After a long eight-year wait, the building of Australia's Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope has finally reached completion. The radio telescope's first major task will be to investigate the Sun to provide earlier warnings of solar storms that, if left unchecked, could fry satellites and power grids across the globe. The telescope will also be sued to scout the sky for the earliest, most distant galaxies ever detected in an attempt to resolve unanswered questions on the origins of the Universe.
Every once in a while, a massive flow of electrons and other accelerated particles collide with the Sun's plasma. When that happens, a solar flare is born, causing a giant electromagnetic pulse that can spell trouble for us Earthlings. Back in 1989, a solar flare cut power to six million Canadian citizens. And now, reports warn us, the Sun is due to re-enter peak activity in 2013, which the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) says has the potential to cause up to US$2 trillion in damage to power supply and communications networks.
Although the Sun is only about eight light-minutes away, it actually takes closer to twenty hours for a flare to travel from the Sun to the Earth's heliosphere. So, if we can detect a solar storm relatively quickly, we'll have enough time to temporarily reorient or redirect satellites out of the line of fire. ICRAR says the MWA will be quadruple the warning period currently provided by near-Earth satellites.
Developed in a collaboration between 13 different institutions harking from Australia, U.S.A., India and New Zealand, the new telescope array is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) around 800 km (497 miles) from Perth, a site that has also been selected as the future home for a portion of the Square Kilometre Array. The $51 million low-frequency radio telescope will be able to detect and monitor massive solar storms, identifying their trajectories in a matter of just a few hours, giving us a comfortable safety cushion that should help minimize damage.
But the MWA wasn't quite built as a one-trick pony. As well as keeping an eye out for solar flares, it will also be looking well past the Sun to gain a better grasp of the earliest, most distant galaxies we have ever observed to give astronomers a better idea of what happened in the very early days of our Universe, and perhaps shed light on how the relationship between gravity and dark matter evolved.
IBM, Cisco and Poseidon Scientific Instruments have collaborated to create highly specialized hardware to process the vast amounts of data – approximately 400 MB every second – the telescope will gather when operating at full capacity.
A few days after first going online, the telescope already showed performance on par with the the best results ever obtained in the search for the farthest stars and galaxies. Once it starts operating at full capacity, which should be early in 2013, the telescope is expected to deliver a ten-fold improvement over its already impressive capabilities.
Below is a short time-lapse video of the MWA and its surrounds.