Exploring the origins of the universe

29 Feb 2016

Author: Christopher Niesche

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Discover how the world’s largest radio telescope will help scientists explore the origins of the universe.
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Steven Tingay was five when he received a book about the solar system as a present.

“For some reason, it hit a nerve. By age six, I had a telescope set up in the backyard and from that point on, all I ever wanted to do was study the universe,” he says.

Tingay fulfilled his childhood dream and is now a world-renowned astrophysicist. 

In 2015 he was appointed the founding director of the new Osservatorio di Radio Astronomia (Radio Astronomy Observatory) for Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF).He will play a leading role in Italy’s contribution to the landmark billion-dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, a giant radio telescope that will help scientists probe the origins of the universe.

The SKA consists of hundreds of thousands of individual small antennas scattered over thousands of square kilometres.  To be constructed in Western Australia and South Africa, it will be the largest and most capable radio telescope ever built, and its construction will involve institutions from over 20 countries.

“Optical light can get blocked by dust and gas, so in many cases you can’t see things far in the distance because they’re obscured by the foreground,” says Tingay, who is in Italy on a three-year secondment from Curtin University in Western Australia, where he is Professor of Radio Astronomy.

“But radio waves pass straight through. The SKA will be so powerful, we will be able to see things at extreme distances in the universe in very fine detail.”

When the SKA is operational in the 2020s, a supercomputer will combine all the data from the individual antennas into an image, similar to what would be seen through an optical telescope.

Tingay says one of the most important uses for the SKA will be to explore how the first stars and galaxies in the universe formed, by looking back in time over 13 billion years, almost to the point of the Big Bang. The only way you can access information at those vast distances is to tune the SKA in to the low-frequency radio waves produced in the early universe.

Another primary SKA goal is to look at pulsars, which are the collapsed remnants of stars. They rotate extraordinarily quickly and in a very stable fashion, producing a pulse of radio waves every time they rotate. This makes them the most accurate clocks in the universe – they can be used to scrutinise theories of gravity in very close detail, such as Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

As part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the Australian Government has committed A$294 million toward constructing and operating the SKA over the next decade. This raises the question of why spend the money on the research.

“One answer is just the pure act of uncovering knowledge about the universe and what that means for drawing young people in particular into science, engineering, mathematics and physics. It’s the act of scientific curiosity and discovery that humans are drawn to,” says Tingay.

But there is another more interesting answer. “Today, we only understand 5 per cent of the universe, but the SKA project will help us understand the other 95 per cent. And when that happens, it will literally rewrite the laws of physics,” Tingay says. “Fundamental discoveries lead to technology development, commercial and economic outcomes.”

Mobile phones, for instance, owe their existence to the discovery of quantum mechanics. “A hundred years ago, people started to uncover the fundamentals of how particles interacted and that led to the development of materials, transistors, electronics and computers. The ever-increasing miniaturisation of this technology resulted in us being able to talk on mobile phones,” he says.

“There’s a continuous loop across history between fundamental discovery, technology development, and economic progress. Sometimes, that loop can take decades, even hundreds of years. That is the true value of a continuous effort and investment in this type of research around the world – Australia must be part of that story.”

The road to Italy 

After finishing school in Bendigo, Victoria, Tingay enrolled in physics and maths at The University of Melbourne as the first step towards becoming an astrophysicist. Next was a PhD at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. Mount Stromlo Observatory, the headquarters of ANU’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, was his dream destination for astrophysics at the time, Tingay says. 

During his PhD, Tingay worked closely with researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and after graduating he joined JPL for three years. He returned to Australia in 1999 to work at Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) , then Swinburne University of Technology.  In 2007 he was recruited by Curtin University to establish the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy (CIRA).  Within only eight years, Tingay led CIRA to an Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) ranking of 5 (well above world standard) in astronomy and astrophysics, the highest possible ranking.

As Director of CIRA, Tingay led the design and construction of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), one of three precursor telescopes to the SKA – essentially an SKA prototype. Of the three precursors, the MWA is the only one to be fully operational, detecting the low-frequency radio waves needed to look back in time.

It was Tingay’s track record in establishing excellent research teams and delivering world class research infrastructure that led to him being offered his current position in Italy. 

Italy is one of 12 founding countries of the SKA and Tingay has moved to Bologna to make a leading contribution to Italy’s SKA program.  As Director of the Osservatorio di Radio Astronomia, Tingay leads an organisation of approximately 200 people and is responsible for Italy’s major national facilities in radio astronomy, including the newly completed Sardinian Radio Telescope (SRT).

Italy plays a pivitol role in the SKA, leading the intergovermental negotiations between SKA partner countries to establish the formal international organisation that will build and operate the SKA.  The country also has ambitions to play a significant role in the construction of the SKA.

While in Italy, Tingay continues to be involved with Curtin University – and is hoping to increase scientific, technical and political connections between Italy and Australia. He is currently organising a conference to be held in Perth, that will bring together Australian and Italian radio astronomers, with a focus on how the two countries can collaborate in areas of science, engineering and computing to resolve some of the big, exciting challenges around the SKA.

Tingay remains as fascinated by the universe today as he was when he first got his hands on that book about the solar system as a five-year-old.

“There’s something about discovering how the universe works that I think fired my imagination very early on and I think that’s the feeling that sticks with me today. It’s irresistible trying to figure out where that light from the stars came from, what makes the universe work, how is it that the stars and our solar system and therefore us came to be here, tracing it all the way back to the Big Bang,” he says.

“Questions don’t get bigger than that and I’ve always found it fascinating that humans are in a position to ask those questions and, in fact, seek some answers.”

Fly-through animation of MWA Radio Telescope - Video credits - CAASTRO and Swinburne Astronomy Productions, Melbourne.

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