LOST IN SPACE IN THE OUTBACK
The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) will be the world’s most powerful radio telescope. Still in expansion – it currently has 36 dishes – the telescope will have the equivalent of 96 dishes by the time it’s fully operational in approximately 2023.
Set on the remoteness of Boolardy Station a pastoral lease some 4 hours drive inland across red dusty roads from the nearest regional settlement of Geraldton on Western Australia’s central coast, is by anyone’s standards in the middle of nowhere.
With its eye-catching sun-bleached white dishes, the ASKAP cuts a dramatic manmade imposition on the landscape panorama. But it’s not alone in the wilderness. Another radio telescope system on the property spreads across the ochre coloured terrain appearing as robotic silvery spiders. Laid out in square grids, the so called Widefield Array was designed and is monitored jointly by CSIRO and a dozen other Australian and international science bodies.
It’s interesting to note that the Murchison shire covers an area the size of The Netherlands, has a population of 113 people, hosts 29 properties and has no townships. Boolardy Station was earmarked as an ideal location for the radio telescope for this reason: it’s quiet – there’s minimal electronic interference from mobile phones and other equipment.
While in the neighbourhood I also had the pleasure of experiencing Astrofest – attracting some 300 amateur astronomers and astro enthusiasts from as far away as Perth, 800 kilometres to the south.
Where as optical telescopes can view visible light, radio telescopes pick up radio waves across the depths of the universe. Unlike visible light, radio waves travel the entire breadth of the universe without being absorbed and scattered by intervening matter - making it possible to read deeper into the history of the universe than my any other means.
As local pastoralist Sandy McTaggart so profoundly stated ”They reckon that the deeper into space you look, the further back in time you go. So when you’re looking at other galaxies you’re actually looking at light from a million years ago. It’s the big question, isn’t it: how did it all begin? Every religion was spawned on the basis of it.”
Commissioned by The Weekend Australian Magazine
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