Murchison Widefield Array: Changing Our View of the Universe

Posted by Lauren Barry on July 23, 2013

Novel Telescopic Insight

Murchison Widefield Array

With the launch of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) on July 9, history is taking an astronomical step (pun intended) towards changing how we see our universe both retroactively and prospectively. In simplest terms, MWA is a radio telescope which uses low frequency radiation (80-300 MHz) to piece together images of objects in space unparalleled in quality by single dish telescopes. It is located in the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in the Western Australian Outback, a location selected for its low radio frequency interference. The telescope’s name is derived from its construction: it is a phased array made up of sets of sixteen dipole antennas arranged in a 4×4 grid and spanning a 3 kilometer radius. The MWA is one of three predecessors to the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a $2 billion mega telescope which is expected to be fifty times more sensitive. In addition to providing insight into our universe, MWA functionality will play a large role in determining optimal construction of the SKA.

The Many Missions of the MWA

O.K., we understand what it is, but what does it do?  The Murchison Widefield Array has four primary tasks:

(1)   It will detect solar flares, storms, and other solar activity.

(2)   It will allow us to study galactic and extragalactic processes by scanning the Milky Way for black holes, as well as exploding stars and other mutable objects.

(3)   It will be used to track space garbage, especially that which is hazardous, using FM radio waves.

(4)   It will explore the history of the universe as far back as 13 billion years. In particular, it will give insight into the Cosmic Dawn, the period when the first stars and galaxies formed in the early universe. This includes the Epoch of Reonization (EoR), when fog from neutral gases was burned off by these forming stars and other luminous objects.

Burns Industries’ Contribution

Custom antennas laid outdoors in an array.Collaborating with universities around the world, our role in the construction of this exciting, pioneering advance was to build and ship, and deploy the custom antennas for the MWA. Our challenge was to create antennas that were optimized for durability, transportability, and cost, but were also simple to deploy in the variable and sometimes harsh weather conditions of the remote Australian Outback. There are a 16 antennas per tile and 128 tiles have been deployed for the array, yielding a total of 2,048 antennas which we have provided for the project thus far.