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Monday, 29th of April, 2013

We, Holly and Ryan, have just completed our first day of work experience. Today we are at UWA and we began with a tour of the ICRAR building, meeting various PhD students, professors and doctors and then we were told what the plans for the day would be.

Post introductory-tour we had some time to read through some of the really interesting booklets, magazines and leaflets about radio astronomy, the SKA and ICRAR. We learned about the main reasons for building the SKA and some of the interesting discoveries that have come out of astronomy. Did you know that WiFi is a direct result of astronomical research?

After reading about the universe we weighed a galaxy. Almost. Using a Flux Density over Optical Velocity graph on the red shifted hydrogen line and an optical image of galaxy NGC 253, commonly known as the Sculptor Galaxy, we roughly determined it’s mass, percentage composition of dark matter, angular size, and radial velocity.

The Sculptor Galaxy. Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

The Sculptor Galaxy. Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

We had lunch and then thoroughly enjoyed a two hour talk with Dr. Christopher Springob regarding his work here at ICRAR. He is one of the few people on this planet working on an interesting concept where galaxies are accelerating due to gravity and also the increasing expansion of the universe. His ‘team’ is trying to measure the velocity of galaxies relative to their acceleration due to the expansion of the universe so that the gravitational acceleration can be measured from a frame where the galaxies do not move relative to the universe expanding.

Today we had a tour, weighed a galaxy, read some books, had lunch and talked to someone that actually knows what they’re talking about. Tomorrow, we hope to move on to more complex things, such as developing a simple backyard recipe to brewing dark matter and additionally, developing a communication device functioning on the principle of quantum particle entanglement providing instantaneous communication anywhere in the universe.

“The radiation left over from the Big Bang is the same as that in your microwave oven but very much less powerful. It would heat your pizza only to -271.3C – not much good for defrosting the pizza, let alone cooking it.” – Stephen Hawking

Tuesday, 30th April, 2013

Today, we were at Curtin University and started the day with a tour.Next up we played with playdoh, for science. We were required to test an activity for schools in the Kimberly. This activity involved us dividing several tubs of (messy) playdoh by multiple powers of ten and building the planets of our solar system with their sizes proportional to their volume, only that Mercury ended up being the size of about a cubic picometer.

After that we had a meeting with astronomer Dr. Andrew Walsh. He is studying Methanol masers, which appear to form near extremely luminous supergiants still in their T Tauri phase. Masers are extremely ‘loud’ (to radio telescopes) clouds of excited gas. He explained that by studying the emission lines of various compounds such as ammonia (NH3), molecular hydrogen (H2), the hydroxyl radical (OH) and many others the relative abundance of these compounds can be calculated for the local area.

Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Next, Brian Crosse gave us the engineering side of astronomy by telling us about the problems being experienced in the Murchison Widefield Array. Specifically he discussed an issue with the beam formers where the antennas are not being synchronized correctly. The error is so small that it’s a number of picoseconds, a unit a thousand times smaller than nanoseconds! Although this error is so small, if corrected would result in a performance/quality increase estimated to be of at least 20%.

We have been given a task, to analyse the test data from the beam formers and calculate the average delay for each delay circuit in the circuit board of the beam former and the standard deviation. Additionally, we were tasked to detect patterns in delay times and to detect any broken components such as faulty resistors. Such tasks have supposedly never been performed on the Murchison Widefield Array and our findings could apparently substantially increase performance.

After this interesting discussion we spoke with Dr. John Morgan who was using available radio astronomy data to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. We had to do a worksheet that included us calculating the possibility of detecting primitive radar systems on alien planets 20 light years from earth. Hopefully one day we’ll have a conversation with little green Men…

“To infinity, and beyond!” – Buzz Lightyear

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Back at UWA today and this morning we had a little time to update our blog and read through a few astronomy related content on the Internet.

We were then given an activity called ‘Galaxy Explorers’ which included a lot of computer work (which was easy for Ryan but baffled me considerably). We had to analyse atomic hydrogen spectral line data and determine velocities of ‘hot spots’.

hollyimage ryanimagelolAfter lunch, we got to talk to theoretical astrophysicist Danail Obreschow who talked us through various areas of astrophysics and cosmology and a little about weightlessness which he has experienced and conducted experiments in! We saw a picture of him on the UWA news magazine in zero gravity with one of his coworkers, we can only hope to do such exciting things as he has done one day…

“And may the force be with you” – Han Solo

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Today we were back for our final day at Curtin and we started this morning by testing ourselves on an astronomy quiz created by one of the people who work here and we did surprisingly well. We have included it so you can test your Astronomy skills too and try and beat our magnificent brains…

Next we had a research session with Natasha Hurley-Walker who gave us a task analyzing a radio image of part of the Universe taken by the MWA (Murchison Widefield Array). We had to record the coordinates of any noteworthy features and then look them up in SIMBAD an online database that allowed us to see what the objects we found were, we found a number of supernova remnants, radio galaxies, stars and other really exciting things.

After lunch, Ryan then had some time to analyse the delay data that we were given by Brian Crosse and to talk to some engineers whilst I learnt some more about astronomy doing some very interesting activities from a lecture book about parallax and other interesting things.

We then ended with a research session with Cath Trott, an astrophysicist at Curtin University who spoke to us about analyzing solar flare data and showed us an interesting report on of the previous work experience students did. Today has been fun and we are looking forward to tomorrow, which is (sadly) our last day of work experience at ICRAR.

“Live long and proper” – Spock

Friday, 3rd May, 2013

Today is our final day of work experience and we have started the morning editing our blog and finishing up our ‘Galaxy Explorers’ activity, which is taking a surprising long time, but is very fun and is teaching one of us a lot about computer skills. We had to create a first moment map, which is a map composed of images taken at different frequencies compiled in such a way so that it is weighted by velocity, of two different images, one of the whole sky and one close up of the stream between the magellanic clouds. We also examined one of the images for NGC items.

screen-shotWe then got to be part of the weekly astro morning tea where most of the astronomers, PhD students and other staff gather around, eat cake and hear news. After lunch, we had fun laminating and cutting a few things for Kirsten to kill time before our very last researcher session of the week.

Our final research session was with Kevin Vinsen who is one of the computer wizzes at ICRAR. He gave us a presentation about the astronomical requirements of the SKA specifically the ridiculous amounts of data processing and storage needed. Did you know that one year of data from the planned phase one of the SKA, if recorded to Blu-ray discs, would be longer than the WA coastline?!

We have learnt a lot this week doing work experience at ICRAR and we have met loads of amazing people in the wonderful world of Radio Astronomy.

“The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we fell very good. Understanding is joyous.” – Carl Sagan

P.S We would like to say a big thank you to Kirsten who organized this amazing week for us.