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Scientists shoot for the stars, land global astronomy gig


Three University of Tasmania astronomy alumni have scored coveted roles on the largest radio astronomy project ever undertaken.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a $2 billion radio telescope planned for construction in Western Australia and South Africa in the next few years, is an international project to build the world’s largest radio telescope. The SKA is not a single telescope, but a collection of various types of antennae - called an array - to be spread over long distances. It will be powerful enough to detect very faint radio signals emitted by cosmic sources billions of light years away from Earth.

The University spoke to the following alumni about their involvement in the historically significant project:

Dr Vasaant Krishnan (BSc Hons 2010, PhD 2016) is a Project Scientist with SKA in South Africa.

Ben Lewis (BSc Hons 2007) has just accepted a role as a project manager at the SKA headquarters in the United Kingdom. 

Dr Shari Breen (BSc Hons 2005, PhD 2010) is an Operations Scientist also based at the SKA headquarters.

How did you get involved in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project?

Vasaant :  I saw the advertisement on an online job board for openings in astronomy. I applied, was granted an interview, and was offered the job. I was interested in the technical aspects of astronomy by working on developing MeerKAT - a precursor to the SKA.

After I was offered the position, the hiring manager revealed to me that they had been looking for someone who had previously worked at an observatory. My experiences with UTAS and being involved with operations at the Mt Pleasant and Ceduna radio astronomical observatories appealed to them.

Ben: My friend and fellow UTAS graduate Dr Shari Breen applied for a position at the SKA, and this prompted me to catch up on the progress of a project which has interested me right from its conception. There was a role advertised which I felt I could make a difference in, so I applied and after a rigorous selection process was lucky enough to be offered the position.

Shari: During my time at CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science I realised how much I enjoy supporting radio telescopes and working at the SKA is a natural extension of that. Here I get to help shape how the next-generation global telescope will be operated, and gain the experience astronomers have interacting with it.

Can you describe your exact role with the SKA?

Vasaant:  I am part of the Commissioning team whose role is to characterise the MeerKAT radio interferometer, ensure it is performing to specification and to test each phase of its development as it is brought up to its full capability in stages. As an astronomer, I also provide operational support for MeerKAT. This involves organising the observing program for MeerKAT, scheduling and executing observations for scientific research.

Ben:  My title is Project Manager - SKA1 Mid Digitisation. I am responsible for managing the preparation and delivery of the Mid Digitiser, Mid Central Signal Processor and Mid Clocks and Timing for the SKA1-Mid telescope which is being constructed in South Africa.

Shari: I am an Operations Scientist and so my role - not surprisingly - entails supporting the future science operations of the SKA. This will involve: supporting the development of a commissioning and science verification plan (making sure we understand the telescope and can check that it is working as expected) and developing an operational model for the telescope.

How does it feel to be involved in such a project?

Vasaant: The aspects of my job which I enjoy the most are:  being part of an effort to deliver one of the most advanced scientific instruments available to humankind and the opportunity to interact with colleagues from different backgrounds, and the working climate is a fertile one for an exchange of knowledge.

Ben: Great - I remember the buzz around the SKA project when I was an undergraduate in Maths and Physics at the University, and to go from hearing about it in the abstract to having a chance to contribute to its construction is a dream come true.

Shari: It is exciting to be involved in such a big and highly anticipated project. I will be able to use the experiences I have had to help inform the way the telescope is run, which is pretty satisfying, knowing that I will have contributed some small part to a telescope that will be transformative. I will also be among the first people that gets to see data from the telescope, which is very exciting.

What were you doing before starting with the SKA?

Vasaant: While at the University, I was a technical assistant at the Mt. Pleasant and Ceduna radio astronomical observatories during my summer holidays. After graduation, I was a postdoc at the Osservatorio di Arcetri in Florence, Italy. I was a part of the high-mass star formation research group.

Ben: I graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Radio Astronomy in 2007.

Shari: My previous role was at the University of Sydney where I held a University of Sydney Fellowship.

What advice would you give current UTAS students, or prospective students, about studying science at UTAS?

Vasaant: Actively cultivate a sense of interest in your discipline and also work hard.

No matter what science you are in, make an effort to gain an understanding of university-level mathematics.

Computer literacy will serve you well. I had no initial interest in computers or programming. However, in one semester I substituted a physics unit for an introductory course to programming. The skills I learned from this unit have been invaluable to my profession, and I consider it to be one of the best decisions I made in directing my university education.

Ben: The University offers unique opportunities for hands on time with world-class scientific instruments - you can learn things about Radio Astronomy here that are offered nowhere else. My other advice is to always keep your eyes and ears open after graduating - careers can open up in the most obscure fields!

Shari: Take advantage of the unique experiences the University offers (for example radio astronomy graduates from the University are highly regarded because we have practical experience with telescopes) but also have some fun - it is not always the student with the best marks that succeeds.

Published on: 07 Nov 2019 4:20pm