Building the MWA – Day 8

With the hard work and long hours we’ve put in over the past seven days we began day eight 17 tiles from the finish line, with 10 already laid and in need of welding and 7 in need of both laying and welding. We quickly got down to business like the well-oiled machine we’ve become and by midday had completed the work. The image below shows the final weld being made on the final tile by Engineer Dave Emrich while being celebrated by myself and Engineer Dave Pallott in the background.

Welding the final tile – Tile #128.

In the last eight days we’ve worked hard, pulling together as a team to overcome obstacles and meet the task of building the foundations of a world class radio telescope head-on. Hopefully I’ll be back to lend a hand when we expand from 128 tiles to 256, or even 512… but until then it’s back to Perth and the job of promoting science and all things radio astronomy.

Before leaving the MRO for the last time on this trip I climbed to the top of the “break-away”, a raised rocky outcrop with a stunning view of the surrounding area.

The view from the top of the break-away with Australian SKA Pathfinder antennas in the background.

An MRO Lizard

Thanks for reading my blog. Please feel free to leave comments and suggestions at the bottom of the page and let me know of what you think I should be blogging about as part of my work with the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. Next month we’re off to Carnarvon to join in with an event where Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin will officially open the new “Carnarvon Space & Technology Museum”.

Some useful links:

ICRAR’s Website:

ICRAR’s Facebook:

ICRAR’s Twitter:

MWA’s website

MWA’s Facebook

Goodbye to the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory… it’s been fun!

Posted in ASKAP, Astronomy, Australian SKA Pathfinder, ICRAR, Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, Murchson Widefield Array, MWA, Radio Astronomy, Radio Telescopes, Square Kilometre Array | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Building the MWA – Day 7

We’re nearing the end of the trip now, another couple of days and we’ll be finished and on our way back to Perth. Today we continued with tack welding the three mesh sheets previously laid at each site to form a single electronically conductive sheet.

The “Daves” (Dave Pallot and Dave Emrich) welding the mesh sheets.

As we completed the core of the telescope yesterday, the majority of the sites targeted today were 100’s of metres apart, separated by thick bush and scrub. To locate each we rely on a GPS fix and a handheld device that gives us a distance and rough direction from our current position. As we have already driven through the bush to each site on a previous occasion, more often than not we were fortunate to find our previous tyre tracks to help guide us to the tile we were looking for.

Despite pushing through some pretty dense bush at times, the experience we’ve gained in the past few days helped us to avoid puncturing any more tyres. In fact the whole day went very smoothly, with the team working well and no major problems to speak of except for a few delays here and there due to jams in the welding equipment, which our expert welders soon took care of.

Engineer Dave Emrich fixing one of the welding rigs.

By days end we’d finished welding 51 sites, on top of the 60 we completed yesterday this leaves us with only 17 to do tomorrow before packing up and preparing our equipment for the next team to come up in a few weeks time. Their job will be to assemble and attach all of the dipole receiving elements to ready the tile to be connected back to receivers and correlators, forming a working radio telescope.

This is what each finished tile will look like.

A completed MWA tile. This one was part of 32T, a 32 tile prototype.

Taking some time out to practice my juggling skills.

Taking a well earned few minutes of rest.

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Building the MWA – Day 6

With the mesh laying done and dusted, today we turned our focus to tack welding. For this part of the job we make several welds along where the three sheets of mesh meet to create a single conductive sheet.

Engineer Dave Pallot tack welding.

Welding in the bush means taking lots of precautions to avoid fires, so behind one of our vehicles we tow a “Fire Tender”, a big water tank on a trailer connected to a hose and a motor to drive a pump and provide water pressure. Should a fire break out the first course of action is to stamp it out or throw a shovel of sand over it, failing this we turn to the Fire Tender trailer and douse it with water. Fortunately the day went smoothly and any smouldering tufts of grass under the weld points were quickly taken care of with a boot.

Once we got underway we quickly fell into a streamlined routine with two of us moving the heavy welding equipment back and forth and the other two crouching and shuffling along each tile to weld the sheets together. By days end we’d completed 62 sites including the entire core. This puts us beyond the half way mark already as several of the 128 tile sites cannot be laid as they are located on “trenches” being used by vehicles for access to the different areas of the MRO.

