Field of Science

Astronomy in Western Australia

Murchison, AUSTRALIA - Building a radio telescope is nothing like working on an optical telescope, except that both bring you to remote areas. Western Australia reminds me of the Texas hill country. I grew up in Texas and as simple as I can describe it Western Australia is like an upside down Texas. And the people they are nearly the same: they have thick accents, more land than they know what to do with, and national pride. It is hard to describe everything so here are a few pictures of what I have seen out here.

This is a massive 12 meter radio dish from the experiment next door. Western Australia is perfect for radio astronomy. There are very few people and no radio stations to interfere with the data. Several other projects, most importantly the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), are very nearby to the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA). Australia is pushing to develop an infrastructure and technical knowledge base in a bid to host the Square Kilometer Array which will be the ultimate next generation radio telescope.

A Bungarra has come to visit MWA! A Bungarra or Sand Goana is a type of monitor lizard common in this part of Western Australia. They are big critters with a swaggering gate and curious yet skittish attitude. This one was wandering around our site for some time. I think he was as equally curious as to what we were doing as to I was about what he was doing. The big white box is a receiver that takes input from the antennas which we were testing.

The self reliant mind set is necessary out here. I am on what an American would call a ranch, but what they call a station. The stations muster, or as I would say drive, thousands of head of cattle and sheep to turn a profit. We were driving along the road one day on our 40 kilometer commute from the station to the antennas when we came upon this airplane. The station manager flies it around to help spot and muster the livestock because it is one of the only ways to find anything on 900,000 acres of land. There are lots of subtle differences to the stations round here to what I would expect in Texas actually. For example there are kangaroos instead of deer, and they don't use horses to muster they use dirt bikes.

This image is a track left by a Bungarra marching off into the distance. Long before the scientists, engineers, or even the ranchers converged onto this remote land an indigenous population known as the Wajarri lived here. Bungarra and their eggs were, or rather still are, a source of food for these people. The Wajarri, like other Aboriginal peoples in Australia, have a different cultural background which is hard for myself and many other westerners to comprehend. What is clear to me is that ancient wisdom still matters in this modern world because humans have a tendency to overreach; technology allows us to do many things, but what should we choose to do? The Wajarri people seem to agree that we should do astronomy as they have allowed us the use of their land for radio astronomy. Perhaps a desire to understand our place in the Universe is a shared cultural value.

A Primer on Radio Astronomy from Australia

Murchison, AUSTRALIA - I am seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and yet I do not doubt that the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) is at the center of the Universe. Australia is beautiful out here. The area is surprisingly green because of recent rains and the sunsets are a mix of pastel reds and blues. At night the sky is filled with shooting stars and the Milky Way cuts through the sky so bright that dust lanes and nebula, like the Cosack Nebula, seem to have been painted in black on top of the band of stars in our galactic plane. The radio sky as the MWA sees it would look very different. In order to grasp what the MWA does we will have to first explore what radio astronomy and interferometry is.
Radio astronomy is the alchemy of astronomy; shrouded by secrecy and perpeputated by false claims of being able to transmute raw data into gold. There was a time when radio astronomy was really hard, and that time is always, but technology is making new things possible. The Murchison Wide Field array that I am working on here in the outback is only one of the many next generation low frequency radio telescopes coming online or planned such as LOFAR, LWA, and others.

Modern astrophysicists can observe the Universe using light, particles, or (hopefully) gravity waves. Classically astronomers observed light through a telescope, but today we don't look through telescopes and we don't just vaguely see light; we precisley count photons from every part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Light is made of photons, but a photon can be thought of as a wave and a particle. Indeed, a photon is a wave and a particle at once. Longer wavelength photons have lower energy and lower frequency compared to short wavelength photons. In the radio regime of the electromagnetic spectrum the particle view of light is not very helpful, in fact many radio astronomers and engineers actually neglect to ever think about about photons and only consider wavelength or frequency. Radio astronomers view light as an electromagnetic waves impinging upon our patient antennas like waves on the beach.

