Warkworth Observatory radio telescope fires up
The massive communications dish at the Warkworth Observatory has powered into life in its new role as a radio telescope, able to pick up data from the farthest reaches of space.
About 60 people, including members of the radio astronomy community in New Zealand and Australia, AUT University, Telecom and United States Consul James Donegan, gathered at the facility today, appropriately American Independence Day. They watched as the new telescope formally saw "first light" – the first observation made from a newly commissioned telescope.
A maser cloud near the constellation of Orion was the subject of its first gaze and showed a strong methane signature. The 30-metre diameter dish is owned by Telecom and has been used for various communications setups since it was built in 1984 in the radio-quiet valley south of Warkworth.
The valley is also the site of AUT University’s Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research (IRASR), a facility which operates a smaller 12m dish that has been running since 2008.
Four years ago AUT signed a 20-year lease for the 30m dish and its adjoining buildings. The university wanted to transform it into one of the biggest radio telescopes in Australasia.
The dish has since undergone a makeover. Its surface had been cleaned, a new control system developed and installed and more than a kilometre of cable had been replaced. A modern receiver donated by the University of Manchester’s famous Jodrell Bank Observatory in the United Kingdom had been installed, institute director Sergei Gulyaev said.
Two of the big dishes in the valley had been decommissioned by Telecom several years ago. One had already been dismantled when Gulyaev approached Telecom about leasing it. Geographical location was always important, and the 12m telescope gave New Zealand a legitimate presence on the world’s radio astronomy stage, he said.
"But with a collecting area six times as big as the smaller dish, we will be able to receive from objects, and do research we simply couldn’t have contemplated before, and puts us in a different league.
"We are playing with the big boys now."
Telecom spokesman Conor Roberts said telecommunications had changed from telephone to technology with everything fibre these days. It had been great to be able to transfer this surplus equipment to New Zealand’s education community.
Even by international standards the telescope is big.
At 30m the dish is as big as Australia’s second-largest, another refurbished telecommunications dish, the Ceduna radio telescope operated by the University of Tasmania in South Australia.
The Ceduna dish is surpassed only by the massive 64m Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales.
The Warkworth Observatory is already involved with the astronomy and space division of Australian research body the CSIRO, including as part of the Australia-NZ Long Baseline Array.
CSIRO’s astronomy and space science director, Lewis Ball, said that radio telescopes operated together across the continent from Western Australia to Warkworth. The extra 2000 kilometres across the Tasman Sea helped significantly with resolution when operating with Australian telescopes as part of their long-baseline array. Having the 30m telescope at the end of the baseline was extremely valuable. .
"It has six times the collecting power of the 12m dish, so will enable us to see very fine structure," Ball said.
"By joining us we can see twice as well."
The new telescope would make New Zealand’s contribution significantly more valuable, he said.
With the Milky Way galaxy directly overhead in the southern hemisphere, the new telescope is ideally placed to study star formation, the centre of our galaxy and gaseous components in it.
Further studies will likely include other galactic nuclei, cosmic masers, and cosmic molecules – including what may be indicators of extraterrestrial life – organic molecules.
The Warkworth facility is also the last one in the Pacific before the Mauna Kea Observatory 7000km away in Hawaii.
This has led to IRASR picking up a 10-year contract to track the Space-X vehicle servicing the International Space Station as it heads across the Pacific