Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker
New telescopes, the flat flat desert and supernova remnants.
Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker gets to play with the first data from a brand new telescope, one of the first of its kind.
She’s discovering new things, creating some stunning images, and seeing a part of outback Australia that not many people get to travel to.
Specialisation: MWA Imaging & Calibration
The interview below was conducted in 2013
What are you working on now?
I’m looking at supernova remnants in the Galactic Plane at ~100MHz frequencies, using data taken from the 32-element prototype of the Murchison Widefield Array. Not only am I looking at some interesting objects and making new measurements, I’m finding features in the data that we can look for in the final instrument. These range from external effects such as ionospheric ripples down to more prosaic issues like how we determine whether an observation is good for calibration.
What got you into astronomy?
In terms of direction, I was very inspired by all the sci-fi I read and watched as I was growing up, and still enjoy now. The Earth is such a tiny place in a vast Universe and it baffles me that the study of ‘everything other than the Earth’ is such a small topic in our schooling. I also had a computer from an early age and learned how to solve problems methodically while trying to get my computer games to work, even if I didn’t learn formal programming until my teens. School seemed to be a tedious exercise in memorisation so it was wonderful when I discovered research, where one never runs out of problems to solve!
Why is your work important for ICRAR?
The telescope I am helping to commission, the Murchison Widefield Array, is one of a new generation of low-frequency instruments which are utilising technologies that will be important for the SKA, such as broadband antennas, a digital correlator and massive computing power. Western Australia has been nominated as the site of the low-frequency part of the SKA so ICRAR is going to be central to its development. Researchers like me are pathfinders for the future of ICRAR.
Why did you join ICRAR?
I saw a couple of great talks from ICRAR researchers who seemed very highly-motivated and excited by the research they were involved in. When I looked into post-doctoral positions here, I found generous travel grants, a pleasant working environment and indeed a group of excellent researches producing cutting-edge science, which inspired me to apply and join the team. And of course – the weather here is great!
Where were you before you came to work for ICRAR?
I had my first taste of radio astronomy research doing a Masters at Jodrell Bank, Manchester UK, and moved to the University of Cambridge to pursue a PhD with the Mullard Radio Astronomy group, who were the original radio interferometry pioneers. I helped commission a new instrument there, the Arcminute Microkelvin Imager, which is still observing and producing great science today.
What’s your favourite part of your work?
I’m able to make such a big impact on the development of a new instrument, and really get to grips with the detail of the system. I enjoy solving problems, learning the features of the data and optimising data processing, in order to generate excellent products ready for science. That kind of automated, fully-understood, data reduction is going to be incredibly important as we move into the SKA regime, and I’m excited to be here at the beginning of an era.
What do you think is the most exciting thing about astronomy today?
I think it’s fantastic that we’re pursuing a deep understanding of the Universe across such a range of redshifts. Not only are we pushing back boundaries in space, but also in time. Having seen the Cosmic Microwave Background in my research in Cambridge, I’m looking forward to the first detection of the Epoch of Reionisation. (The CMB was released when the Universe first cooled sufficiently to be transparent to radiation, and the EoR occurred when the neutral hydrogen cooled even further, to the point where it could collapse into stars, which then re-ionised the Universe.)
You get to spend a little bit of time at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, what’s it like up there?
Flat! I thought Cambridge was flat but we had nothing on WA. Seriously though, it’s fantastic to build an instrument in such a natural environment; you see wildlife, wildflowers, and some unbelievable skies, both during the day and at night. It’s a beautiful and serene place, and I’m looking forward to my next trip, in just under a week, for the next phase of commissioning the MWA.