Parkes Observatory played a crucial role.
There’s a variety of projects we cover in this Newsletter, mostly focused on site infrastructure and the telescopes (present and future). In this edition, we welcome the addition of some articles from ICRAR about recent outreach activity and an astronomy virtual reality app, available for download!
MRO News is also available now on the CSIRO website! Just go to the MRO page and look for the menu on the left hand side for the newsletter link. If you’re not already on our subscriber’s list, you can subscribe there too.
I encourage you to find 10 minutes to read through the various articles below and as always, if you’d like to send feedback or find out more about something in particular, please send me an email at email@example.com
Kevin Ferguson, CSIRO
It's amazing to arrive on site each morning and see all 36 ASKAP antennas operating!
The local team continues to roll out improvements to CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope and it’s exciting to see the science teams making use of this. Regularly we arrive on site to see all 36 antennas ‘tipped’ over observing!
Improvements in the last quarter included making minor adjustments to the counterweights on some antennas and modifying the tuning of some antenna drive systems.
Our aim is to have the drive systems position the antenna to an accuracy better than 0.00139 degrees whilst tracking a radio source – remember, if you spin in a full circle you cover 360 degrees, so this is one 250,000th of a circle!
To achieve this sort of accuracy we use two motors to slightly torque oppose each other to remove gear backlash, otherwise such accuracy would not be possible. We are still learning the characteristics of the drive system and I expect we’ll continue to improve the system for some time.
The MRO’s hybrid energy power system recently had a few hiccups and as we’ve been working through the operational issues, we’ve taken the opportunity to identify a number of improvements. One significant improvement that we have now completed is an upgrade to the lithium-ion battery storage protection system. The full system will be operational when we complete some final work and system tests.
Brett Hiscock, CSIRO
The Australian Parliament is currently considering Australia's participation in the SKA Observatory
It’s an exciting time in the SKA Office with Australia’s participation in the SKA Observatory (the body that will eventually operate the telescope) now being considered by our Parliament.
During the next few weeks, the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) will consider public submissions and hold a public hearing. This ‘ratification’ process is mandatory for all international agreements, or treaties. JSCOT will deliver its report to the Federal Executive Council for review which is presided over by the Governor General. The whole process is expected to be completed in early 2020.
Another key focus for the SKA partnership is the development of a procurement policy for SKA construction. While procurement activities aren’t expected to commence until late 2020, my office is working with the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme to develop a ‘toolbox’ to assist Australian companies prepare for SKA contracts. This will include a diagnostic tool to help businesses self-assess their ‘Big Science’ project readiness.
Companies wishing to be kept informed of these developments are encouraged to register their interest by joining the Australasian Square Kilometre Array Industry Cluster. Details on how to join are available on our website at www.ska.gov.au.
David Luchetti, Australian SKA Office
The low antenna design development continues off-site, meanwhile on-site we see some engineering ingenuity with a re-purposed shipping container.
As we noted in June’s newsletter, developments in the SKA Low world continue at a rapid pace. Off-site modelling of the antenna’s performance is continuing at the University of Manchester UK, and extensive work on other design and prototyping activities continues all over the world, including the Netherlands, Italy and Australia.
As with the infrastructure group and all other parts of the design team, we are preparing for the big system review in December. This is a key step in the process of checking and finalising the design before procurement.
The next stage of antenna testing has commenced with the roll-out of a small number of antennas and equipment at the MRO, near the MWA site. It is actually difficult to test the performance of the antennas anywhere else in the world due to the high levels of radio frequency interference, even this work is best done here in the Murchison.
To enable this test work, a ‘Shielded Processing Enclosure’, housed in a shipping container has been installed at the MRO. This new temporary facility has been heavily modified to suit the SKA’s needs and to meet the MRO’s radio-quiet requirements.
The facility can be compared to CSIRO’s control building, which has been shielded to prevent any radio noise from the electronics inside the building escaping into the environment. If that happened, these erroneous signals would contaminate the signals from the sky that our radio telescopes are observing.
