• Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (Rae Johnston)Source: Rae Johnston
Over the last 10 years, Australian physicists and astronomers played a key part in some of the biggest scientific discoveries. Here's why we are punching well above our weight, and why a lack of Indigenous inclusion is still a big problem.
Rae Johnston

27 Jul 2020 - 8:54 AM  UPDATED 27 Jul 2020 - 9:19 AM

We've already played a major part in some of the most significant breakthroughs in the understanding of the universe, and Australia's contribution to the world of astronomy is only set to get bigger and better.

A mid-term review of Australia's 10-year plan for astronomy, overseen by the Australian Academy of Science's National Committee for Astronomy, has made some key recommendations to make sure this happens. Some experts say the review doesn't go far enough to address the systemic issues STEM industries have with diversity and inclusion.

What have we done?

In the last ten years alone, Australian physicists and astronomers have made an enormous amount of progress.

In 2015, they were an integral part of the 2015 discovery of gravitational waves, a massive event in the history of physics and astrophysics. Gravitational waves had been predicted (by Einstein, no less) 100 years earlier, but no one had detected the faint ripples until we did. The discovery earned a Nobel Prize in Physics.

They played an even greater part in a later event in 2017, where a pair of neutron stars met. This led to the detection of both the electromagnetic radiation and the location of the stars' host galaxy, known as NGC 4993. 

When it comes to designing instruments and algorithms - hardware and software for star-gazing - Australian astronomers and physicists are at the forefront.

Mysterious fast radio bursts were used by Australian scientists to solve a decades-old mystery of even more mysterious "missing matter", finally found in the dark spaces between the galaxies of the universe. Anyone with knowledge of Indigenous Astronomy would find that "discovery" familiar. 

In short: we do great work here. And looking to the future, this review makes nine main recommendations for the next five years. There is more investment and infrastructure needed if we are going to keep making our mark.

Why is our continent so special? 

We have access to some incredible astronomy technology.

The Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory on Wajarri Yamatji country in Western Australia is home to the Murchison Widefield array (MWA), Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and the future low-frequency telescope of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). The SKA is an international project including 13 other countries.

Astrophysicist Professor Tamara Davis calls our telescopes "ground-breaking".

"Right now we've got the MWA and ASKAP in operation, [which] in their own right are the most powerful telescopes of their type in the world," said Professor Davis.

Speaking with NITV, Wiradjuri Astrophysicist and Science Communicator Kirsten Banks pointed out it's not just our technology that gives us an advantage. 

"We are one of the darkest countries in the world. We have a very flat country as well, with a lot of really clear, pristine views of the night sky. It makes it a very astronomically quiet pace to work."

Gammilaray Astrophysicist Karlie Noon told NITV that one of the main advantages we have with studying space is the distance we can place between ourselves and our beloved devices. 

"We have so much space here, so much empty space where it's not being bombarded with all our mobile phones or microwaves or wi-fi devices even our tellys," said Ms Noon. "All these devices we have, and we surround ourselves with dramatically interfere with our ability to pick up radio waves in outer space."

"So having large areas of land in which these technologies don't really exist, and it's far enough away for those waves to not be a big issue, to not interfere so much - these conditions allow us to pick up some of the most distant and ancient radio waves that this universe has ever produced."

Why are we so good at it? 

"We do have a really deep history in this field," said Ms Noon, "a really significant history."

Combine this with several other reasons, and you get close to the answer.

"In the past - I think this is a bit controversial now, - but in the past, we've always opened our doors to any student, wherever you're from," said Ms Noon. "International students were always welcome here, and I think that goes a long way to creating an environment and an atmosphere that is encouraging for people to be in."

"And, of course, astronomy is inherently international. You can't do research at this level without using every skill we have as human beings."

How do we keep this going? What does the review recommend?

The review recommends Australia join the European Southern Observatory (ESO). We have a partnership right now, but full membership would give us access to massive telescopes all over the world - like the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Extremely Large Telescope currently under construction in northern Chile.

Ms Banks says full ESO membership "would make a huge difference" to our contributions in the field, particularly in terms of infrastructure. 

