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5 mins read 27 May 2020

From University of Tasmania to the Planets

New upgrades to telescope infrastructure announced by the University of Tasmania set to play an important role in supporting NASA and the ESA in missions across the Solar System.

Credit: University of Tasmania.

Tasmania is known for its fair share of pristine ancient forests, crisp clean air and beautiful big skies – and it can add advancement in astronomy to the list, with the University of Tasmania supercharging the state into projects that reach across the Solar System and collaborate with global space giants like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Upgrades announced this week to the existing radio and optical astronomy infrastructure assets will move forward, led by the University of Tasmania’s School of Natural Sciences, propelling the state deep into existing and upcoming spacecraft missions on Mars and Jupiter, and delving into complex astrophysical projects like listening to pulsars dotted across the Milky Way Galaxy.

The upgrades are part of the planned expansion of the university’s ground station and tracking facilities program, having signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Australian Space Agency in September 2019 that will see Tasmania playing an even bigger role in both Australian-led and international projects.

The telescope asset upgrades announced this week build upon the MoU that also supports a push to expand the emerging field of space medicine across the nation by working with Australian Antarctic Division and the Centre of Antarctic, Remote and Maritime Medicine. The collaborative effort will work to better understand how health services and medicine can be delivered in harsh, remote, human experiences. The University of Tasmania is also one of the nation’s first to offer academic courses studying healthcare in remote and extreme environments, like space.

Antenna Upgrades

The Mt. Pleasant Observatory and radio telescope. Credit: University of Tasmania.

The announced upgrades include the installation of two new antennas at the university’s Greenhill Observatory, 70 kilometres north of Hobart in Bisdee Tier. A new 7 metre dish will provide ongoing support to a range of operations and satellites, whilst the second installation of a 2-3 metre dish will be dedicated to supporting upcoming Australian made CubeSat missions.

"We expect to announce the signing of a contract with a manufacturer of antennae within a matter of weeks," said Professor Simon Ellingsen, Acting Dean of the School of Natural Sciences. "The schedule of installation is uncertain with the current COVID-19 lockdown, but we expect to install the antennae later this year."

The Greenhill Observatory is already home to one of Australia’s largest optical telescopes outside of Siding Springs Observatory in NSW; an impressive 1.3 metre telescope that boasts contributions to global science projects such as studying Pluto’s atmosphere, discovering new Earth-like exoplanets in distant solar systems, and mapping the magnetic fields of space within a 150 light-year radius of the Sun.

Recently the School of Natural Sciences from the university discovered a small optical flaw in the primary mirror of the telescope that prevented it being used to its full capacity, so the team are now in the process of replacing this with a new, more advanced mirror that was created using an experimental manufacturing technique.

"The rejuvenated telescope will soon be ready for another season of searching for exoplanets and monitoring the sky for powerful stellar explosions," Associate Professor Andrew Cole said.

UTAS Telescopes

Ceduna Radio Astronomy Observatory in South Australia. Credit: ExploreOz.

Other than the Greenhill Observatory, the University of Tasmania operates radio telescopes in Cambridge, Ceduna in South Australia, Yarragadee in Western Australia, and Katherine in the Northern Territory.

Recently, Dr. Jim Palfreyman, a researcher at the university, used the Mt. Pleasant telescope to catch the distant compact object known as the Vela Pulsar (located 1,000 light-years away) glitching, with the findings published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The array of radio telescopes managed by the University of Tasmania also means the university plays an active role in other space-based activities, such as the Australian Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) project, which helps track plate tectonic movement for the continent amongst other studies.

From Tasmania to the Planets!

Artist illustration of JUICE spacecraft near Jupiter. Credit: NASA.

Due to its southern latitudes, low population, and thinner ionosphere, Tasmania provides significant advantages for both optical and radio astronomy.

The father of radio astronomy, Grote Reber, noticed and seized upon the opportunity to study the stars in the new field he founded, completing most of his radio astronomy research from 1954 onwards in Tasmania. Today, a commemorative museum stands in his name, at the Mt. Pleasant Observatory facility.

These benefits have also caught the attention of global space agencies, with the ESA planning to collaborate with the Mt. Pleasant observatory when the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission launches in 2022. In particular, the Planetary and Radio Interferometry and Doppler Experiment (PRIDE), a scientific instrument that will be onboard JUICE, will send signals to the Mt. Pleasant dish to help determine the position and velocities of any deep space mission.

And Jupiter is not the only Solar System target that the University of Tasmania is working on, with a few Martian missions currently part of the studies being conducted by the university.

As part of a joint exercise with the European VLBI network, Dr Guifré Molera Calvés from the university recently assisted in tracking the position of NASA’s Mars Insight Lander, and also with observations aimed at measuring the red planet’s rotation and interior. Pradyumna Kummamuru, who began a PhD at the university earlier this year, has been conducting observations two or three times per week of the ESA spacecraft Mars Express (MEX), one of the first (and still ongoing) missions for the agency.