To ensure the facility is sealed tight, we brought in some experts to perform strict emissions testing on the building. One of the ways it prevents radio noise leaking out is with large airlock doors so that people can move in and out of the facility without needing to turn equipment off.
Melbourne-based company Compliance Engineering delivered the facility, including a large roof which creates a nice place for an afternoon drink but operationally less direct sunlight on the building means the air conditioners don’t have to work so hard to keep the equipment inside nice and cool, which is a great energy-saver!
The facility has space for six racks of computing equipment and will be fitted out with ‘tile processing modules’ that do the first stage of signal processing for the antennas. Getting the facility up and running has been a joint effort by ICRAR-Curtin and Geraldton contractors, GCo Electrical. It was also supported by an upgrade to the high-voltage transformer on site, delivered by Balance Utility Solutions and High Energy Service Group.
Ant Schinckel, CSIRO and Mia Walker, ICRAR-Curtin
It’s been a quiet period for our team. We followed up on our June site visit with some design adjustments which reflect the results from our detailed “on the ground” examinations.
This quarter has been dominated by the preparation of final designs and documents for the overall SKA project System Critical Design Review (CDR). The various individual elements of the SKA have been through their CDRs and the next step is this overall SKA project review in December by a prestigious international panel, which will review all elements.
Following this, some small design changes are expected and then once the new SKA IGO has been established, the project will begin the procurement process.
Ant Schinckel, CSIRO
The heritage survey process continues with teams walking across about 600 hectares.
The heritage walkovers are continuing. This is where the traditional owners, along with professional archaeologists, ethnologists and CSIRO representatives are carefully walking across the land that is proposed for the construction of the Square Kilometre Array, about 600 hectares in total.
As the team makes its way, areas are categorised into different levels of significance and their type and location is being recorded. The cooler weather has helped a lot recently, and we have only lost a few days with rain! The team has now covered about 70% of the site.
Nearby in the Murchison is Wooleen, a 380,000 acre outback nature-based cattle station with a focus on ecology, owned by the Pollock family. We would like to congratulate David Pollock on the publication of his book, The Wooleen Way. A fascinating read we strongly recommend!
Ant Schinckel, CSIRO
We delivered science outreach to locals during National Science Week, attended some regular local meetings, and entertained one of Australia's diplomats to China - quite a diverse range of things!
National Science week activities were held in Geraldton during August and staff from CSIRO, Curtin University and ICRAR gave talks in Schools, including the Meekathara School of the Air, the Geraldton TAFE and the Geraldton Museum.
An ILUA Liaison Committee meeting was held at the CSIRO’s Murchison Support Facility (MSF) in Geraldton during September. This provides the Wajarri Yamaji, CSIRO and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS), the opportunity to review MRO-related activities and opportunities and ensure compliance with the Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA).
Australia’s Consul-General to Guangzhou, China, Mr Jason Robertson visited Geraldton during September, and accompanied by Mrs Joanne Fabling, CEO of the Mid West Chamber of Commerce and Industry, visited the CSIRO’s Murchison Support Facility (MSF). We were delighted to provide Mr Robertson with an overview of the MRO and the various capabilities currently on site, as well as an overview of SKA. Mr Robertson provided some fascinating insights into Australia’s multi-faceted relationship with China.
Members of the Mid West Research &Development (MW R&D) Committee attended a meeting with Mia Davies, MLA, and Ian Blayney, MLA. During the meeting it was noted that the presence of the SKA project and access to the Pawsey supercomputer in the Mid West provides significant potential for R&D in the area and was the inspiration to initiate the MW R&D committee, almost two years ago.
Kevin Ferguson, CSIRO
The repair and upgrade works lately have all been pretty 'grounded' here at Boolardy!
We've almost finished connecting two new bores to the water treatment plant at the Boolardy homestead, with some final control system testing and commissioning to be completed.
Fencing on a section of our northern boundary is also underway. Other work this quarter included an unplanned quick maintenance grade of the MRO entrance road and the ASKAP antenna tracks, to repair some rain-damaged sections. We have also made an internal bid for additional funding to complete further road works on the MRO.
