Immense Vision

September 29, 2015

Radio astronomer Professor Steven Tingay observes the skies using a $50 million telescope he and his team built in remote outback Western Australia.

In any given week, Tingay might be discussing a galaxy census, monitoring solar flares for the US Air Force or investigating the beginning of the universe.

Tingay is the Director of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy at Curtin University, Deputy Director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research and Director of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA). Still less than two years old, the MWA has already entered uncharted territory, collecting data that will uncover the birth of stars and galaxies in the very early universe and produce an unprecedented galaxy catalogue of half a million objects in the sky. The MWA could also one day provide early warning of destructive solar flares that can knock out the satellite communications we rely on.

“To date, we’ve collected upwards of four petabytes of data and all the science results are starting to roll out in earnest now,” he says.

“It’s an amazing feeling for the team to have pulled together, delivered the instrument, and to do things that no one ever expected we could do when we did the planning.”

The project sees Curtin University lead a prestigious group of partners, including Harvard University and MIT, in four countries. And while the MWA is a powerful telescope in its own right, it paves the way for what is arguably the biggest science project on the planet – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The promise of this multi-billion dollar telescope, which will be built across Western Australia and South Africa, drove Tingay to move to Perth seven years ago. “I like to be close to the action, building and operating telescopes, and using them to do interesting experiments that no one else has done before – in close physical proximity.”

His team of 55 researchers at Curtin University are working on the astrophysics, engineering and ICT challenges of the SKA.

“Curtin is an amazing place to work,” he says. “It’s focused on a few very high-impact developments and making sure that they’re properly funded and resourced.

“Periodically, I sit down and think: ‘Where else in the world would I rather be?’ and every time I conclude that for radio astronomy Curtin University in Perth is the best place to be.”

Michelle Wheeler

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