Astronomy means different things to different things to different people when they hear about it. People think about optical telescopes that magnify what we can’t see in the clear night skies. They think about astronomers mapping the universe and finding new planets, stars, galaxies and discovering the unknown. Even though much of this is still true, astronomy has changed, with radio telescopes paving the way for new discoveries about our universe and discovering more and more about the place which we live in with instruments able to find exactly your phone is… when it’s on the moon. I was very excited when I heard that I could take part in ICRAR’s joint UWA and Curtin program which lasted for 4 days during the school holidays of April 2019. Here I met many different PhD students who told us about what they were working on, what their everyday life is like and talked to post-graduates and professors about their jobs.
We started the week listening to the weekly journal club that the ICRAR-Curtin node holds every Monday with Brendon reviewing a paper on new methods tracking space junk and talked about the brand-new image of the black hole in the center of M87 and discussed how the image was made, what limitations . Then a professor at ICRAR discussed the problems there were and why the image looks the way it looked. This showed me just how much people in astronomy must discuss and be able to communicate with each other and share their ideas. After lunch, we talked about the epoch of reionization, which was one of the periods in the history of the universe where people believe that neutral hydrogen gas started to reionize and form stars and galaxies, with one of the PhD students who explained how they were trying to use radio telescopes to find out what happened during this period of time. Next, we talked about the MWA, the Murchison Widefield Array, with one of the engineers from the project. She then explained to us how the radio telescopes of the MWA worked and how the engineers managed to ‘point’ the stationary grid of telescopes to where the astronomers are interested in. We then talked about pulsars with two of the PHD students and how astronomers detected these pulsars, what they looked like, and then how to find the radius of the pulsar using formulae and given data to find the size of the pulsars. Afterwards we talked with another PHD student about space junk and how we could track it.
On the second day we visited the ICRAR-UWA node where we watched a ‘Cosmology 101’ video to help catch us up on some key concepts of cosmology. This helped us to have a better understanding about what we were to learn during the day and so that we could understand what people were talking about when it came to astronomy and cosmology. We then had a practical activity where we used formulae to discover what the mass of a galaxy is and how we can use this to estimate what the approximate mass of stars were in that galaxy. This helped us to get a better feeling about astronomy and gave us have a more hands-on experience as we were able to try and find the answer of the results by ourselves. Next, we talked about simulations with one of the simulators for the ICRAR-UWA node. This exposed us to the more computer and coding side of astronomy and helped us to understand the variety of jobs of astronomers, such as observers; simulators and engineers, in the field. Lastly, we spoke to two international students, one from Germany and the other from the UK, who each gave us an insight to what they were working on and the international aspect of this type of job. They told us about some of the benefits of being an astronomer and how internationally based this job was; and that in this field it is almost a certainty that one would move at some point in their life and should be willing to travel globally.
On the third day we were at Curtin again and talking about the ionosphere and how it affects data and observations from radio telescope observations. We discussed stellar-mass black holes where we learnt about the different parts of a black hole, how we detect stellar-mass black holes and what happens once a star runs out of fuel to burn in the center of the star. Later, we talked about cosmic rays with another PhD student, discussed what they are and how astronomers detect them. We later talked about detecting muons and the problems of having to decrease the size of the data from the observations and how astronomers must try to reconstruct the missing data to get their results. Next, we talked about how astronomers calibrate their radio telescopes using simulations and some of the limitations of telescopes such as the MWA. Lastly, we did some hands-on work with another of the PhD students and used certain points of data over a couple of years to measure the velocity of a black hole using images from radio telescopes.
On the last day of our work experience we came back to ICRAR-UWA and started the day off by learning about how we observe hydrogen and other elements of galaxies, and about the pros and cons of different variations of radio telescopes. After an Easter tea, we talked to another PhD student about the hydrogen distribution in galaxies, how it is affected by the velocity of a galaxy and how you can find the density of the hydrogen in the galaxy. Next, we talked about galaxies’ formation and how astronomers can use simulations to help understand what they observe and what galaxies are made of, specifically looking at galactic dust. Lastly, we spoke to another student who was working on data intensive astronomy in terms of the SKA project, where he spoke about the importance of being able to program and code, how data is stored onsite and some limitations that are faced in data intensive astronomy.
My work experience at ICRAR showed me just how many different types of jobs there were in astronomy, such as observers, engineers, simulators etc. and how everyone in the profession must be able to interact and communicate with those who they work with to solve problems and overcome challenges. This has helped me to realize the fundamentals of working in astronomy, have a better understanding of what astronomers do and it even taught me about some aspects of astronomy which I had previously not known about.
I would also like to say thank you to Mr Rowbotham and Mr Joseph who organized the work experience and to all the PhD students and professors who gave up their time to talk to us and make the week an amazing experience.