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“Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another” – Plato

The 4th century brought about a new field of study for Greek philosophers and many ancient civilisations, one that involved looking to the sky above them and explaining the things they saw. This later became known as Astronomy; and has since evolved alongside technology. No longer is looking at the night sky purely done through an optical range; technological advances now allow scientists to view the universe through lenses consisting of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. ICRAR is a frontier in this relatively new type of astronomy, where they utilise radio waves, those with lowest frequency, to research more about the universe and expand upon human knowledge. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take part in their work experience program, this is my week summarised as to excite you into attending the programme too!

Day 1:

I arrived at Curtin eager to learn as much as I could within the short time period, and by the end of the day, I left satisfied with some of the concepts I’d managed to grasp. Our supervisor, Pikky, greeted us with a tour of the building and the general safety brief, and once we’d introduced ourselves she took us to her desk and our day had begun. She explained that ICRAR is a community of researchers, students and outreach people whom use radio waves to look at the universe. As the conversation progressed, we learnt that she was PhD student, like many at Curtin, and further explained her project, which was based around using radio astronomy instruments to explain the creation of black holes and their relationships with close stars as they mature. After about half an hour (the time we were allocated to speak to each student) she introduced us to Steve, who explained his Master’s degree was focused on tracking space debris and satellites, to ensure future launches of satellites and other equipment is not inhibited or damaged by the debris. We then, were taken to Alexander, who’s PhD revolved around the impacts of cosmic waves and the creation/detection of muon particles using both radio astronomy instruments and other detection methods. At 12, we were ‘released’ to lunch, where we spent the hour talking with a group of PhD students, who we would soon meet properly later. We spent time after lunch talking with Daniel, who introduced us to the engineering side of ICRAR; showing us the antennae used on the telescopes at the MWA and those proposed for the SKA. After a quick coffee break, we spoke to Samuel and Bradley, who introduced us to the world of pulsars, where they explained pulsar’s angular momentums and rotation rates, as well as describing the strong magnetic fields associated with these celestial objects. Bradley spoke with us about his research into RRATS (rotating radio transients) and the difficulties in finding them.

Day 2:

This was our first day at UWA, where we first met with our supervisor, Gregory Rowbotham, who expanded on Pikky’s explanation of the purpose, origins and history of ICRAR. After the brief introduction, we were taken to Kevin, who spoke to us about data intensive astronomy and supercomputers, other discussed topics included red shift, gravity lensing and the dark universe. He also took time to explain the data storage and technology used now and those that will be required in the future. PhD student Kate described her chosen field of study, to do with modelling the kinematics of galaxies, using simulations. She spoke to us about the use of these simulations and the coding required for these simulations to run and data astronomy in general. After lunch, Gregory took us to an auditorium of sorts, and took us through a power point presentation, based upon the life cycles of stars and black holes. I learnt new information about the event horizons of black holes, and that the escape velocities at this point is greater than the speed of light, hence why photons are unable to escape. We also discussed the magnetic fields generated by supermassive black holes, and the formation of quasars.

Day 3:

Our third day began with a presentation about the ties between indigenous culture and astronomy, the presenter told the audience traditional stories, then unveiled them in attempt for us to understand their multi layers. We then attended a research meeting, where a PhD student presented his project to those in the room, I understood his PhD to be based upon mapping molecular hydrogen in the universe. Before lunch, Gregory sat us down to watch a video made by ICRAR about the formation and evolution of the universe, where we learnt about the CMBR and how simple things such as the shape of the universe can be determined by minimal temperature fluctuations in the radiation. After lunch we spoke to a postgraduate researcher about her work regarding the formation and evolution of radio galaxies. We then went back to the auditorium to complete an activity of weighing a galaxy, where we learnt to determine velocity width, optical velocity and whether the galaxy in question is spiral, and rotating, all from a simple hydrogen spectra. The conversation then progressed to a discussion on dark matter and dark energy. We finished our day talking to a researcher with a theoretical background rather than an observational one, where we learnt the use and importance of theory and what the job entails on a daily basis.

Day 4:

We started our last day at Curtin university talking to a PhD student about neutral networks, computer learning, pixel imaging and programming; all things she said that we’d need in the future to make it as astronomers. We then spoke to another student about thermonuclear bursts of neutron stars, binary systems, black hole magnetic fields and the distribution of electrons in the radio jets of supermassive black holes. After this discussion, Pikky took us to a room filled with students and researches, where we would attend a presentation about sparse image and signal processing in radio telescopes, to which this presentation I’ll admit, was way over my head. We then attended a morning tea farewelling the travelling Dutch students from the Curtin node. Between the morning tea and lunch, we spoke to a research fellow about his projects, where he described one as using the radio equipment to image flickering supermassive black holes. At lunch, I had the opportunity to sit with more students and professors, where we discussed the uses of networking in the industry and the need to understand basic codes. After lunch, we spoke to another student about the history of radio astronomy, where he used pulsars as a particular example. The late afternoon brought about a conversation with a student and his projects regarding finding new pulsars. He showed us a bit of coding skills and practices, but our talk was cut short by him needing to attend a seminar about his field. Pikky then took us to our desks for us to end the day with an activity where we used the ds9 software to analyse an image of the Perseus galaxy cluster and determined the physical size of the X-ray cavity and determined the amount of energy required for a jet to carve the X-ray cavity.

Day 5:

We spend our last work experience day back at UWA, where we began by visiting the SPIRIT optical telescopes on the rooftop of the UWA Physics Department Building. We then attended an Astronomer morning tea, where we were able to speak with everyone in the UWA building about our experiences in the week and future ambitions. We then spoke to a PhD student about his journey from high school to university and his goals along the way; he also described his research, being about collisional ring galaxies. After this talk, Gregory took us to the highly competitive “Plot of the week competition”, where university students present a graph, and attempt to persuade the audience why their plot should win, this event of course, is catered with pizza. Once the winner had been announced, it was then time for lunch. To close our day, we worked on our blogs and asked any remaining questions; we were also visited by another PhD student who talked about his work with data science. Before I had realised, it turned four o’clock and our work experience with ICRAR had come to an end.

This past week has been an incredible experience. I got to meet a diverse range of people, that were so different in their personalities, yet all shared a wonderful passion for their work. I realised for the first time that this career is actually possible; it’s not a hopeless dream that one day I’ll have to wake up from, but more like an exciting reality that just takes a few years study and a bit of enthusiasm. ICRAR has introduced me to a world of radio astronomy, and for anyone going through their work experience program, be prepared to talk to lot of people and receive a lot of knowledge in only a few days. Thank you ICRAR for giving me this phenomenal opportunity.