As a kid, I didn’t associate the night sky with science. – it was just one of those amazing and magical parts of nature. But watching Mars for the first time when I was 12 with my dad catalyzed everything for me. I just fell in love with astronomy.
I realized that astronomy wasn’t just for old-timers like Isaac Newton – it was a modern, tangible opportunity for me to go to college and become a scientist.
Since then, I’ve helped build some of the most powerful telescopes in the world, but I’ve never owned one. We just saw an article in the newspaper that said you can see Mars with the naked eye, so we found a star map in an ops store – the 1957 Norton Star Atlas. It was this nice, old, cardboard thing with pages and pages of different views of the night sky in different constellations. I completely fell for it.
I can call it an obsession. I joined my local astronomy society and some members had telescopes that I could look at on special observing nights. And this made me associate it with science. I realized that astronomy wasn’t just for old-timers like Isaac Newton – it was a modern, tangible opportunity for me to go to college and become a scientist. I ended up doing my PhD in radio astronomy at Jodrell Bank Observatory, University of Manchester, UK.
The incredible Lovell Telescope there is 76 meters in diameter. It’s basically a gigantic bucket for scooping up radio waves from space. Radio waves are just like light, just a kind of bloated, oversized version that spans a longer wavelength.
With radio telescopes we can see things that happened billions of years ago. It’s a time machine.
For my doctorate, I studied the formation of stars. They were actually born inside dense, dusty, dark clouds in interstellar space. And we can’t see inside those clouds with normal light. But with radio waves, we can see very deep into these clouds, and we can actually measure the chemistry inside and determine the physical and magnetic conditions under which these stars form.
Radio waves help us see the beginning of the universe. The light from the Big Bang is stretched by the expansion of the universe into a radio frequency spectrum. With radio telescopes we can see things that happened billions of years ago. It’s a time machine.
In 2012, I started working as a CSIRO Project Scientist for the Square Kilometer Array Telescope. The SKA will have 130,000 individual antennas in Western Australia and several hundred dishes in South Africa. It will have huge collection areas to see very, very faint things in the far universe, things that we have never seen before. And the massive spread of telescopes will give us very high resolution to see details.
We will be able to create images, so people can understand what we are detecting, but radio images are a bit ugly. All we really measure with these telescopes is voltage in a piece of wire. So we have to use false colors to intelligently turn them into an image in a hugely complex process that requires a supercomputer and lots of math. We don’t get the pretty pictures that telescopes like Hubble and JWST produce, but we are blessed with the information we gather.
Read more: SKA’s low-frequency radio telescope promises first look at the origin of the Universe.
Construction should start very soon, probably next year. And in the next few years, infrastructures and tests will be underway. Then we can start looking back to the beginning of time – less than half a billion years after the Big Bang, 13.2 billion years ago. We should be able to see the first stars and galaxies forming and get an idea of how this process happened. It’s really going to start telling us a story of the early universe, the creation of what we see today, and the creation of us. We want to witness the time when the universe became luminous with stars and galaxies – the end of the cosmic dark ages.
I was also the project scientist for the Australian SKA Pathfinder Telescope for about seven years. It is the most powerful and fastest sounding telescope of its type in the world. I actually weighed a supermassive black hole using it – it came in at around 3.8 billion solar masses, a very heavy black hole caused by the collision of at least two galaxies.
This telescope has helped us discover amazing things like fast radio bursts across the universe – those very mysterious explosions that hopefully will soon tell us more about dense star collisions or black holes or whatever that they end up being. We do not know yet.
The next big thing in astronomy is actually being able to make sense of this massive amount of data.
The amount of data created by these new telescopes is absolutely breathtaking. The Australian SKA Pathfinder alone produces raw data at a rate of 72 trillion bits per second. The SKA will be much more: it will exceed global internet traffic by several times – just a huge torrent. The next big thing in astronomy is actually being able to make sense of this massive amount of data.
We can get all the information we want from the universe, but the hardest part is extracting meaning from it. The computer skills of astronomers have increased dramatically lately – there are now a lot of projects where people are doing PhDs in machine learning and artificial intelligence, developing algorithms to automatically detect interesting objects. That’s the really cool tip that’s going on right now.
Also in weekly cosmos Number 78: The whole thing.
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