This morning while we were assembling the welding equipment and collecting the Fire Tender trailer I had a chance to get up close to CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) antennas, the beginnings of a very impressive “next generation” radio telescope. I’ve been talking about ASKAP as part of my work for the past half a dozen years, so to actually get to see it in person and wander around it is very exciting.

Like the Murchison Widefield Array radio telescope we’re here to work on, ASKAP is another of the three official precursors to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The third is South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope.

ASKAP is being led by CSIRO working with leading scientists and engineers in The Netherlands, Canada and the USA, as well as people from other Australian universities. The telescope is expected to be complete in 2013, but has already started working with some of the antennas.

An Australian SKA Pathfinder “dish” antenna.

When completed ASKAP will comprise of thirty-six dish-shaped radio antennas. Right now all 36 antennas are on the ground awaiting the complex electronics that will link them together and allow them to observe the radio sky as one.

Each dish is 3 stories high and 12m in diameter and unlike other “dish” radio telescopes which can only move in two directions, up and down and side to side, ASKAP antennas can also rotate around, something which has never been done before.

Once its fully operational ASKAP will be used to discover new objects and help answer questions about how galaxies formed and how magnetism in the Universe came about. Even though its still being built the first 5 years of observing time is already booked up, such is the keen interest by astronomers eager to take advantage of this new instrument.

ASKAP antennas located at the core of the telescope.

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Building the MWA – Day 5

Today we made an early start, especially for a Sunday, hitting the road by 6am and arriving at the MRO an hour later. Our objective for the day was to finish clearing sites and laying mesh at the remaining 26 tile locations before heading back to Wooleen Homestead in time to see the West Coast Eagles take on the Fremantle Dockers in the first western derby of the AFL season.

With thick scrub and the important responsibility of preserving the natural landscape as we worked, we again made slow progress between sites. With only a 5 minute break at midday to re-energise us it took a big effort, but we succeeded. By using a single vehicle and guiding it through the bush to each site, clearing old branches and sharp rocks as we went we kept our tyres intact and made it back to Wooleen in time to see the second half as the Eagles ran home a convincing win.

MWA Project manager demonstrating our surface clearing expertise.

Team photo on the final site to be cleared and laid with mesh.

Tomorrow we begin tack welding at all of the sites and once that’s done we’ll be on our way back to Perth.

With a forced day off yesterday while the others made the 600km round trip to Geraldton to collect some spare tyres it gave me the chance to tag along on Wooleen Homesteads sunset tour. Wooleen was established in 1878 and has been owned and run by the Pollock family since 1990. David Pollock, an expert and enthusiastic conservationist, took over the station with his partner Frances Jones five years ago. Since then they have destocked the station to let the land revive from decades of over use and instead taken the plunge into tourism, attracting those in search of the real outback experience. The station is small compared to others in the region but still boasts 150,000 hectares of land, covering an area roughly 50km by 50km.

Wooleen Homestead

For the tour David piled us into the back of an old Toyota Land Cruiser, which he likes to call his “personnel carrier”, and drove us out through the station while describing his efforts to replenish the land of indigenous non-erosive vegetation so that it can be managed sustainably in the future.

David Pollock driving his “personnel carrier”

The high point of the tour is a climb to the top of a granite outcrop that dominates the local landscape.

On the way up we saw indigenous artworks tens of thousands of years old and at the top of the 64 metre climb our efforts were rewarded with a stunning view, a glass of wine and David’s relaying of a “songline” used by the local Yamatji

people. A songline is a story which includes features of the landscape that can be told and passed down to others to guide them on a journey or “walkabout”, just like  verbal map. Some aboriginal songlines even involve journeys from one side of the country to the other.

After the sun had dropped below the horizon we made our way down the outcrop in the diminishing light and hopped back in David’s truck to head back to the Homestead. On the way we spotted a wild dingo, the first I’ve ever seen despite years of travelling around the state. Away from the headlights of the land cruiser it seemed to glow a ghostly white as it sat and watched us go by.

For more information on Wooleen Homestead go to:

(They get very excited when people “like” their Facebook page.)

Note: more photos below.

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Building the MWA – Day 4

Once again the day started with a brisk and cold breeze blowing across the MRO (Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory) as we set about the arduous task of laying antenna tiles at precise locations throughout the site. With the core tiles completed our method has evolved from clearing multiple sites at once and laying mesh simultaneously to clearing and completing sites one at a time due to the distance between each away from the core.

