In Summary

  • This article originally featured in Swinburne’s Venture magazine.
The Parkes radio telescope has been involved since the very beginning and the expertise available in Australia is some of the best in the world.

This has been a good year for astronomy. September’s lunar eclipse gave us a stunning blood moon; NASA sent us pictures of the previously unseen face of Pluto, then it revealed there’s almost certainly free–flowing water on Mars.

Although spectacular, these incidents are just a fraction of the year’s research findings. Some of the most fascinating developments have been led by Swinburne’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, by PhD students such as Emily Petroff.

Ms Petroff began her PhD work on pulsars – tiny, dense stars that spin very quickly and emit pulses of light – but soon shifted to studying a phenomenon known as “fast radio bursts”. “They’re bright and only last about a millisecond. So far we only know of about a dozen of them,” she says.

Last year, Ms Petroff became the first to see one of these bursts in real time, using the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales. Although the burst’s source is still unknown, the information gathered will help determine where it comes from.

Origins aside, she says knowledge of the bursts has other potential. “They might be useful as a cosmic probe to study the evolution of the universe in ways that have never been possible before,” she says.

Ms Petroff’s work in the field, like all scientific endeavours, builds on the work of predecessors.

“The work done in the radio astronomy community over the past few decades has been remarkable. The Parkes radio telescope has been involved since the very beginning and the expertise available in Australia is some of the best in the world,” Ms Petroff says. She has worked with some of Australia’s best astrophysicists, including Swinburne’s own Professor Matthew Bailes and Dr Willem van Straten, and the CSIRO’s Dr Simon Johnston.

Ms Petroff’s work in fast radio bursts brought success with another project at the Parkes telescope – the search for the origins of mysterious signals called perytons. The signals were known to be earthly in nature, though the exact culprit was unclear, until Ms Petroff’s team found a cluster of perytons in January.

“They were coming from the microwave ovens at the telescope site. You can produce a peryton by opening the door of the microwave while it’s still on,” she says.

It sounds simple, but the discovery enabled the team to see how fast radio bursts differed from perytons. Now, they can be more confident that bursts do indeed come from space.

Further work on fast radio bursts will be pursued in a project headed by Professor Bailes, who has received Australian Research Council Laureate funding to modernise an old telescope near Canberra. The telescope, using 7744 antennas, will examine a wider patch of sky, more effectively than previous efforts, and is part of the international search for extraterrestrial life.

Inspiring women

Ms Petroff’s early astronomical ambitions were inspired by television documentaries about space. Her initial urge to become an astronaut was tempered by the events of the Apollo 13 mission (a 1970 flight to the moon that was crippled by an on–board explosion), and she decided astronomy was a safer bet.

Childhood inspirations Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking, were joined by her personal mentors and scientists such as Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first pulsar as a PhD student.

Dame Jocelyn’s role in that discovery has been fully acknowledged only in recent years, and although women are increasingly pursuing PhDs in astronomy, the numbers of women staying in the field are not increasing proportionally.

“In Australia there are some very impressive and inspiring women doing great work at some of the highest levels, and the astronomy community in general is working to improve the gender balance. But we still have a way to go,”Ms Petroff says.

Swinburne’s Professor Michael Murphy, Deputy Director Director of the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, agrees these factors need to be better understood to effectively combat the continuing imbalance at senior levels. It’s an issue Swinburne works actively to address.

Professor Murphy is excited about the work being done by the centre’s PhD students, including several women: Elisa Boera, whose study of intergalactic gas has helped pinpoint the universe’s temperature; Elodie Thilliez, who is working on the formation of planets from dusty disks surrounding young stars; and Caitlin Adams, who is contributing to a broader understanding of cosmology.

Professor Murphy believes people are attracted to astronomy for fundamental reasons

It’s not that most people completely understood it at the time, just because Newton understood it – but they knew that understanding was important

“[Sir Isaac] Newton became popular because he understood the heavens in a way that no one had ever done before,” he says. “It’s not that most people completely understood it at the time, just because Newton understood it – but they knew that understanding was important. It helped them see their place in the universe, and that’s something that everyone wonders about at some point.”

Looking to the skies

Astronomy, “the gateway science”, has fuelled imaginations and science careers for centuries. However, some don’t see a practical use for it. What, then, are the applications of astrophysics? Professor Murphy does not hesitate.

“There’s great value in not just funding things that have an immediate outcome but to have blue–sky research as well,” he says. “You have to allow people to play around with things, to let them learn a lot, to explore, because you never know what you’ll find.”

Professor Murphy cites the relatively recent invention of Wi–Fi,  “we know that came from someone messing around and trying to understand black holes” as a case in point. But even electricity, he says, was invented without any immediate purpose in mind.

Next year, Ms Petroff will continue her work in the Netherlands. “New discoveries in this survey will be sent to other partner telescopes … to hopefully find some answers about what causes these bursts,” she says. “It would be great to see these advances appear in the body of research [even if they’re not found by me] because it would help to evolve the field. I look forward to seeing what is found in the next few years.”

Whatever is discovered – and whether it deepens our understanding of the cosmos or is the secret source of some new “everyday” technology – Swinburne’s undergraduates, PhD students, staff and alumni are bound to be part of it.

“There’s great value in not just funding things that have an immediate outcome but to have blue–sky research as well…you have to allow people to play around with things, to let them learn a lot, to explore, because you never know what you’ll find.”

Space and time

Swinburne University isn’t merely one of the top universities for astrophysics: it has a robust outreach program designed to woo students to the science side.

Swinburne Astronomy Productions creates animations that demonstrate key astronomical principles. Its 2013 full–length co–production, Hidden Universe 3D, was seen by more than a million people worldwide. This year, it won the Astronomical Society of Australia’s David Allen Prize for exceptional achievement in astronomy communication. The team is making a second IMAX 3D film.

Professor Matthew Bailes notes that everyone loves astronomy. “It’s hard for a biologist or an engineer to get kids excited about their particular kind of metal alloy or bacteria, but when you talk to them about space, jaws drop,” he says. “Everyone from pupils to vice–chancellors gets excited about our AstroTours of the Universe.”

More than 25,000 visitors have attended AstroTours since 2000. The tours focus on the school curriculum, though some sessions are open to the public. The centre sometimes has to work fast to keep the material up to date. When images of Pluto came back to Earth, they were quickly incorporated.

Not all new discoveries can be included so rapidly, but visitors don’t miss out. Professional astronomers “guide” each AstroTour, enriching the session with personal experiences, insights and interpretations of the latest developments for their fascinated audiences.

“They’re a good way of giving back to the public and letting them know what their taxes are funding,” Professor Murphy says.

It’s also a great way to spark a sense of wonder, inspiring today’s starry–eyed students to become the stargazing scientists of tomorrow.

Find out more about AstroTours by emailingastrotour@swinburne.edu.au

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