Eyes On The Ground Help the View From Space

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  Last updated October 25, 2017 at 4:19 pm


The view of Earth from up there has never been better and paradoxically that’s with help from Australian facilities on the ground looking up seemingly the wrong direction. As part of a panel, organised by the Australian Government’s Square Kilometre Array Office, at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide we explored how ground based astronomy supports exploration of space both near and far, and often in surprising ways.

From Professor Matthew Bailes, the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) at Swinburne University we heard how his search for gravitational waves, as well as super dense neutron stars using the newly upgraded Molonglo radio telescope required rapid, efficient searches through enormous datasets. The challenge of sifting through often noisy data, filled with Radio Frequency Interference (RFI), for the precious whisper of a radio signal is one familiar to anyone who has tried to download information from orbiting cubesats. The ability of machine learning to more efficiently discriminate between RFI and unexpected signals all with less power than ever before is of huge promise to the sharing of data across robotic explore missions and orbiting satellites. 

The Deputy Director of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, Dr Sarah Pearcehas a unique and critical role in bridging the gap between ground-based telescopes for research and those NASA missions operating throughout the Solar System. The same radio telescopes that CSIRO operates to find distant galaxies have also collected the faint signal from missions such as Voyager 2 as it flew past Uranus and Neptune. These signals from Voyager or indeed, the recently departed Cassini spacecraft, are less than billionth of the power of a watch battery, and yet not only can the signal be detected, the information therein can be downloaded and shared to the world. So weak is the power that the download speeds are more like old dial-up modems than the ultrafast WiFi that CSIRO helped create. However, that could change as NASA upgrades to laser-based communication offering HD quality streaming from distant missions.

Australia is involved in truly extraordinary next generation billion dollar facilities such as the Square Kilometre Array and the Giant Magellan Telescope, which the next panelist Prof Chris Tinney (Head of Exoplanetary Science at the University of New South Wales) is intimately involved in. As he described it, the GMT can see the tiny wobble of Sun-like stars as Earth-sized worlds pull the around during their orbit. The speed of this wobble is about that of a baby crawling towards or away from us, but seen from hundreds of trillions of kilometres away. These worlds offer examples of other types of atmospheres, magnetic fields and interactions of planetary systems with their stars. All crucial ways to test and improve our models of these critical systems on our own Earth.

From next generation telescopes to their precursors operating right now, we heard from former director of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) and Executive Director of Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy Prof Steven Tingay about this gigantic low frequency radio telescope in outback WA. While the MWA was built for astronomy it has also surprising ways to benefit to space environment monitoring closer to home. In particular it detected radio station signals reflected from orbiting metallic space junk overhead – an amazing use of TripleJ to detect dozens of pieces of space junk at a time. It’s also able to monitor the state of the ionosphere, one of the outer layers of our atmosphere that is hard to detect by other means but has serious consequences to communications and satellite signals, including GPS for your satnav!

Bringing together all of the wavelengths of light explored so far was Prof Lisa Kewley, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3D (ASTRO3D) at The Australian National University. As director of a national centre focussed on exploring multiwavelength observations, her team can explore a galaxy in a range of wavelengths of light. The datacubes of astronomical structures can then be sliced like a 3D tomographic scans in biology. This branch of astrophysics has played a significant role in hyperspectral images of the Earth from space, with soil moisture sensing for agriculture or monitoring runoff from farming effluent into the Great Barrier Reef by NASA.

Every astronomer on the panel, including yours truly, recognised that the discoveries awaiting us out there was incredible exciting and would inspire the next generation of students into science. We also wanted to see more of the technologies and techniques developed to enable these discoveries find their way into the wider community and economy. The new space agency will undoubtedly help this effort by bringing together industry and academia, as well as offer a career pathway for some of our best and brightest to move between both worlds to the benefit of each and the nation.

Molongolo Telescope image courtesy of Swinburne University of Technology

ASKAP image courtesy of CSIRO

Video courtesy of CAASTRO

Follow all the IAC 2017 coverage, including news and articles in the lead up to this astronautical event, and daily live videos during the Congress at australiascience.tv/iac-2017.

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About the Author

Alan Duffy
Professor Alan Duffy is an astronomer and physicist at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. He's also lead scientist for Australia's Science Channel. You can find him on Twitter @astroduff.

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