In summary

OPINION: Professor Virginia Kilborn is Swinburne’s Chief Scientist, and chair of the National Committee for Astronomy, for the Australian Academy of Science, the body responsible for delivering the astronomy decadal plan.

The recent announcement that Australian astronomers have made a scientific breakthrough, and are a step closer to detecting the gravitational wave background - is further evidence that we are a world leader in the field of astronomy.

With a long history of radio, optical, multi-wavelength and multi-messenger observations, Australian astronomers have made many incredible discoveries.  Professor Brian Schmidt was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics (2011) for discovering the accelerating expansion of the universe.  Swinburne University’s Professor Matthew Bailes won the prestigious Shaw prize (with a $1.2M USD award) this year for identifying mysterious Fast Radio Bursts using Australia’s Parkes Murriyang Telescope. And the Australian and international astronomers (CSIRO) who potentially detected gravitational waves after a 15-year program of observations will lead to a new way of observing the nature of the fabric of the Universe.

It’s an exciting time for Australian astronomers to come together in Sydney for the Astronomical Society of Australia’s Annual Scientific meeting – a week-long opportunity to share new results, make new connections, and celebrate astronomy achievements. On the final day of the conference, the community will start planning for the next Decadal Plan in Astronomy. The strategy that drives this planning document will help set Australia’s course for the next 10 years, bringing together researchers to solve the biggest mysteries of the Universe. The decadal plan also highlights the broader benefit of astronomy to society, including education outcomes and industry engagement.

Australia’s astronomical leadership is no accident. It is anchored by Australia’s long history in astronomy via First Nations people, who for at least 65,000 years have developed an intimate knowledge of the night sky. Over the last century, Australia has invested in world-class facilities, which have allowed prize-winning discoveries, and trained generations of students and research fellows in advanced scientific methodologies, including radio receivers and electronics, optical systems and instrumentation, data processing and advanced imaging methodologies.

The knowledge of astronomy is embedded in the ancient Law stories carried by Aboriginal people over vast periods of time. Image: Yanjirlpirri Jukurrpa – Seven Sisters Dreaming

Radio astronomy began in Australia post WWII – with CSIRO radio engineers making the first radio astronomy observations surveying the radio waves produced by the Sun in 1945. In the 1960s, the Parkes – now Murriyang – radiotelescope began operations in New South Wales. Still a world-class facility, Murriyang has been at the forefront of discovery, including the Fast radio bursts, but also finding thousands of pulsars – rapidly rotating neutron stars produced when a large star dies. Pulsars have enabled us to finely test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, which still holds.

As a researcher, I myself spent four years travelling regularly to Parkes in the late 1990s, to help map the whole southern sky in hydrogen – the fuel for stars – finding thousands of galaxies and clouds. And of course Murriyang has played a crucial role providing links to NASA spacecraft, including the famous moon landing in 1969.

The 1960s also saw the Anglo-Australian Observatory, AAO, built at Siding Spring in NSW. With a mirror 4m in diameter, this was one of the best optical telescopes of the time. The AAO has stayed at the forefront of astronomy, continually upgrading the giant telescope, including the capacity to determine the redshift – a measure of distance – to hundreds of thousands of galaxies via an innovative robot fibre-optic device.

Image: Anglo-Australian Telescope

We are now moving to a new era in astronomy, with even larger telescopes, and the requirement for large international teams collaborating to conduct astronomical surveys, and build and maintain new instruments. Australia is once again leading this new era, co-hosting one of the most ambitious telescope projects in the world, the Square Kilometre Array, which is being built in remote Western Australia and South Africa. This telescope will enable astronomers to detect radio waves from the earliest times in the Universe, helping us to understand where we came from – and where are we going.

But for optical astronomy, we have reached the limits of what the Australian landmass can offer. In order to improve our images of deep space, we need three things – bigger telescopes,  for these telescopes to be built on higher mountains (or in space) to avoid as much of the obscuring atmosphere as we can, and for the telescope to be on a Western seaboard (or mid-ocean island) to take advantage of typical weather patterns. Given Australia’s highest mountain is only about 2,000m tall, Australia needs to use overseas observatories to have access to state-of-the-art telescopes on more elevated sites. For example, Swinburne University has an agreement with the Keck telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i, and researchers around Australia are using space telescopes such as HST and JWST.

Most critically for the astronomy community, the Australian government signed a strategic partnership in 2017 with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), providing access to their largest optical telescopes in Chile and ensuring Australia stays at the forefront of this science. This agreement runs until 2027, and the community is starting to work closely under the guidance of the Department of Industry, Science and Resources to start to consider the case for full membership of ESO. The continued engagement with ESO will provide countless opportunities for scientific discovery, enable education and outreach and help drive research translation and commercialisation opportunities for Australian industry.

ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) against a beautiful night on Cerro Paranal. Image: ESO Photo Ambassador/Babak Tafreshi

Given our history of research breakthroughs, imagine what else Australian astronomers might discover over the next decade. We’ll be able to see deeper into the beginnings of the Universe using what will soon be the largest telescope in the world, aptly named the Extremely Large Telescope, study stars and planets in greater detail than ever – and explore the extreme regimes of the Universe such as gravitational waves, testing fundamental physics and understanding how galaxies like our own Milky Way formed and evolved.

We head into developing the next the Decadal Plan knowing our long history of achievement in this field will allow Australia to continue to be a scientific powerhouse in astronomy whilst using astronomy for the benefit of the community.

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