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.

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