Brett Hiscock, CSIRO
One of the most common questions about the MRO Radio Quiet Zone (RQZ) concerns the use of drones.
We understand that drones can be a valuable tool for pastoral activities. You may have seen the ABC program in mid-September about the use of drones at Jingemarra Station to track and bait feral dogs, and we understand why this would be very beneficial.
In some circumstances, a drone can disrupt radio astronomy observations, mainly due to the radio transmitters used to control it and to send information to the user. The actual risk of interference depends on the drone location, height, and type of radio system.
Drone technology – the flying machinery and the radio systems – is evolving rapidly. At the current time, most drone technology that we’re aware of is unlikely to cause interference to radio astronomy, except at fairly short distances. We ask that if you’re planning to fly a drone within the 70 km Inner Radio Quiet Zone (see map), you let us know in advance where and when you will be flying. If you know the brand name of the drone or the company providing it, we can check what radio system it uses. We can then estimate whether it might cause interference and, if so, we can work around your plans.
In June, a team of engineers from Italy used a drone at the MRO to measure the performance of antennas that might be used for SKA. This work was coordinated with CSIRO’s MRO radio quiet team in advance. This allowed us to estimate that it was not likely to affect the other radio telescopes and to advise the radio astronomers to be aware of any stray interference.
In summary, we’re not trying to prevent the use of drones, but we appreciate being kept informed of their use in the Inner RQZ.
Carol Wilson, CSIRO
Image caption: Please let CSIRO know about plans to use drones in the Inner RQZ (red circle).
Now we have an even better chance of detecting the elusive EoR!
The MWA telescope continues to be a quiet achiever, like your ‘old faithful’ car that runs well even if you don’t have the money for that full service it needs. Operated on a limited budget by a small dedicated team, it exceeds expectations every year with the quality of its scientific output and the reliability of its engineering systems.
One of the largest goals of the MWA is the detection of signals from the Epoch of Reionisation (EoR), the period when the first stars and galaxies began to form. A recent paper (Barry et al, 2019) using MWA Phase I data is now the closest scientists have come to discovering signals from the early Universe.
Now that the telescope is in Phase II, we have an even better chance of detecting the elusive EoR. This is because we can arrange the telescope into a ‘compact’ mode, where the antennas are all clustered closely together (within a few hundred metres), and this improves our ability to observe faint or diffuse signals. The MWA spends half the year in this mode, and the other half of each year in its ‘extended’ mode, where the antennas are spread up to five kilometres apart. Separating the antennas over long distances has the effect of increasing the resolution of the telescope, and this mode is better for scientists who want to image galaxies and other sky objects in detail.
The telescope was put back in its compact mode last month by a small group of Geraldton contractors from GCo Electrical, and one MWA Operations team member armed with a screwdriver and an adjustable wrench. That week of effort left us at an awesome 97% operational ability, with only four sets of antennas offline while we replace some receiver equipment that hasn’t aged as well as the rest. But that’s not nearly enough to stop the MWA from observing, day and night, providing high-quality data to astronomers all over the world.
Mia Walker, Murchison Widefield Array
The final countdown to full operations continues.
The countdown to full survey science on ASKAP continues with the release of a new image from test data by the Widefield ASKAP L-Band Legacy All-Sky Blind Survey (WALLABY) science team. This image is actually a cube – it has an extra dimension obtained by studying what astronomers call spectral line emission. Using ASKAP’s ability to divide the radio spectrum up into fine channels, astronomers can study the motion of gas in distant galaxies, giving us an indication of their distance and internal structure.
When ASKAP launches full survey science (post-commissioning mode or pilot test survey mode), the telescope time will be shared by nine research teams, composed of astronomers from CSIRO and other research institutes in Australia and overseas. The discoveries they make will be recorded in academic papers which will be published in astronomy-related and other science journals.
