3 mins read 17 Jul 2020

Mid-Term Review of Australia’s Astronomy Decadal Plan Released

Five years into a decade-long plan, the Australian Academy of Science has released a review of Australian astronomy community and infrastructure. 

The ASKAP array of dish antennas located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia. Credit: CSIRO/Alex Cherney.

Australia’s Academy of Science’s National Committee for Astronomy has released a mid-term review of their 2016-2025 plan for astronomy in Australia. This review has found that Australia is well positioned to contribute to our understanding of the universe through big international breakthroughs. In this review the major achievements so far under this plan were outlined, as well as recommendations to continue boosting Australian astronomy. 

The decadal plan released by the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) in 2016 focused on Australia in the era of global astronomy. In this plan fundamental science questions and details of the major facilities and infrastructure needed for Australian astronomers to help answer those questions were defined. This information was based on the reports of over 150 astronomers, engineers, and educators in 11 working groups from over 30 Australian institutions. AAS’s National Committee for Astronomy ran this process in 2014 and 2015 to develop the decadal plan. This plan aims to enhance Australia’s astronomy infrastructure and communities in order to help Australian scientists play a world-leading role in astronomy.

Achievements and Recommendations

Dipole antennae sitting on mesh making part of the MWA. Credit: CSIRO.

In the mid-term review of the decadal plan, one of the achievements so far noted includes Australian participation in the identification of the ‘missing matter’ of the universe.  This was achieved using data on ‘fast radio bursts’ collected by the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) located in Western Australia. ASKAP and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), also in Western Australia, are both technical demonstrations for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), which once finished will be the world’s largest telescope. Australia has signed an international treaty to form the SKA observatory, which is headquartered in the UK and involves 13 other countries, allowing Australia to collaborate on the global stage.

“The SKA is ground-breaking technology and right now we’ve got the MWA and ASKAP in operation—these are two technical demonstrations for the SKA but in their own right are the most powerful telescopes of their type in the world,” said astrophysicist and mid-term review committee member Professor Tamara Davis from the University of Queensland.

In another achievement, Australia entered into a strategic partnership with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a 16-nation intergovernmental research organisation for ground-based astronomy. 

The chair of the review committee, Professor Lister Staveley-Smith from the University of Western Australia, commented, “The Australian Government’s investment in a strategic partnership with the ESO has put the nation on the path to full ESO membership.” One of the recommendations of the mid-term review is that Australia should pursue full membership of ESO. 

“This partnership is unleashing major Australian-led science programs on the world’s most capable optical observatory and there’d be great benefit to see the agreement extend beyond 10 years,” said Professor Staveley-Smith. 

A total of nine recommendations were made in the mid-term review, which aims to push Australia’s scientific achievements even further onto the global stage and to continue to enhance our international standing in the field of astronomy.  

“Australia is the envy of many international astronomers, partly because of our radio-quiet skies and important southern hemisphere location. We have a natural advantage in this regard and so many countries want to be involved in telescopes in Australia,” Professor Davis said.

For more information, see the mid-term review in full.