Long wavelength photons come from some very interesting sources in the sky. Radio waves certainly come from the Sun, because the Sun emits some energy at just about every wavelength. Radio waves are also emitted by galaxies, pulsars, and neutral hydrogen (through the 21cm line). However, the wavelength of photons is not constant: it increases as the photons traverse the Universe due to cosmological redshift such that more distant objects are seen at progressively larger and larger wavelengths consider to more and more distant objects. In my research I am particularly interested in studying the distribution of matter in the Universe at the largest of scales and at the earliest epochs when there was an abundance of neutral hydrogen. Radio waves are perfect for studying these phenomena, but it is difficult to build a telescope that can see a widefield of view, can see a wide range of frequencies at once, and has good resolution.

As radio waves arrive at our antennas we can either immediately detect them or we can reflect them to a receiver. The Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico is reflector type telescope, as are the antennas in the Very Large Array. The antenna on your car directly receives the electromagnetic wave because it induces an oscillation in the field inside the metal of the receiving antenna and then you can hook up a transistor, and a speaker - that is a radio like in your car.

The problem with detecting radio wavelengths is that they are not easy to catch and they act way too much like a wave. Waves have strange properties such as interference and diffraction. It can be shown from wave theory that a telescope of diameter D receiving light of wavelength λ has a fundamental angular resolution limit proportional to λ/D. For example the colossal 300 meter diameter Arecibo telescope can only resolve objects down to 3.5 arc minutes (or about half a degree) at a wavelength of .2 meters (or 1.4 Ghz) and that resolving power will only get worse as we move to longer wavelengths. So if you want to see small things in the sky you had better have a huge radio telescope. But wait, there is more. The field of view that a radio telescope can see is also proportional to λ/D. For example at a wavelength of .2 meters it would take Arecibo about 10 separate observations to make an image of the full moon which is about half a degree in the sky.

So if you want to look at the radio sky at high resolution you had better use a huge telescope, but if you want to look at the radio sky in huge swaths, like in survey, you had better use a small telescope. It would seem to be that we are at an impasse to find a decent resolution and decent field of view radio telescope. Enter radio interferometry.
The diagram above is a pictorial representation of the principles of radio interferometry. In box A we have a big radio dish like Arecibo and a radio wave incident upon it. The radio waves hit the dish and reflect to a receiver (not shown in the cartoon) at the focal point. In box B we have chopped our radio telescope into little bits and so while the dish would behave as a smaller dish it would operate via the same principles. Each part reflects the radio waves incident upon it to a single focal point. In box C we have moved the pieces of the dish into several independent dishes and wired them together. Each dish now has its own focus, field of view, and angular resolution limit (this setup is similar to the VLA). Finally, in box D we have gotten rid of even the dishes. Instead of turning the dish to point to a particular object we use the time delay due to the finite speed of light to 'point' the antennas. An object in the direction θ in the sky sends out radio waves that arrive at the antenna tilted. So to catch the same the wave on the antenna on the left and right spanning the arrow in the diagram we use the time delay τ. In this setup there is no pointing the dish there is only an electronic control of simple antenna elements; this is how the MWA works.

The most difficult part of pulling the telescope apart is reassembling the signals coherently. In the diagram this is the function of the box with the circle and x. In radio astronomy that box would be a complex supercomputer and is called a correlator. The computing power needed to operate a correlator scales as the number of antenna elements squared thus it really takes a powerful computer to operate an array with many antennas. The idea is that the signal from each pair of antennas is correlated together to determine the pattern of incident radio waves. This is the basic idea of radio interferometry; the beautiful thing is that you get the large field of view that each antenna would see and the excellent resolution that the large diameter of antennas provide. The description I have given here of radio interferometry is wildly simplified.
So here I am in a shed in Murchison. A generator is humming along and powering all our computers and equipment and importantly the air conditioner keeping me cool. Flies and strange insects pester us relentlessly the moment I step outside. There are a lot of great things about Australia, but it is also a very harsh environment out here. The array has not been cooperating perfectly: there are amplifiers, attenuators, analog to digital converters, correlators, and more that all have to act in symphony for the system to work. The last few days we have solved as many problems as we have created. The radio sky sends its nite rote down upon us and waits for us to complete the instrument.

Scratching the Surface

Perth, Australia - I found myself in a coffee shop in downtown Perth today just as I would likely of been in Seattle. It was as if I were in a parallel dimension and indeed I talked about parallel dimensions with some new friends I met. I asked them about places in Perth and they asked me about the Universe; I think I learned as much about Perth as they learned about the Universe.

