All the way with MWA: a big new telescope to unlock Big Bang secrets

The antennas that capture low frequency radio waves at the Murchison Widefield Array radio telescope in Western Australia. AAP Image/Supplied by Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker

Education minister Kim Carr today launched the Murchison Widefield Array, an important precursor telescope that will one day feed space data to the Square Kilometre Array telescope, allowing astronomers to study galaxies billions of light years away.

The MWA is an important pathfinder project for the SKA, a A$2 billion radio telescope that will operate in South Africa and Australia and will be 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument, according to a press release issued by Senator Carr’s office.

The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), based in the Shire of Murchison, 200km inland from the Western Australian coast, uses more than 2,000 antennas to collect faint radio signals from stars in the outer reaches of space that were born shortly after the Big Bang.

The sparsely populated site was chosen for its uniquely low levels of radio frequency interference.

The Murchison Widefield Array by night. AAP Image/John Goldsmith, Curtain University

Senator Carr pressed the launch button for the MWA in Melbourne today to applause from gathered scientists at the Astronomical Society of Australia conference at Monash University.

“This is an incredibly proud moment for Australia. The MWA is the first SKA precursor telescope to be completed and to become fully operational,” Senator Kim Carr said.

“In addition to helping us see back to the origins of the universe, the array will also help us to understand the interaction between the earth and the sun, give early warning of destructive solar flares and study our galaxy and other galaxies.”

“I congratulate the international consortium, led by Prof Steven Tingay at Curtin University, whose hard work has delivered a world first for Australia.”

Signs of the Universe switching on

Nobel Prize-winning astronomer Professor Brian Schmidt from the Australian National University and a member of the MWA board said the new telescope would survey the sky at low-frequencies much faster than have been possible in the past.

“I am particularly excited about two things: one, looking for the signature of the Universe turning on - the so called Epoch of Reionisation, where the universe goes from being neutral (where the electrons are bound to hydrogen atoms) to being ionised (where electrons are stripped from their Hydrogen atoms by the energetic light given off by the first generations of stars),” he said.

“And two, new things going bump in the night. The Universe is an exciting and sometimes violent place where amazing things happen. The MWA can see more sky at a time than anything we have ever had before by a huge factor. We literally have no idea what we are going to find but we already know there are things out there from nearby stars to distant objects billions of light years in distance.”

Professor Schmidt said the MWA showed “how Australia is taking a lead in the technology and science which will be at the core of the SKA, making sure that we are not just the host of the world’s largest telescope, but also its heart and soul.”

“I believe this project has had a huge benefit-cost ratio - in training of the people who are going to build the SKA, in getting Australian industry ready for SKA, but more directly in pushing the Australian sector in computing and internet connectivity, things that all contribute to the building blocks of an innovative and productive economy.”

Astronomy Professor Matthew Bailes, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research) at Swinburne University of Technology said today’s launch meant that “the telescope actually works and is ready for science”.

“Previously only a subset (about 25%) of it worked, now all of it does,” he said, adding that the expertise developed will play a role in development of the SKA.

“The MWA has shown how great the Australian SKA site is. The infrastructure there is very impressive.”