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Reaching for the stars

Illustration of a quasar or black hole via NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE); inset: Dr Tayyaba Zafar at AAO .(Photo: NASA/ESAvia Getty Images) Source: Getty Images North America

An astronomer shares her journey of staring at the stars in the sky as a child to developing the world pioneering technology to observe the universe.

In the outskirts of the Lahore city of Pakistan, a girl used to watch the stars and wonder how many of them were there in the sky.

She tried counting them; she did but a few, yet the more she counted, the more there were to count. Although she was not successful, her curiousity remained.

Fast forward a few decades and that girl is now an astronomer at the Australian Astronomical Optics (AAO) and currently working in the development of robotic telescopes, a technology in which Australia is a world pioneer.

“At Australian Astronomical Optics (AAO), we are building the latest equipment to observe the vast heavens above us.” Dr Tayyaba Zafar tells SBS Urdu.

“Australia is a pioneer of robotic instruments and is known around the globe. The latest technology will bring new markets to us. Several international organisations have already asked us to build this technology for them.

“You want to take advantage of the dark time [ from twilight to dawn] and this technology will provide more time to the astronomy [and astronomers] in the world.”

Before joining AAO, she worked as an astronomer in Germany (European Southern Observatory), France and Denmark, observing the interstellar medium of distant bright galaxies, mostly through Gamma-ray bursts, quasars and their intervening absorbers.

As one of the female leaders of STEM, she was also a participant of a recent trip to Antarctica to promote climate change and how it is affecting the cold region.

Dr Zafar says that although it is great to be in a position to learn and study the universe, she faced a lot of challenges to succeed in life and be able to do what she aimed for.

“My parents never thought I will get a scholarship to do a PhD in Europe. Studying abroad was considered unacceptable.

“But once I got it, my teachers were quite supportive. They told my parents that I am a talent and they will not lose me.

“Always aim high, don’t worry about the challenges, they will fade away.”

Dr Tayyaba Zafar at the Australia-ESO Joint Conference in Sydney, Australia.
Dr Tayyaba Zafar at the Australia-ESO Joint Conference in Sydney, Australia.
Supplied

“Even in different work environments there were gender and territorial biases.” Dr Zafar says.

“We [Women] do have different challenges than men but that does not mean we should leave what we love. If you get to the career [you want], hook on that, sooner or later you will surpass all the challenges in your path to success.

“For me, the key driver is curiousity that I keep seeking for new things. You need a different mindset for that, and that is what I have.

“You can start up with nothing yet can do the best or the most. All you need is your ambition.”

Dr Zafar says AAO has successfully developed new instruments for the telescopes that assist in observing multiple sections of a galaxy.

“In telescopes, normally the components have to be manually configured to study the sections in a star or galaxy.

“With robotic component, we will not be requiring that and that will drastically reduce the time to study the universe.

“You want to take advantage of the dark time and this will provide more time to the astronomy [and astronomers] in the world.”

Dr Tayyaba Zafar at the Australian Astronomical Optics (AAO) in Sydney, Australia.
Dr Tayyaba Zafar at the Australian Astronomical Optics (AAO) in Sydney, Australia.
SBS

“Time is very important to study the universe and no one wants to lose it just to configure the instruments manually. “ – Dr Tayyaba Zafar

Dr Zafar is currently working on the 'MANIFEST' instrument that use starbugs fiber positioning technology.

Starbugs are miniature ‘walking robots’ developed by the AAO to enable fast and accurate parallel positioning of optical fibres for telescopes.

She is also working on the instrument for the Japanese 8-meter Subaru telescope. It will comprise of building the starbugs for the 'ULTIMATE' instrument.

Illustration of 'MANIFEST' instrument that will be mounted on the 24.5 meters Giant Magellan Telescope in Las Campanas,  Chile.
Illustration of 'MANIFEST' instrument that will be mounted on the 24.5 meters Giant Magellan Telescope in Las Campanas, Chile. (Image:AAO)
AAO (Australian Astronomical Optics)