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One of the SKA precursors begins work and takes us a step closer to the Big Bang

9 July 2013, Melbourne, Australia –  The world’s most sensitive radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), came a step closer to reality today with its first precursor telescope officially starting observations of the Universe.

The MWA telescope, located in Western Australia, is one of the SKA precursors. Credit: SKA

The MWA telescope, located in Western Australia, is one of the SKA precursors. Credit: SKA

The Murchinson Widefield Array (MWA) will explore the early Universe looking for signals from the first stars and galaxies, which formed after the Big Bang. It does this by collecting the very faintest radio signals from deep space using more than 2000 antennas.

MWA is an important pathfinder project for the SKA, the world’s largest radio telescope which will operate in South Africa and Australia and will be 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument. 

Australian Minister for Innovation Senator Kim Carr launched the MWA operational phase from Melbourne, Australia today. “This is an incredibly proud moment for Australia. The MWA is the first SKA precursor telescope to be completed and to become fully operational,” Senator Kim Carr said.

More than 350 astronomers and engineers from Australia, the United States, India and New Zealand have collaborated to make the project a reality.

“In addition to helping us see back to the origins of the universe, the array will also help us to understand the interaction between the earth and the sun, give early warning of destructive solar flares and study our galaxy and other galaxies,” Senator Kim Carr said. “I congratulate the international consortium, led by Prof Steven Tingay at Curtin University, whose hard work has delivered a world first for Australia.”

Director General of the international SKA Organisation, Prof Philip Diamond, also welcomed the start of MWA science operations. “MWA is an important radio telescope in its own right. It will also be a key precursor in the design and development of the SKA’s Low Frequency Array, to be hosted in Australia.”

Several Labor Government initiatives have contributed to the success of the MWA including the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, the Education Investment Fund and the Australia India Strategic Research Fund.

Senator Kim Carr said it showed how investment in one piece of Australian infrastructure could produce world class science outcomes in another. “Without the NBN link between Geraldton and Perth, the MWA would not have been possible,” Senator Kim Carr said.

“The MWA will help Australia remain a world leader in radio astronomy while also building our scientific capabilities and attracting some of the best scientific minds to our country. Not only does radio astronomy make many marvellous discoveries about the universe, its development has produced technologies that we rely upon every day – like Wi-Fi. Australia is proud to be a partner in this global science project, and in the SKA.”

About the MWA

The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) is a low-frequency radio telescope operating between 80 and 300 MHz. It is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia, the planned site of the future Square Kilometre Array (SKA) lowband telescope, and is one of three telescopes designated as a Precursor for the SKA. The MWA has been developed by an international collaboration, including partners from Australia, India, New Zealand, and the United States. It is entering final construction and will be fully operational beginning in 2013.

About the SKA

The Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity, and 10 000 times the survey speed, of the best current-day telescopes. The SKA will be built in Southern Africa and in Australia. Thousands of receptors will extend to distances of 3 000 km from the central regions. The SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our Universe including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the big bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth. Construction of phase one of the SKA is scheduled to start in 2016. The SKA Organisation, with its headquarters at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester, UK, was established in December 2011 as a not-for-profit company in order to formalise relationships between the international partners and centralise the leadership of the project.

Members of the SKA Organisation as of May 2013:

  • Australia: Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research
  • Canada: National Research Council
  • China: Ministry of Science and Technology
  • Germany: Federal Ministry of Education and Research
  • Italy: National Institute for Astrophysics
  • Netherlands: Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research
  • New Zealand: Ministry of Economic Development
  • Republic of South Africa: National Research Foundation
  • Sweden: Onsala Space Observatory
  • United Kingdom: Science and Technology Facilities Council

Associate member:

  • India: National Centre for Radio Astrophysics

SKA website: www.skatelescope.org

SKA Australia website: www.ska.gov.au

MWA website: www.mwatelescope.org

Media contacts for this release: Minister’s office 02 6277 7070 

Contact for SKA Australia:
Jerry Skinner, SKA Australia Communications Manager. Email: Jerry.Skinner@innovation.gov.au. Phone: +61 2 6213 6298

Contact for SKA Organisation:
William Garnier, SKA Chief Communications Officer. Email: w.garnier@skatelescope.org. Phone: +44 (0) 161 306 9613 and + 44 (9) 7814 908 932