Observing the universe with the MWA

Categorised: INSPIRE, News, Newsletter

Operational in Western Australia since 2013, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) is now in its second phase, with double the number of antennas and ten times the resolution. A total of 4,096 antennas now work as a unit, remotely directed to search the skies for new discoveries. This $65 million low-frequency telescope was developed as part of an international collaboration of member countries. Led by Australia, through NCRIS and other infrastructure investments, New Zealand, Japan, China, India, Canada and the United States also provided funding and assisted in the development of this telescope. 

The MWA has played an important role in a wide range of discoveries and breakthroughs, including the world’s first detection of gravitational waves and radiation from a neutron star merger, confirming the observational findings of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). It has also been used for:

Each observation from the MWA generates a large amount of raw data, and the telescope is currently collecting over a petabyte of data per month that is deposited into the long term archive in Perth. To put this amount of data into perspective, one petabyte of mp3 songs (at 1 megabyte per minute) would play for 2000 years! The raw data must be processed and stored before it can be made available for analysis and research, which is where the All Sky Virtual Observatory (ASVO) comes into the picture. 

The ASVO serves as a data portal to distribute MWA data to the international astronomical community. In a recent upgrade to the service, it now also performs an initial calibration of the raw data. Previously, astronomers had to have expert knowledge of the MWA to perform calibration of their data, greatly reducing the number of potential users. Now, with the new MWA node of the ASVO, hosted on the High Performance Computing (HPC) facility at Pawsey, initial processing and calibration happens automatically. Removing one of the technical barriers to accessing the data has greatly increased the pool of researchers who are able to benefit from this cutting-edge instrument. 

In addition, a suite of tools for analysis is also accessible through the ASVO, as well as contextual data (where available) from the MWA and other Australian telescopes. This new process has dramatically increased the rate at which astronomers can draw conclusions from their observations and create new research outcomes.

As Director of the MWA, Professor Melanie Johnston-Hollitt is already proud of the world-first observations achieved by the telescope, but notes that this is a significant and exciting new investment for the future of the MWA and for science in general. 

"The MWA will sustain the ambitions of young scientists and engineers from around the world for the next decade at least, providing the essential training ground to develop future leaders in radio astronomy. The MWA excites young people about careers in science, engineering and technology. From this, we can cultivate skill sets for the global knowledge economy of the future. Having a service like the ASVO that distributes the data faster and closer to science ready, to as many people as possible, is the best possible way of getting both the science outcomes we want, and using this transformational telescope to inspire the next generation of researchers," Professor Melanie Johnston-Hollitt said.

All in all, it is an exciting time for astronomy and for increasing our understanding of the universe as a whole.

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Who is involved?

The ASVO:

Astronomy Australia Limited, Curtin University, the MWA, Swinburne University of Technology, the Australian National University, National Computational Infrastructure, the Australian Astronomical Observatory, Pawsey, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). ASVO has received funding from the Australian Commonwealth Government through the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC) and the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

The MWA:

The MWA is led by Curtin University on behalf of our partner institutions: the Australian National University, Brown University, the Berkeley Seti Research Centre at the University of California Berkeley, CSIRO, Kagoshima University, Kumamoto University, the University of Melbourne, Nagoya University, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, Swinburne University of Technology, Tohoku University, the University of Sydney, the University of Tokyo, the University of Toronto, the University of Washington, the University of Western Australia, the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Victoria University of Wellington, and Western Sydney University. The MWA is supported by NCRIS, Pawsey, Astronomy Australia Limited, the Australian Access Federation, and the ARDC. For more information please see www.mwatelescope.org.

IMAGE COPYRIGHT: JOHN GOLDSMITH 2012

An MWA tile at night. Image credit to Dr John Goldsmith / Celestial Visions