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Desert Astronomy

August 19, 2013

The desert of Western Australia isn’t very hospitable. There’s little water, summer temperatures can climb to 115 degrees, and settlements are few and far between. In other words, it’s a perfect place for exploring the universe.

Two of the world’s most advanced radio telescopes are taking shape there. The telescopes will help scientists and engineers shape a third — the largest in the world.

The telescopes are part of the Murchison Radio-Astronomy Observatory. Cell-phone towers and other devices that could interfere with the telescopes are banned within dozens of miles of the site — not much of a problem in the sparsely settled desert.

One of the telescopes is the Murchison Widefield Array, which entered full operation last month. It consists of more than 2,000 spider-like antennas, which are linked to produce sharp images of the radio sky. Astronomers will use those images to study the earliest galaxies, and map the gas between stars in our own galaxy.

A telescope known as ASKAP will consist of 36 radio dishes scattered over several square miles. They, too, will be linked together to form a single telescope. It will study the evolution of galaxies and look for radio outbursts from black holes and other objects.

Both telescopes are helping in the development of the Square Kilometer Array — thousands of dish antennas to be built in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The array will produce by far the best look yet at the radio sky.

More tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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