Galaxy census one of the first ASKAP projects

Galaxy census one of the first ASKAP projects

International researchers plan to map galaxies, look for all the black holes in the universe and possibly find intelligent life

One of the Australian SKA Pathfinder radio telescope dishes at dusk in Western Australia.

One of the Australian SKA Pathfinder radio telescope dishes at dusk in Western Australia.

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope which officially opened on Friday in WA is already in demand with a galaxy census and black hole research among the projects planned for the next five years.

CSIRO SKA Australia and New Zealand director, Doctor Brian Boyle, told media during a press briefing that the census of all the local galaxies within a few billion light years of Earth will tell researchers a lot about the local dynamics of the universe.

“That will give us the most accurate map of the mass around us within 2 billion light years and also explain how our Milky Way galaxy was formed,” he said.

“There is another project to study all the magnetic fields in the universe to look at whether or not cosmic magnetism played a vital role in the formation of stars and galaxies.”

In addition, researchers will use the ASKAP radio telescope to map all of the black holes in the universe.

“These are the dense, compact objects which we think actually seed the formation of galaxies,” Boyle said.

The starting point for black hole research will be the Centauraus galaxy, over 11 million light years from Earth.

According to Boyle, the Centaurus galaxy has a black hole in the middle which is 50 million times the mass of the Sun.

“We now think that black holes are ubiquitous in the formation of galaxies but we can’t study them very easily because we don’t have the wide fielder view capability,” he said.

Boyle added that science observations will start taking place before the end of 2012.

Intelligent life?

While it is not the primary goal of the ASKAP or Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope projects to find extraterrestrial life, Boyle said that the power of the ASKAP radio telescope could make the interception of deep space radio signals from other planets easier.

“As you are surveying the sky, particularly over wide areas of sky looking for other objects, you are also increasing the search volume for signals from extra-terrestrial life,” he said.

“We don’t really know where we would look first so the best thing is to try and look everywhere if possible.”

According to Boyle, CSIRO scientists know of at least 1000 planets beyond Earth’s solar system. However, none of these planets have been “terribly Earth-like” in terms of their potential for harbouring life.

“The universe is certainly teeming with planets but the drive behind ASKAP and SKA are to understand our origins and how galaxies formed,” he said.

“It’s very unlikely that we will detect any [extra-terrestrials] but the impact if we do is pretty high.”

The ASKAP radio telescope was funded at a cost of $152 million by the Commonwealth Government of Australia. The Government also invested $80 million in the Pawsey Centre. A $33 million Cray supercomputer will be built at the Pawsey Centre over the next two years to support ASKAP.

“Research at the Pawsey Centre will have an impact beyond radio astronomy because it will be used in all sorts of areas of data analysis, particularly in the areas of mining and medical applications," Boyle said.

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

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