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Out of the diamond planet, a research group emerges

Taking the long wide view of astronomy

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Sydney University is leading a research collaboration that inverts the familiar approach to astronomy: instead of more powerful telescopes looking at smaller parts of the sky, CAASTRO (Centre for All-sky Astrophysics) will be concentrating on whole-of-sky astronomy.

The other partners in the group are the Australian National University, the University of Melbourne, the University of Western Australia, Curtin University, and the Swinburne Institute of Technology.

It’s going to be a multi-disciplinary group, covering radio and optical astronomy, theoretical astrophysics, and the computer sciences.

According to CAASTRO director Professor Bryan Gaensler, all-sky astronomy poses three distinct challenges. “First, you need to build new types of cameras and receivers that have much wider fields of view than anything built previously.”

Of course, a snapshot of the whole sky is going to yield a shed-load of data. Imaging those wide fields, Professor Gaensler said, yields so much data that you can’t store it: “You need to use supercomputers to process the data in near-real-time, and then discard it”.

Finally, there’s the “needle in the haystack” problem: even after it’s processed, the result is going to be “extremely large and complex multi-dimensional data sets,” he told El Reg. “You need to find clever and efficient ways of searching through all this information for the signal you are interested in.”

The research group describes its mission as looking for answers on “the evolving universe, the dynamic universe, and the dark universe.”

It will take advantage of more than $AU400 million that’s been put into various instruments that are either ready-to-go or under construction: SkyMapper, which is due to go into service within a month or so; the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder, which will start gathering data in about six months; the Murchison Widefield Array which, although under construction, has been “yielding beautiful data” for a year; the venerable Anglo-Australian Telescope; the Square Kilometer Array Molonglo Prototype, which is yielding data; with the Pawsey High Performance Computing Centre for SKA Science providing data processing (its first stage is already operational).

While some of this instrument set is still under construction, Professor Gaensler said many instruments, in particular radio telescopes, are usable before they’re officially completed, “since all you need are two or more dishes linked together to begin taking data … the Murchison Widefield Array is a case in point.”

And CAASTRO’s collaborators are already seeing results, including last month’s diamond planet discovery. Professor Gaensler explained that while the group was created at the beginning of April, it had been ramping up and adding staff prior to its formal launch today (September 12).

The University of Sydney announcement is here. ®

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