Engineer Dave Emrich levelling out some rock under a tile site.

The shift in tack makes for slow going extenuated by driving several hundred metres through track-less bush between each tile location, being careful to disturb the natural landscape as little as possible as we navigate our way through dense scrub. Before lunch we hit our first major problem for the trip, with the lead vehicle suffering a flat tyre. On inspection of the trailing vehicle we found it too had a slow puncture. With one vehicle closely following the tracks of the other both had seemingly been the victim of some unseen bush or rock which had sought to make its presence known by piercing the same tyre on both cars.

The tyres were changed leaving one spare for each vehicle and we proceeded on through the bush, clearing land and laying mesh as we went, stopping only briefly for lunch. So as to avoid a repeat of a simultaneous blowout we decided that wherever possible the trailing vehicle, without the long trailer carrying the mesh sheets in tow, would take its own course through the scrub.

Despite the slow going and flat tyre episode we still managed to lay 26 tiles for the day bringing us to a total of 95 out of the 128 we need to complete before the end of the trip. Laying each tile involves clearing a 5m by 5m square of ground, so in 4 days with a 4 man team armed with hand tools alone we’ve cleared nearly 2,500 m2 of ground, an impressive feat to say the least.

This evening as we sat down to dinner to mull over the days highs and lows we received news that a decision on the Square Kilometre Array project had been made after months and years of deliberation. This exciting news is of great significance for us, and for ICRAR, as the MWA is one of the three official precursor projects for the SKA, with the lessons learned from building the telescope and the science it will eventually deliver feeding directly into the design process for the SKA. With the news that the biggest radio telescope ever to be built will have parts located in both Australia and Southern Africa our spirits picked up at the end of a gruelling day.

The new plan to share the SKA will see Australia’s Mid West hosting two key components of the telescope – a group of dishes equipped with Australian-designed multi-pixel radio cameras and the ‘Aperture Array’ portion, made up of innovative, non-moving, antennas designed to collect lower frequency radio waves from the whole sky.

Such a split will mean that Australia continues its long history of survey science, observing the entire radio sky and flagging potential areas of scientific interest for deeper follow-up by antennas located in Southern Africa. This decision means the project is set to benefit from the best of both sites, building on the substantial investment in infrastructure and expertise that already exists in both locations.

For more information check out:

I particularly like this statement given by Professor Brian Gaensler, Director of the Centre for All-sky Astrophysics, Sydney University, who was formerly the International Project Scientist for the SKA project. It summarises this historical day for the project very well.

“The Square Kilometre Array is a concept that’s been slowly growing and evolving since 1991. But today this ambitious project took a sudden giant leap towards reality with the announcement of the SKA site decision. The decision is a complex one, which recognises the enormous amount of international investment that will be needed to make the SKA happen: the array will be split between Africa and Australia/New Zealand.

What this does not mean is that half the telescope will be built in each continent. Each site gets a full square kilometre of collecting area, with the full scientific functionality originally envisaged. However, the SKA’s science goals require a facility that can tune into radio waves ranging from 70 MHz up to above 10,000 MHz. It’s impossible for any single technology to cover this vast range, so the plan has always been to build two or even three different types of antennas, which together can span the full range needed.

What the SKA project has decided is to put different technologies in different places, playing to the strengths of each site.

The lowest frequency component, consisting of antennas that do not move or steer and that can collect signals from the whole sky at once, will be built in Australia and New Zealand. This capitalises on the superb radio quietness of the SKA core planned for Murchison in outback Western Australia – one of the few places on the planet that isn’t polluted by FM radio and other artificial signals in this low frequency band.

The higher frequency technology, consisting of more traditional steerable dishes like the one at Parkes, will be built in Africa. This naturally extends on the MeerKAT array of dishes already under construction at the SKA core site in the Karoo desert region of South Africa.

The remaining piece of the puzzle are “phased array feeds”, the fish-eye lens technology being developed by CSIRO for their Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) in Western Australia. These will be further developed and expanded in Australia and NZ, and then possibly later installed on dishes in Africa. Aus/NZ technology on an African telescope is truly a win-win scenario.

