Very high beam: ASKAP telescope creates world-first image of the cosmos

By Nicholas Kachel

12 May 2016

3 minute read

Night time view of dishes that are part of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) - a next-generation radio telescope in remote Western Australia

Night time view of dishes that are part of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) – a next-generation radio telescope in remote Western Australia

How’s camera technology these days, huh? From Go Pros hurtling out of the stratosphere, to the latest face-swap app on your iPhone, to new technology that could lead to cameras based inside human eyes, it seems like there’s nothing we can’t do when we put our lens to it.

But this all pales into comparison when you consider what our Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) can do.

You may have heard about ASKAP already: it’s a next-generation radio telescope incorporating novel receiver technologies and leading-edge ICT systems. Made up of 36 identical antennas, each 12 metres in diameter, ASKAP works as a unified single instrument, or interferometer, to capture radio images of the sky in more detail and faster than ever before. It will allow astronomers to find answer to fundamental questions about our Universe, including dark matter, dark energy, the nature of gravity, the origins of stars and galaxies, and more.

And it’s just created an image of the cosmos with the most number of ‘beams’ ever produced with a radio telescope to date, trained to the one patch of sky.

The radio image was produced using nine ASKAP antennas, recently installed with our newest Phased Array Feed (PAF) receiver systems.

The PAFs were configured with 36 dual-polarisation beams arranged in a 6×6 square footprint and rotated on the sky. The team observed a single field for 11 hours, with 48 MHz of bandwidth centred at 939.5 MHz. Which, we’re assured, is all rather impressive.

It looked like this:

The continuum image produced with ASKAPsoft. If you look really closely you can see your house.

The continuum image produced with ASKAPsoft. If you look really closely you can see my house!

Which may not appear much at first, but each of those little dots? They’re radio sources, like galaxies, and there are more than 1300 of them in that image. Covering 30 square degrees, this represents the full ASKAP field of view, equivalent to around 150 times the area the full Moon.

The field targeted for this observation is in the Apus (‘bird of paradise’) constellation. This area of the sky has become a ‘standard’ test field for the ASKAP commissioning team, due to its proximity to the South Celestial Pole and that it contains an arrangement of several strong sources.

The resulting continuum image was produced using a bespoke software package, known as ASKAPsoft, run on the real time computer housed in the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth.

ASKAPsoft will analyse the data that will flow from the ASKAP telescope – around 2.5 GB/s – rates that no other current software package will be able to handle.

This image not only represents that ASKAP’s newest receiver systems work, but also that ASKAPsoft has matured to deal with large quantities of data and produce images of the same high quality as other well-established software packages.

It is a testament to the power of ASKAP as a high resolution, wide area, survey telescope; and to the team who designed, built and are now commissioning the telescope.

And it sure beats your last Instagram selfie.

For more information on ASKAP, visit our website.