Australia — Unravelling the mysteries of the skies will be made easier for scientists worldwide by something of a $13 million phoenix.
A giant telescope was unveiled yesterday, an improvement on equipment lost to Canberra’s bushfires six years ago.
The Skymapper is the country’s first new optical research telescope in 25 years. It will be used to create a digital map of the southern skies, using detailed pictures taken over the next five years.
The telescope will be based at Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran in NSW and research will be shared freely with scientists overseas via the internet.
The Minister for Science and Research, Kim Carr, said the Skymapper added to Australia’s impressive capabilities in astronomy. “It is fantastic to see Mount Stromlo reborn as a centre for internationally significant astronomy after the horror of the 2003 bushfires,” he said.
Supporting space science helped people to understand their place in the universe and inspired technology that improved lives, he said.
The lead scientist on the project, Professor Brian Schmidt, said astronomers would use data retrieved by the telescope to make new discoveries. “Everything from dwarf planets like Pluto in our solar system to the first black holes in the universe,” he said.
The project began in 2002 when the Australian National University applied for a grant to survey the southern skies using a telescope at Mount Stromlo. Only 18 days after it won the grant, a bushfire ripped through the observatory in a blaze that claimed four lives and destroyed hundreds of homes.
The telescope is also Australia’s most sensitive digital camera and can take snaps of a patch of sky 25 times larger than the full moon.
Professor Schmidt called it a “268 megapixel behemoth” with sensitivity 5 million times greater than the human eye.
Space sciences and astronomy projects received $160.5 million in the last Federal Budget, including an $8.6 million pledge to create a Space Policy Unit.