WA forges its place in the space race

There is a renewed focus on astronomy and space science in the public consciousness.

Charlotta Kemp by Charlotta Kemp,

Since the 1960s Western Australia has been an attractive setting for major space projects due to its geographic location, high air quality and dry environmental conditions – factors which together create a perfect state of radio silence.

Today, the global space industry is undergoing a rapid reinvention. According to Morgan Stanley the global space industry is expected to reach US$1.1 trillion by 2040, up from US$350 million in 2016.

With its extensive space capability and land availability, Western Australia is the ideal home for the Australian Space Agency (ASA).

The Ukraine government has for some time been eyeing off the Curtin Royal Australian Air Force base in Western Australia as the site for the country’s spaceport. Significant infrastructure, facilities and institutions have been developed in recent years, including the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, the Murchison Widefield Array and the Australian SKA Pathfinder, and the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. The Space Industry Capability In Western Australia review by ACIL Allen shows 74 international and Australian space-related companies have a presence in WA.

Space-based data is revolutionising WA’s key sectors mining, oil and gas, defence and agriculture with its many applications, including vegetation and remediation mapping, yield monitoring, autonomous vehicle and drone positioning and guidance, defence satellite communications, satellite imagery and communications for rig positioning.

Here’s a snapshot of what’s happening in Western Australia and how the State is forging its place in the global space race.

The Square Kilometre Array

Once operational, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will provide the most detailed radio astronomy imagery in history and produce unprecedented data volumes. It will be the biggest scientific facility that Australia has ever hosted and will be run by an SKA consortium of twelve participating countries. The Australian SKA facility will operate in conjunction with a related site in South Africa.

Construction of the world’s largest radio telescope is set to start in 2020 at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia which is operated by CSIRO.

The SKA telescope will produce large quantities of data, which will be processed by the Pawsey Super Computing Centre in Perth which is one of the most powerful research supercomputing facilities in the southern hemisphere.

The Murchison Widefield Array

The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) is a joint project between an international consortia of 21 organisations from Australia, Canada, China, Japan, New Zealand and the US to construct and operate a low-frequency radio telescope comprising 4096 antennas. The MWA is one of two official precursor telescopes of the SKA in Australia and is also located at the Murchison Radio Observatory. A second precursor telescope, the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) is also onsite, operated by CSIRO.

The project, which is led by Curtin University, is set to allow scientists to resolve objects further back in the Universe’s history than ever before. It will study the Sun, the heliosphere and the Earth’s ionosphere; detect the emissions from neutral atomic hydrogen from the Epoch of Reionization (the period early in the life of the Universe when the first stars and galaxies were born); and unveil the turbulence within the magnetic field of the Milky Way galaxy.

The Director of Murchison Widefield Array, Professor Melanie Johnston-Hollitt said:

“Lessons learnt from the MWA across its scientific, technical and operational aspects are all applicable to the future SKA and so in a very real sense while the MWA is an important scientific instrument in its own right, it is also our path to even bigger and more ambitious things in the era of the SKA.”

International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) was founded in 2009 and is a joint venture between Curtin University, the University of Western Australia and the State Government.

ICRAR is leading the Western Australian involvement in the SKA project and contributing to critical elements of the design and prototyping of the SKA, from antenna and electronics design and prototyping in the field to dealing with the massive data processing challenge.

“Over the next five years, ICRAR will be focused on not only delivering the SKA for Western Australia, by stimulating the WA technology sector and helping diversify the WA economy with radio astronomy spin-off activities,” said Deputy Executive Director of ICRAR, Professor Steven Tingay.