Gazing at the stars will give us a bright future  

29 June 2018

Professor Deborah Terry, Vice-Chancellor, Curtin University

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Last month a group of politicians, academics, and business leaders gathered at Curtin University to celebrate the launch of Phase II of the Murchison Widefield Array.

This $2.5 million upgrade to the radio telescope, located at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory, north-east of Geraldton, doubled the size of its antenna array.

The resulting improvement in sensitivity and resolution gives a factor of 10 improvement in its performance: that’s a lot more of the universe to explore, and a massively efficient upgrade on the initial $50 million investment.

The international consortium of 21 partner institutions that developed and operate the MWA is managed and led from Curtin. As Curtin research collaborations go, it’s as big and successful as they come. Why is this big news? Our scientists and engineers are excited because it is an incredible technical innovation.

MWA Phase II gives us a dramatically improved view of our solar system, our galaxy, the
very distant universe, and our near-space environment. It is one of four precursor telescopes designed to develop, test, and advance the science and technology needed to create the next-generation Square Kilometre Array.

The $1.58 billion SKA, a global mega-science infrastructure project, is the biggest scientific facility that Australia has ever hosted.

The telescope is underpinned by the Pawsey Super Computing Centre in Perth, one of the most powerful research supercomputing facilities in the southern hemisphere, which will be upgraded as part of the 2018-19 Federal Budget.

Our politicians are happy because it shows what can be achieved in national infrastructure development when State and Federal governments truly work together on a growth and innovation strategy. The MWA, PSC and SKA are long-term goals that have
been supported by successive Federal governments. The WA Government has equally demonstrated bipartisan support for the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, a joint venture between Curtin and the University of WA.

It is a welcome political success story.

But why should we care? The science and technology advancements are amazing, but don’t affect the person on the street . . . unless your current lifestyle relies on personal computing, high-speed telecommunications, and wireless technologies. They’ve all been
important spin-offs from radio astronomy’s digital evolution to date.

Just imagine what they’ll develop next. While the MWA is giving us the “big picture” on the universe, it is also part of the big picture for WA. It is helping strengthen and diversify our economy.

Industries across Australia have collaborated with the MWA’s astronomers, engineers, and scientists to develop the hardware, software and computing infrastructure, and
businesses in the mid-west are supporting the telescope’s construction, operation, and
maintenance. More broadly, the collaboration has raised awareness of the possibilities offered by intelligently handling vast amounts of data.

When you put computing, engineering, astrophysics, and data scientists together with an industry-facing attitude, much more than radio astronomy happens.

Companies are now treading a well-worn path to Innovation Central Perth, based at Curtin, to tap into the data processing, analytics, and computing expertise developed for the MWA. Those deep insights and one per cent productivity gains may equate to
millions of dollars in savings for Australian companies, and a smarter way do business.

The future of work in a knowledge economy is changing, and while some traditional jobs will disappear, employment in STEM occupations is projected to grow at almost twice the pace of others.

Projects like the MWA and SKA provide a focal point. A renewed focus on astronomy and space science in the public consciousness has the potential to make people look
upwards and consider more distant horizons. An enormous telescope that sits on Wajarri Yamatji land and quietly scans the Murchison sky, together with a supercomputer that
can sift out the faintest flickers from the dawn of the universe, should fire the STEM ambitions of a generation.

The skills, capabilities, and institutions that made the MWA a success are increasingly the same as those needed to keep WA competitive and at the forefront of a diversified
knowledge economy. They also position us to play a key role in transforming Australia’s space industry.

We should all celebrate that success.

This article was originally published in The West Australian.