Friday, 12 February 2021 11:58

CSIRO-led astronomer team gets top award for tracking fast radio bursts Featured

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Dr Keith Bannister: "It's thrilling to be part of cutting-edge science and technology in Australia, and to have it recognised internationally." Dr Keith Bannister: "It's thrilling to be part of cutting-edge science and technology in Australia, and to have it recognised internationally." Supplied

The award for the best science paper of the year, given by the prestigious Science journal, has been given to a team of scientists led by CSIRO astronomer Dr Keith Bannister.

The AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize is awarded to the authors of an outstanding paper published in Science by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The 54-strong international team was the first to pinpoint the location of a fast radio burst or FRB and hailed from 21 institutes. It was co-led at CSIRO, Swinburne University of Technology, and ICRAR/Curtin, and included researchers from Australia, Chile, and the US.

FRBs are intense pulses of radio emission that last just a fraction of a second and for more than a decade their origins were a mystery because radio telescopes lacked precision to identify their source.

The team used CSIRO's Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder radio telescope, an array of 36 antennas in Western Australia to try and solve the mystery.

ASKAP has CSIRO-designed phase array feed receivers which widen its field of view by a factor of 30, enabling it to find bursts more rapidly. It was used to detect the burst and, crucially, pinpoint its location using a novel "live action replay" system.

askap scope

The ASKAP telescope. Courtesy CSIRO

Dr Bannister designed the live replay system. "It's thrilling to be part of cutting-edge science and technology in Australia, and to have it recognised internationally," he said.

The team took the position and used the most powerful optical telescopes in the world, including the Keck telescope in Hawaii, ESO's Very Large telescope and Gemini telescope in Chile to find the burst's home galaxy.

"Our results confirmed that fast radio bursts come from very distant galaxies," Dr Bannister said. "With the power of ASKAP we can tell which galaxy a burst came from, and also pinpoint its location within that galaxy."

The winning paper, A single fast radio burst localised to a massive galaxy at cosmological distance, was published in Science on 9 August 2019, featuring an image of ASKAP on the front cover.

Acting CSIRO chief scientist Dr Sarah Pearce congratulated Dr Bannister and the team for their achievement.

"Keith's work is an outstanding example of bringing together innovative CSIRO researchers, great collaborative astronomy partnerships and world-class Australian research infrastructure. His award is very well deserved," she said.

Swinburne University of Technology PhD student and fellow award recipient, Cherie Day, said receiving the award was exciting.

"Our team traced the source of a 'single, millisecond-long, burst of energy in space', to a Milky Way-type galaxy located 3.6 billion light years away," she said.

"By studying the environments around the origins of fast radio bursts, astronomers will be able to determine what causes them, solving one of the big astronomical mysteries of our generation."

In the next year, the team plans to put in place a new burst detection system that will increase the burst detection rate.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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