An exciting paper by a member of The Commensal Real-time ASKAP Fast Transients survey (CRAFT) team, Xavier Prochaska, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, was recently published in Science. Xavier led the team’s analysis of an FRB signal which had been detected and localised by ASKAP. They found that the FRB had pierced the halo of an intervening galaxy on its journey to Earth. The CRAFT team were able to analyse the burst’s signal to reveal new information about galactic halos. You can read more about it here.
Meanwhile, our engineering teams continue to improve the telescope based on operational experience. In order to spend as much time as possible producing data for astronomers, we need to maximise the uptime and efficiency of the telescope.
Aidan Hotan, CSIRO
Have you ever wanted to have X-Ray vision? Microwaves eyes? Or even Radio Wave perception? Download GLEAMoscope VR and you can!
As you open the app you’ll enter the Murchison in fully immersive virtual reality to a sunset view over red dirt and high-tech radio antennas. You're standing on the MRO looking over antennas from the Aperture Array Verification System, potential design for SKA-Low. As the sun goes down, the night sky is revealed above you but not as you might usually see it.
The GLEAM survey is a highly detailed survey of the sky in radio waves using the Murchison Widefield Array radio telescope led by Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker at ICRAR-Curtin.
Gleamoscope VR is a virtual reality expansion of the website http://gleamoscope.icrar.org/ created by talented students at Perth’s North Metropolitan TAFE. Points of interest are marked in the sky with voiceover and text explanations by radio astronomy researchers and a fully immersive Australian outback environment surrounding the user. The VR app is mobile VR compatible (Google Cardboard) and easy to set up and use.
Download it on the Google Play Store now! Search ‘GLEAMoscope VR’
Kirsten Gottschalk, ICRAR
Mt Magnet is about 250 kilometres from the MRO and once a year this town holds an annual weekend dedicated to astronomy and geology.
Astronomers and science communicators from ICRAR and the Astronomy WA Collective make the trip from Perth to support the event with telescopes, displays, talks and interactive activities.
Around 150 people came along to this year's AstroRocks Fest, at least half from the local community and nearby towns, and the rest from all over WA and even Australia's east coast. The highlights of the evening were the dark skies that only an outback town can give and the constellation of telescopes spread across the oval.
This year's festival featured the 2019 astro-photography exhibition, showcasing Western Australian photographers. ICRAR also took along the new GLEAMoscope virtual reality app - see below for more details on this!
Every year, ICRAR and the Astronomy WA Collective support several regional Astrofest-inspired events like the Mt Magnet AstroRocks Fest. These events help communities connect with their own amazing night sky, promote tourism in the region, and inspire young people to pursue STEM related studies and careers.
Cass Rowles, ICRAR
My name is Rochelle, and I’m the coordinator for CASS Operations support in WA. This is a new position for me after working as the MRO & MSF support officer for nearly five years.
I grew up in Geraldton then lived in Perth for a few years before I brought my two young girls back to Geraldton to be closer to my parents in 2000. My lovely husband and I have four children and two grandchildren, most of whom live in Geraldton. There’s one outlier in the UK, and we’re looking forward to seeing her in February.
My work background is in customer service, including admin, retail, training delivery and visitor services in both government and private industry. I’ve also managed remote field projects and was lucky enough to spend a few years running whale surveys while I was working towards my business degree.
I’m a reader, I like to be out in the garden, and I love to cook. We have a fabulous veggie garden in the front yard (because the back is hammered by our screaming southerly!) and we grow veggies, fruit and most of the herbs we need for my favourite Asian recipes.
I’ve recently had the chance to be involved in some public events, including visiting Parkes for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing. 20,000 people visited the site over two days (including several astronauts as you’ll see in the photo) so we were flat out, but it was an amazing weekend and a real buzz to be a part of such a huge event. Locally, I was recently involved with organising some astronomy talks in Geraldton for Science Week. The speakers were really well received, and working with people from CSIRO and other organisations to make it happen was a fabulous start to the new job.
Rochelle Desmond, CSIRO
CSIRO acknowledges the Wajarri Yamaji as the traditional owners of the MRO site.