4 mins read 16 Dec 2020

Million Dollar Grant for Murchison Wide-field Array

A one million dollar grant has been awarded to Curtin University to conduct a major upgrade of the Murchison Widefield Array. 

Native wildflowers growing at the MWA. Credit: MWA Collaboration/Curtin University.

The Murchison Wide-field Array (MWA) in Western Australia is set for its second major upgrade since operations began in 2012. A one million dollar Federal Government grant administered by Astronomy Australia Ltd (AAL) to Curtin University will see the correlator, the ‘brains’ of the telescope, replaced. The grant is through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme (NCRIS) wherein the Australian Government strategically supports Australian researchers to enable them to address key national and global challenges. 

The MWA is a low-frequency telescope, made up of 4,000 antennas spread across several kilometres at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, and is the first fully operational precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA, which will be the world’s largest telescope, is set to begin construction next year. 

“AAL is excited to be able to support this “brain transplant” for the MWA, which will renew the telescope and increase its value for a range of users. It will allow the MWA to continue its scientific discoveries and maintain its position as a critical precursor instrument to the SKA, helping to ensure the future success of the SKA,” said Professor McClure-Griffiths, chair of the AAL board.

“AAL is very grateful to the Minister for Education, The Hon Dan Tehan, and the Department of Education, Skills and Employment – enabling NCRIS – for acknowledging the importance of the MWA to the future SKA and radio astronomy community as a whole.”

Replacing the Ageing Correlator

An MWA tile at night, showing the 4 x 4 configuration on top of the mesh. Credit: Dr. John Goldsmith/Celestial Visions.

MWA Director and Curtin University Professor Melanie Johnston-Hollitt said the upgrade will move the MWA to Phase III of the telescope which is due to commence in 2021. She stated that the current correlator can only process signals from half of the MWA’s antennas, forcing researchers to only use half of the array at once. The new correlator, designed by a team from Curtin University, will be able to process signals from all 4,000 antennas at once. 

“The new correlator, MWAX, has been specially designed by a team from Curtin, which includes engineers from the MWA Operations Team and the Curtin Institute for Radio Astronomy,” Professor Johnston-Hollitt said.

“In the first instance the new correlator will enable us to make finer frequency and time observations which improves our ability to detect new transient sources such as pulsars and fast radio bursts, understand the physics of the Sun and the ionosphere, and to undertake simultaneous surveys for extra-terrestrial intelligence,” she continued. 

Professor Johnston-Hollitt also thanked the gaming industry for driving technological advancements in graphics processing units that have been key to the new correlator. 

“Thanks to advances in the technology of graphics processing units (GPUs) driven by the gaming industry, the new correlator is easily able to ingest all of the signals from each antenna and paves the way for having all of the MWA’s over 4000 antennas connected simultaneously in the future,” she said. 

“We are indebted to everyone who plays games on their computer for driving the economics that have advanced GPUs so much in the last eight years. In a very real sense gamers have helped drive the technology that allows us to uncover the mysteries of the Universe.”

The MWA is a collaboration of 20 partner academic institutions from Australia, the United States, Japan, China, and Canada. Curtin University is the collaboration’s lead organisation and the recipient and manager of Australian MWA funding.

In recent times the telescope has been used for a number of different purposes, such as the discovery of 27 new supernovae remnants across the Milky Way, scanned 10 million stars residing in a small portion of the sky to look for alien techno-signatures (and found none), and has even been used as a passive radar to detect the International Space Station and other satellites.


We acknowledge the Wajarri Yamatji as the traditional owners of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory site.