20Sep2015

Crowdfunding To Save Australia’s Mopra Radio Telescope

The Mopra radio telescope is located at the edge of the Warrumbungle Mountains near Coonabarabran in western New South Wales. (CSIRO)

The Mopra radio telescope is located at the edge of the Warrumbungle Mountains near Coonabarabran in western New South Wales. (CSIRO)

A team of astronomers have resorted to raising funds through the very successful ‘crowdsourcing’ to try and save an Australian telescope involved in mapping the Milky Way.

The 22-metre diameter Mopra Radio Telescope, based near Coonabarabran in western New South Wales, is slated to be shut down by the end of the year after $110-million was slashed from CSIRO in last year’s federal budget.

The closure will cut short a massive international project, which has been underway for four years, to record the most detailed map of the southern portion of the Milky Way galaxy.

“We’re trying to develop a high-definition map of the Milky Way, 10 times better in spatial resolution than anything previously attempted,” the study’s lead scientist, Professor Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales, said.

Michael is a lecturer in astronomy and physics in the Department of Astrophysics at UNSW

“Essentially, we want to open up a new vista, a much clearer view with greater clarity of the southern skies than has ever been done before.” However, budget cuts mean the multi-million-dollar research project is $65,000 dollars short of the money it needs to finish, leaving the map incomplete, and Mopra without its main reason for existence.

“This facility has been working well and doing great science but there aren’t the resources to continue Mopra,” Professor Burton said. “Mopra runs completely remotely, it’s an incredibly efficient telescope which we run from our offices, so it’s a very cost-effective facility.”

Professor Burton is concerned the importance of basic research such as that being undertaken at Mopra is not appreciated because it does not appear to provide any immediate practical benefits. “It’s difficult to keep blue sky research going, but this is the kind of research which has given us unexpected discoveries like wi-fi and the world wide web,” Professor Burton said.

What Mopra does

  • The telescope is involved in The Mopra Southern Galactic Plane CO Survey
  • This is exploring the southern (delta) quadrant of the Milky Way Galaxy.
  • It is mapping regions full of molecular clouds where new stars are born.
  • It achieves this by looking for the distribution and dynamics of carbon monoxide (CO) molecules.

Professor Burton and colleagues have established a blog called Team Mopra to gather support from the public, including financial support.”I don’t have any offers of government funding to keep Mopra going, this is why we’ve turned to crowd funding which is a new way to try and raise funds,” he said.

“I don’t know if crowd funding has been used for supporting fundamental research before, and it’s an experiment for ourselves, and we don’t know if it’s going to work.” He said his team upload new images and information about their research every night on their blog.

The dishes of the Australia Telescope Compact Array move in sync to track distant celestial objects

“This is essentially a journey of discovery, not just exploration of the galaxy, but a new way to connect with the public who want us to keep doing what we do and are interested in the scientific outcomes,” he said. “It’s both exciting and sad at the same time that we have to go through this route.”

Mopra is part of the Australia Telescope Compact Array and is also used for Very Long Baseline Interferometery (VLBI), in which multiple telescopes are connected together to improve resolution.

According to CSIRO, existing Mopra research can be undertaken at facilities such as the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile, which operates in similar wavelengths.

For this reason, CSIRO is redirecting funding from Australian radio telescopes such as Mopra to the new Square Kilometre Array and Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder projects, the organisation said in a statement.  Source: ABC News

 

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