I walked north towards a pub they recommended, but on the way I discovered something much more interesting. I stumbled upon the Scratching the Surface art show. It was a visual art gallery opening by several young artists just beginning to make they mark upon they world, or as they said just scratching the surface. I was walking along the street when I took a double take upon seeing book pages folded upon themselves in a mysterious manner. It was Pascal Proteau's work from recycled books. One of the most imposing works was a massive balance of books holding upon itself a crooked balance of folded book pages.
Nathan Brooker presented a series of works that were reminiscent of Andy Warhol in their repetition and bright colors. Some of his work was shocking. The image below is tame, but the Nathan did many more interesting things which cannot be shown (here is a seriously not safe for general consumption, very intense and shocking do not click here if you don't want to be offended image of Booker with art).
There was lots of shocking art including strange embroidery by Carla Adams. She used homely materials to create dangerous and daring works. I assure you that the image here is the most tame possible from the work she had on display. I asked her what had turned her mind to think of such juxtaposed concepts and she said that it was exactly that, the juxtaposition itself of feminine handy work and male homosexuality.
I was drawn in by the strange folding of books, but it was Ian Williams piece that really stole the show for me. He called it 'Under the Influence', but whatever the influence was it was inspired. An acrylic on oil board piece it was a work of labor as he told me it was painted with acrylic then sanded down then painted again. The entire piece had a subtle checkerboard texture pattern which resulted. And the eyes. The eyes followed the viewer from every angle. This piece was also amazingly large (1.8 by 1.2 meters) which added to its captivating features. It was a stunning piece. He is a talented artist.
Finally, here is a piece of art created just this evening by a friend who I know only as Silvia. She was an art student at the same school in Perth (CIT) as all the artists featured above. I went to a bar (with the aptly artistic name Ezra Pound) with her after the art show and she drew this for (or rather of) me.
It was a strange day in a strange place, but it was fantastic. Tomorrow, I head north into the desert and the Outback.

Australia Trip to Murchison Wide Field Array

I am going to Australia for two weeks on Sunday to work on data collecting and commissioning of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA). The MWA is a next generation radio telescope being built in the radio free void of Western Australia. The radio sky is a largely unexplored area of astronomy. The radio sky holds many exciting scientific prospects and by observing it we can learn about cosmology, the first stars, our Sun, galaxies, the structure of the Milky Way, pulsars, dark matter, and dark energy. Studying the sky in radio wavelengths is tricky because of the complex electrical engineering problems its presents and the sheer computing challenge which arises from the fact that each antenna must be correlated with every other antenna thus thus computational cost of adding antennas goes as the number of antennas squared. Currently we have 32 'antennas' out (already more than the VLA); each antenna actually consists of 16 dual polarization dipoles (seen below in the image). The final MWA layout will have 512 antenna tiles with 8192 dipole elements sensing the sky in the frequency range of 80-300 MHz. We have already generated some fantastic images of Centaurus A and other fields, but I am not sure what images I am allowed to release. In the next two weeks I will write up what I am up to in my Australian travels and hopefully I will post some never before seen images.

Nostalgia de la Luz

The present does not exist. All notions of the present are built upon the history of light. Patricio Guzmán's makes these surreal claims as he narrates in his documentary Nostalgia de la Luz (or Nostalgia for the Light) as he draws out the connections between astronomers and those searching for bones in Chile's Atacma Desert. Guzmán is obsessed with history and talented at drawing strange parallels in this compelling film. Chile under the rule of Pinochet in the '70s has a dark history of kidnapping, concentration camps, and mass murders of political dissidents. Chile also has clear dark skies which astronomers have fallen in love with.

I saw this film this evening and I was impressed. It takes one of the best parts of astronomy and projects it on to a real human conflict in a way that is scientifically tasteful and touching at once. There is a lot that could be said about the film and the director as well who was in exile from Chile in the '70s, but there is an easy way to summarize the film: the most profound questions about the Universe and human existence are the same. However, this summary doesn't do the film justice as it uses strong imagery to evoke what can't be said. I did not know that the half illuminated moon and a human skull looked so similar. In the end though you are left with the realization that those searching in Chile's deserts will not be able to change the past.