Going forward, what this all means is that the money committed to construction by all the SKA’s international partners can now begin to flow. The hard-working engineers and scientists in Aus/NZ and in Africa can go back to collaborating rather than competing. And the SKA will attract brilliant young researchers from around the world to help solve the daunting technological challenges ahead of us.

Few people will appreciate the small teams at the heart of the two site bids who have sunk years of their lives into this project. For Australia and NZ, special mention must go to the extraordinary CSIRO team lead by Brian Boyle, Michelle Storey, Phil Diamond and Lisa Harvey-Smith, who made a superb case for Aus/NZ to host the SKA. Africa, led by Justin Jonas and Bernie Fanaroff, must also be congratulated, for creating a thriving African radio astronomy community and a stellar SKA site bid from scratch in barely 10 years. The governments involved have also all been extremely supportive: a positive sign that amidst all the other pressures and challenges, basic research and cosmic discovery still have a place in our nations’ priorities.

I am excited that the SKA now looks like it’s really going to happen. I can’t wait to point it at my favourite stars and galaxies, and to get the data in my hands!”

An artists impression of SKA “dish” antennas. Credit: SPDO / Swinburne Astronomy Productions

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Building the MWA – Day 3

Day 3

It was a cold start to the day (10°C), which was in stark contrast to the red hot pace of work we set from the very beginning and maintained with fervour until sunset. By mid morning the core of the telescope was complete, shifting our focus to the arms of the array emanating out from the core. By days end four weary souls had laid 30 tiles, nearly two tonnes of steel, on the ground. So far on this trip 69 out of 128 tiles have been placed, putting us well ahead of schedule at this point. 

When complete the MWA will have 50 antenna tiles within 100 metres of the core, 62 between 100 and 750 metres and 16 outliers at 1,500 metres. This image shows the spider’s web like arrangement of the telescope with the core at the centre and the array arms extending outwards.

For the outliers at the end of the arms we move towards the edges of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, working amongst an ancient and awe inspiring landscape. This image is one of my favourites captured so far, it shows us placing one of the tiles at the end of one of an arm approaching the main “break-away”, an impressive monolithic structure, rising defiantly in opposition to the natural processes that have shaped this landscape over billions of years.

The design of the MWA is driven by three key science goals, which are:

  • To detect atomic hydrogen in the early Universe (around 13 billion years ago). Hydrogen is the simplest of elements and the building blocks of stars, galaxies and the more complex elements that we ourselves are made of.
  • To observe the entire southern sky at radio wavelengths with unprecedented sensitivity; and
  • To make measurements of the Sun that will grow our knowledge of the processes that drive solar weather, something which affects life on Earth and the technology we place in orbit around the planet.

To find out more about the Murchison Widefield Array head to:

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Building the MWA – Day 2

The Murchison Wide-field Array (MWA) radio telescope is being constructed 315km north east of Geraldton by the Curtin University node of ICRAR, in collaboration with MIT, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University, Curtin University, CSIRO and the Raman Research Institute in India.

Once finished, the MWA will consist of 128 “smart tiles”, each with 16 radio antennas, spread across an area of about 3km. Our job for the next week or so is to lay those tiles in readiness for the “dipole” receiving elements to be installed next month.

Today we laid 26 tiles, consisting of more than one and a half tonne of steel mesh. The ground under each 5m by 5m tile needs to be flat and free of trees, roots and chunks of stone. After limited success with some less than ideal equipment yesterday, David the owner of Wooleen Station where we’re staying provided us with a couple of picks, a sledge hammer and an enormous crow bar. Armed with the right tools for the job the rocks, roots, lumps and bumps stood little chance and were quickly removed or evened out ready for the mesh sheets to be placed.

Today was hard but with the four of us working like a well-oiled machine we made significant and satisfying progress. If we can keep up to the same pace over the next few days we should have al 128 laid by the weekend ready for spot welding.

As the week goes on I hope to have a chance to take a look at the rest of the site where another telescope, the Australian SKA Pathfinder, is being assembled. The one we’re working on, the MWA is one of only three official SKA Precursor telescopes, and will be the first to be completed, proving the technology and science on the path to the SKA.  Australia and New Zealand are bidding to host the SKA, with the site location to be decided any day now.

For more info head to:

MWA website

MWA Facebook





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