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.
Covering a feature for The Weekend Australian Magazine recently, I travelled to the remoteness of Boolardy Station to photograph the facility and the key members of the team overseeing its operation. Boolardy, 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 anyones 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.
While in the neighbourhood I also had the pleasure of experiencing Astrofest, an event sponsored by the State government with talks by leading Australian based astronomers. Held at the Murchison Settlement, a roadhouse and sports facility nearby the ASKAP, it attracted some 300 amateur astronomers and astro enthusiasts from as far away as Perth, 800 kilometres to the south.
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 .
Where as optical telescopes can view visible light, radio telescopes pick up radio waves across the depths of the universe. As The Weekend Australian’s features writer Richard Guilliatt eloquently wrote in our article “radio waves are especially interesting to astronomers because, unlike visible light and other electromagnetic radiation, they travel the entire breadth of the universe without being absorbed and scattered by intervening matter.”
As local pastoralist Sandy McTaggart so profoundly stated to Guilliatt, ” 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.”
‘Life, The Universe & Boolardy’ as feature in 12 October ’13 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine can be viewed here: