New telescope to unlock the Big Bang’s secrets

The first fully operational precursor telescope to the giant Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, was officially launched on Tuesday by Australia’s Federal Education Minister Kim Carr.

Constructed by an international consortium, the Murchison Widefield Array is an important pathfinder project for the SKA, a US$2 billion radio telescope that will operate in South Africa and Australia with a sensitivity 50 times greater than any other radio instrument.

The Murchison Widefield Array, or MWA, is located 200 kilometres inland from the Western Australian coast, in a sparsely populated site chosen for its uniquely low levels of radio frequency interference.

With more than 2,000 antennas, the telescope is able to collect faint radio signals from stars in the outer reaches of space that were born shortly after the Big Bang.

But, as Carr pointed out, the array will also help scientists understand the interaction between Earth and the sun, provide early warning of destructive solar flares and aid the study of our own galaxy and others in the far reaches of space.

Nobel prize-winning astronomer Professor Brian Schmidt from the Australian National University, who is a member of the MWA board, said the new telescope would survey the sky at low frequencies, much faster than had 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 and the electrons are bound to hydrogen atoms, to being ionised, where they are stripped from their hydrogen atoms by the energetic light given off by the first generations of stars,” Schmidt 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.”

He said the project had a huge benefit-cost ratio: by training the scientists and technicians who would build the SKA, getting Australian industry ready for that telescope and, more directly, pushing the Australian sector in computing and internet connectivity.