22 August 2001
Australian astronomers were jubilant to hear today that they have received $23.5 million under the Major National Research Facilities Program to increase Australia's share of time on the Gemini telescopes in Hawaii and Chile and further Australia's involvement with the planned international giant radio telescope called the Square Kilometre Array.
"It's fantastic," said CSIRO's Professor Ray Norris, one of the proposal's proponents. "We were up against a lot of excellent proposals."
"Australia is very capable in both optical and radio astronomy. We do great science and build great instruments," he said.
"We want to integrate the capacity we have in both fields, and enhance it. With this funding we can achieve our major aims."
The $23.5 million is 80% of the $29 million the proposal requested. The MNRF program requires that universities, CSIRO and industry partners contribute matching funds.
The MNRF funding will create good outcomes in the short, medium and long term, Professor Norris said.
"Straight away Australians can get more access to world-leading large telescopes," he said. "That means increased scientific productivity."
"In the medium term we're boosting Australia's capacity to build leading astronomical instruments."
"Ten billion dollars is being poured into world astronomy over the next decade. There is a huge market for instruments. We'll get our slice," he said.
"And in the long term we've strengthened Australia's chance of hosting the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. Sections of that could be spread right across regional Australia."
The MNRF proposal was arrived at by extensive discussion throughout the entire Australian astronomy community.
Professor Norris described the proposal as 'consensual'. "It sums up what the astronomy community sees as the way to go."
The radio and optical aspects of the proposal were complementary in their scientific goals, he said.
"One of Gemini's key science goals is to understand how what galaxies were up to in the early Universe."
"The key science goal of the Square Kilometre Array telescope is to understand the very first structures that formed in the Universe before stars existed," he said.
Eight-metre-diameter optical telescopes such as Gemini are now the world standard for front-rank astronomy.
The Gemini Consortium runs two identical eight-metre-diameter telescopes: Gemini North on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which began operations late last year, and Gemini South at Cerro Pachón in Chile, which is due to start operations later this year.
Australia is a member through the Australian Research Council (ARC). The other member countries are the USA, the UK, Canada, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.
Each country is allocated observing time in proportion to its financial contribution. Australia currently pays $2M a year and gets 5% of observing time. The MNRF proposal aimed at doubling the contribution to $4M annually and roughly doubling the time.
Gemini member countries also contribute capital costs. But in Australia's case the Gemini consortium may consider contributions being paid in the form of instruments for the telescopes. These include an adaptive optics system, which corrects the blurring caused by the atmosphere, and an advanced spectrograph, for analysing the light from galaxies.
Australia's instrument-building prowess is well known. The ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics is already building a $3M instrument called NIFS for Gemini.
"Paying in kind rather than in cash means we build up our expertise rather than drain our coffers," said Professor Brian Boyle of the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO). The AAO is an Australian leader in building instruments for optical telescopes.
"Ten years ago we started building the two-degree field instrument for our own telescope, the Anglo-Australian Telescope near Coonabarabran," said Professor Boyle. "That cost $4M but we got $8M back."
The robotic control technologies the AAO pioneered in the two-degree field system have been spun off into a series of other instruments for overseas telescopes.
One is the $3.2M OzPoz robotic positioner the AAO has built for an 8-m telescope of the European Southern Observatory in Chile. This will be finished and shipped in October. A second project, still under way, is the $4M Echidna instrument for Japan's 8.2-m Subaru telescope in Hawaii.
Australia is one of the most active of the 11 countries now planning a giant international radio telescope called the Square Kilometre Array or SKA.
The host country will be chosen in 2005. Construction will start around 2010.
The Square Kilometre Array telescope's prime goal is to look far back enough into the early Universe to see the first galaxies forming.
It will be a hundred times bigger than even today's biggest telescopes, all the better to capture the weak whispers from the early Universe.
Its total collecting area - one square kilometre or one million square metres - will not be a single huge surface. Instead it will be many small surfaces, grouped in patches.
Ideas vary as to what these surfaces are. The USA favours small satellite dishes. Australia is considering both 5-m spheres ('Luneburg lenses') and flat tile-like collectors.
The slice of the MNRF funding directed to the Square Kilometre Array will be split several ways.
The largest chunk will go towards building a 'demonstrator' system, two patches of either spherical Luneburg lenses or 'tiles', to test the technologies.
"They'd be built alongside CSIRO's existing Australia Telescope at Narrabri and integrated with it," said Dr Peter Hall, leader of the CSIRO SKA Program.
These test systems would boost the Australia Telescope's abilities by making it able to see many different parts of the sky at once - something no other telescope can do.
Canberra-based CEA technologies, which sells radar systems internationally, will contribute to the prototype systems. CEA was a co-proponent on the MNRF proposal.
"We're looking at sophisticated technologies for manufacturing some of these components," Dr Hall said.
"For instance, we're looking at building the Luneburg lenses out of material that is modified by particles smaller than a strand of DNA to give it the right properties."
Advance Powder Technologies of Western Australia was one company contributing to that research, he said.
Another slice of the MNRF funding will be directed to Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Sydney, both members of the Australian SKA consortium.
The University of Sydney will test the merits of another form of antenna technology for the SKA - cylindrical antennas. This is the design used in its Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope. The University will also work on leading-edge digital signal processing technology that may be used in the SKA.
Swinburne University of Technology will use its supercomputing facility to run simulations relevant to the SKA - what the telescope will see and how it will work.
Dr Hall stressed that this research raised Australia's chance of hosting the SKA.
"Australia is a superb location for this telescope," he said. "Australia is to radio astronomy what Chile and Hawaii are to optical astronomy - a place with the clearest view."
"Natural advantages aren't going to be enough for a successful bid. But add in good technical programs and we've got a good chance," he said.
"The MNRF funding is a real plus in this."
The thrust of the MNRF proposal sprang from a recent 'discipline review' of Australian astronomy that set out to determine future directions for the field.
The review will be launched by Professor Vicki Sara, CEO of the Australian Research Council, at Parliament House on Wednesday 22 August.
Professor Ray Norris, Acting Director, CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility
Professor Brian Boyle, Director, Anglo-Australian Observatory
Dr Peter Hall, CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility
Dr Rachel Webster, Chair, National Committee for Astronomy
Dr Warrick Couch
Project Scientist, Australian Gemini Project Office
Australian Gemini Project Office
Gemini media resources including images of the telescopes
Low-resolution jpeg image of the Square Kilometre Array
10 MB jpeg image of the Square Kilometre Array
Russian 'Luneburg lens' being tested by CSIRO
MPEG movie - animated 'flyover' of an array of Luneburg lenses in the Australian
B-roll (Gemini and Australian telescopes and instruments) and animation (SKA),
Contact Helen Sim 02-9372-4251, 0419-635-905, Helen.Sim@atnf.csiro.au