How scientists are tuning in to the universe, man

By | May 17, 2021

You are driving on the freeway listening to the radio, but you are getting stagnant. Enjoy it. This is the voice of the universe.

You are driving on the freeway listening to the radio. Unfortunately, radio is picking up something stable. Sounds a bit bitter, doesn’t it?

You might be surprised to know that static is actually the grand opera of the universe – stars, pulsars, galaxies – all of which blast radio waves and have been doing so for billions of years.

Yes, your 2002 Honda Civic has the car tuned into the radio universe, man.

But while we may all be able to tune Cosmic FM, we do not understand all the noise.

This is where Professor Steven Tinge arrives. He is the Executive Director of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy at Curtin University and Deputy Executive Director at the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research, a joint venture between Curtin University and UWA. And his team has got some very good things in that stable.

Cosmic dial on

Using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope, a state-of-the-art radio astronomy technique, Steven’s team has discovered a pulsar – a dense and fast-moving neutron star that pulsates radio waves in the universe.

While this is the first Pulsar detected by MWA, located in the far Mid-West region of Western Australia, it is certain that it will not be the last. In fact, this discovery shows how many of today’s great discoveries have been made not by traveling to the new world, but by listening to what is already around us.

As Steven explains, “Each MWA antenna receives radio waves from all parts of the sky – all objects simultaneously, 24/7.

Still you might be wondering that if your car’s radio can pick up radio waves from the universe, what makes MWA so cutting-edge?

Chunky data

Tuning is only the first step in Cosmic FM. The hard part is reducing the numbers.

Steven says, “Once the MWA collects data, you need to process those data in different ways to extract different information about different objects.”

“We can turn radio waves into a highly enriched dataset, and you can process those data in many different ways to learn different things … as long as you can afford the computing power . ”

Indeed, if there is anything limiting radio astronomers, it is not their ability to seek this information. It is actually the computer’s ability to process large amounts of data.

So far, MWA has collected about 40 petabytes of data – equivalent to 40 million gigabytes. And if you think it was big, say hello to the Square Kilometer Array (SKA)…

hip to be square

One of history’s biggest scientific endeavors, the SKA is a telescope whose lens — you guessed it — is one square kilometer. However, the important thing is that it is not a lens. These are thousands of small lenses scattered around the world, from high-frequency dishes in South Africa to small low-frequency antennas in WA.

“WA in MWA includes 4000 individual antennas, while WA spanning 120km in SKA will contain more than 130,000 individual antennas.”

“SKA will be more sensitive than MWA and will be able to create images in much greater detail.”

“MWA will be 1% of SKA.”

the final Frontier

It’s going to be a lot of data to crunch, but Steven is using this incredible tool to ‘explore’ the last unexplored era in the evolution of the universe: its first billion years.

“Within that first billion years, the first generation of stars and galaxies was formed, which set the scene for the evolution of the universe.”

Unraveling the mysteries of the first billion years of the universe? Let’s see your 2002 Honda Civic does it!

So the next time you are driving on a freeway and can’t see cricket well, just sit back and enjoy the static for a moment. You’re listening to the biggest radio show in the universe, and it’s about how we got here.

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