"The ESO has real estate on these telescopes. Having access to them would allow us to get a better view and better idea of the universe," said Ms Banks. "We'll be able to discover even more."

"It would give us access to the entire ESO repertoire," said Ms Noon.

"Telescope time is valuable - particularly with optical because, the poor buggers, they only have the night time! They are already limited in the time that they have. Having access to more telescopes and more telescope time is what every optical astronomer wants in their life."

Membership of ESO would also give our researchers a much-needed career boost. 

"When we talk about careers in astronomy, it's unavoidably international," Ms Noon pointed out. "Typically a career will involve you living in many different countries and being affiliated to many different institutions, so becoming a full member of ESO only helps to increase Australian researchers in getting more career opportunities."

The review makes seven other significant recommendations, including that Australia continue to build stronger ties between the Australian astronomy community, the broader Australian space science community, and the Australian Space Agency.

Ms Noon said this would bring "huge" benefits. 

"I think this is a really, really old problem that we have with agencies. Where we separate these things into their little compartments. With something like the space agency, there is certainly a lot of democracy involved with running an organisation like that. But you can't run a space agency without the experts, without the scientists, engineers, without the people who get the most impact from this kind of work."

"It's like with any government organisation - working with people, collaborating, getting as many voices in as impossible can only help and make it a place that is relevant, and useful, and makes sense to the people who use it." 

Who does the plan leave out?

Kirsten Banks says we need to to get more of our next generation interested in space, and feeling safe within the space science community.

"No place in the workforce is always completely safe, but in terms of systemic racism, dealing with stuff like this - and as a woman in a male-dominated field - we need to provide safe spaces," said Ms Banks.

The lack of cultural safety is causing greater problems when it comes to having people with diverse experiences and perspectives in the sciences, Karlie Noon told NITV.

"We're facing a real problem getting more underrepresented people into science in Australia. We have enough European background males in science, specifically in Australia. We need to continue to invest in people getting into this space, there are issues obviously around gender, around cultural diversity, access to the space."

"And things just aren't working. Things that they've tried, with respect to gender, just aren't working. It's not an easy fix," said Ms Noon. "We really do need to be having really deep conversations about this, looking at the research and not just putting little comments in reviews and hoping next time it gets better."

Ms Noon says the review is "immature" in respect to the broader conversation about diversity. 

"They mention throughout, several times, the use of Indigenous knowledge in outreach and education and incorporating that knowledge," said Ms Noon. "But there's very little mention of anything to do with getting more mob in the field or in the space in general or increasing the access of it and I think that really speaks to where we are, in this field, in Australia."

One of the reasons for this, Ms Noon said, is that for a long time, the sciences didn't see there being any problem.

"There was no problem. Everything was working just how they intended it to be working," said Ms Noon.

"It's now, people like us. We're coming in. We are sovereign within ourselves and our identities and we are intelligent and we have an understanding of the different power structures at play. We're the ones doing the work, that's the only reason this is changing."

"It's not them changing; it's us trying to make them change. And it's not enough."

Why is learning about space necessary, anyway?

There's a lot of other areas of science can learn from our study of space. For example, astronomer Samuel Hinton has been the lead data analyst for the COVID-19 Critical Care Consortium.

Mr Hinton created a data science pipeline that took raw clinical data from hospitals around the world. It cleaned, standardised and processed all of that data - turning it into useful machine learning and algorithm information. 

For Ms Noon and many others, it's deeper than that. 

"I think it's important to me personally because it was something that resonated with me on many levels. On an emotional level, spiritual, intellectual. It was something I just felt connected to and drawn to" said Ms Noon.

"I think on a societal level it has the potential to reinforce to us, humans on planet earth, what the important things are," said Ms Noon. "I like to think of it as getting both views of the universe. On one side, we get this sense of how little and insignificant and small we are, but on the other side we can also get a sense of how special we are and how unique we are."

"How amazing it is we have this planet that was able to form? We have water thanks to asteroids crashing into our planet. We have oxygen as a result of another collision. There were so many things that had to happen for us to exist."

"So, on the one hand, it can ground us and show us what the important things are. Show us where we came from, where we are going, and help us not get too caught up in things that do not necessarily serve us."

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