My first day at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) was amazing. I got to meet all the people who work there and got to learn about the frontier of Astrophysics in what’s termed Dark Matter. I found the people at ICRAR very friendly, passionate and open. For the duration of my work experience, I was to be working with a student from a school from Western Australia, on the project involving dark matter.
One of our coordinator’s Greg Rowbotham commenced our work experience by showing us a video on cosmology which included our main topic, Dark Matter. Dark matter, as a topic, is currently a whole mystery to scientists. What we know about it is that, it interacts gravitationally and doesn’t interact with light so you can’t see it.
On our 1st day, which was also an introduction day, we got taught by another coordinator Matthew Young on the theory, maths and how to use the equipment which was a radio telescope. For the theory and maths, we were looking at the velocity of a star given its distance, mass, radius and wavelength. I found it intriguing, that the mathematical relationships and equations were derived from Newtons universal gravitational equation; and how we were connecting the equations to the theory. As well as this, we also got to connect to a radio telescope remotely, which was about an hour away from Perth which was very interesting as you could see the telescope moving in real time.
My second day at ICRAR was great, as I learned a lot more about the theory behind cosmology. For the first couple of hours, Mr Young taught us about trigonometry and how to figure out certain distances, angles and velocities. We also had an opportunity to speak to a PhD student Kate Harborne from the UK about her research in Australia. Kate told us about some of the work that she is doing at ICRAR; which involved gravitational simulations. For this session, my colleague and I were joined by some year 10 students, who were also doing work experience at ICRAR for the week. After this, we did some more theory about the cosmos which went over exoplanets, stars, pulsars, and galaxies. Next, we tested a program which ICRAR is developing which is a citizen science project. The beta’s purpose was to get people to tell the computer where galaxies were located which would help a computer identify further galaxies. We helped the computer differ between objects such as a galaxy, a star or another galaxy. I found this work rewarding and was excited to be contributing to science and be a part of the scientific community.
On Wednesday, my third day at ICRAR, we sat in a seminar and learnt some theory and learned about data analysis and interpretation of the data. In the Seminar there were two speakers, the first speaker discussed Aboriginal Astronomy which I hadn’t heard of before. She was saying that in order to get more people interested in astronomy and science, we should teach concepts in stories. She also mentioned that science needed a culture. Furthermore, by adding stories to scientific concepts we allow for not only the concept and knowledge to be learned from the stories that students will be able to extract out; as well as a deeper meaning. The second speaker talked about his life and talked about how the astronomers in the room need to engage the public more, to get more people interested in astronomy. He also talked about how astronomers should follow standard basic rules to become more interesting and communicate better to the general public about the discoveries made. Next, we learnt about measuring a galaxy’s mass and how it was calculated but when we finished we started to move off from that concept into other things including quantum foam, virtual particles and space-time which was very interesting for all of us. After this, we learnt how to create an executable file which the telescope would use to take measurements by itself. While we were waiting for the telescope to execute the commands from the file, Mr Young showed us what type of data we would get. From the data files, we were set a challenge as a team, to be able to complete some basic tasks which we were able to complete quickly. Overall the day was fun, engaging and interesting.
Thursday, was a packed day mentally and I was pushed to think about concepts and ideas with seminars, mathematics, theory and data analysis. Today we listened to a couple of speakers talk about different ideas and ways in which astronomers could help with education both in the educational business but also on how to communicate to the public better and getting people involved in the astronomical landscape.
We then went and looked at a telescope which is used for educational purposes to be utilised by teachers and students. The telescope which is known as the SPIRIT telescope, is a collection of robotic optical telescopes in which students and schools can put in basic commands and get the telescope to take pictures. We then headed downstairs and listened to another seminar by Paul Luckas who invented and built the SPIRIT telescope and his story about the spirit telescope. Meeting and hearing what Paul said was interesting as we got an inside look at why the telescope was set up and what could be done to make more initiatives like this possible. We then headed back upstairs where we started doing data analysis. The data we collected was from the previous day from the radio telescope which was cool, as we got to apply the equations which were derived in a previous section unto the actual data. Using these equations, we got to see how they changed and manipulated the data and when doing it, I felt that it made the equations clearer and gave it purpose rather than some abstract idea.
On the last day, we went and saw two of the SPIRIT telescopes at the University of Western Australia (UWA). Seeing the telescopes up and close, was captivating as I could see how the system worked with different cables running from the telescope to a computer. Paul, who built the telescope showed us a demo of how it worked and by pressing a couple of buttons on a computer he was able to make the telescope move all on its own to the desired coordinates. After this Matthew took us to Curtin University, where we listened to PhD students talk about their topics. After this, we took a long trip to ICRAR’s remote centre where the radio telescope we used was located. The telescope itself is about 2m in diameter and looks like a radio dish. While we were waiting for the telescope to record our results, we went walking and went to a small museum. The museum was hands-on and my colleague and I used a capsule which spun when you turned a valve in the middle. While it was great during the spinning, coming out I did feel very dizzy. We then had a look at a timeline of the universe before collecting the results from the telescope. After this, we headed back to UWA and where we sadly had to say goodbye to Matthew before seeing Greg in the ICRAR building and saying goodbye to him as well.
Overall my time at ICRAR was productive, inspirational, fun, challenging, and a really good learning experience, where I felt welcomed and included. I would recommend it to anyone interested in Astronomy or Physics.
I would like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to Greg and Matthew for their time and dedication in helping me learn and for their guidance in making this a memorable work experience.