New Australia-China centre to foster astronomy

Sep 21, 2015

Australia and China have established a new joint research centre in astronomy that will boost Antarctic astronomy and facilitate cooperation on future telescopes such as the Square Kilometre Array.

The centre was formed through an agreement between the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) and the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), signed on 12 September in Beijing.

Called ACAMAR (Australia-ChinA Consortium for Astrophysical Research), it will serve as an umbrella and coordination point for bilateral astronomical collaborations.

The new Centre will be overseen by two Directors, one from Australia (Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt) and one from China (Professor Lifan Wang of the NAOC). The Australian secretariat for ACAMAR will be hosted by CAASTRO at The University of Sydney, while the Chinese secretariat will be hosted by the Purple Mountain Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Nanjing.

“ACAMAR will maximise the scientific return on investments in astronomy infrastructure,” said CAASTRO’s Director, Professor Elaine Sadler of the University of Sydney, who signed the agreement for Australia.

By facilitating the exchange of students, researchers and technical staff between institutions, ACAMAR will also help to develop skills and knowledge.

People signing a document

The signing ceremony in Beijing. L-R at table: Professor Elaine Sadler (Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO), Professor Brian Schmidt (Australian National University; a member of the CAASTRO Executive), Professor Lifan Wang (NAOC), Professor Suijian Xue (NOAC). Photo: CAASTRO

Professor Ji Yang, Director of Purple Mountain Observatory and Manager, China, for ACAMAR said “Astronomy is a strong and growing science in China”.

“ACAMAR will help us to cooperate in running telescopes based in Antarctica, Australia and China, and to coordinate observations and share data.”

Both Australia and China participate in the international project to build the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, which will be located in Australia and South Africa. ACAMAR will facilitate cooperation in science and development associated with the SKA. China has already provided state-of-the-art dishes for the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope, an SKA precursor.

The new Centre will also build on existing astronomy collaborations between Australia and China in Antarctic astronomy. The cold, dry and stable air above the high Antarctic plateau provides the best atmospheric conditions of any terrestrial site for optical and infrared observations. Australian and Chinese astronomers are involved in a number of pioneering projects to exploit this unique environment, including a series of robotic observatories that have been deployed at several sites on the Antarctic plateau in collaboration with other partners.

Dome A, the highest point of the Antarctic plateau, is one of these sites. In 2008 China established a presence at Dome A and began building four small binocular telescopes for its Antarctic Survey Telescope project. In a significant collaboration with Australian astronomers, these telescopes are now being used for a large survey for extrasolar planets. Australia is building instruments for the telescopes.

Two heavily clothed researchers examining a small telescope

Chinese scientists at Dome A in Antarctica with the new AST3 telescope, which runs on an Australian-built power system. Photo: Jia Du / Chinese Center for Antarctic Astronomy

NAOC employs about 750 staff, organised into more than 50 research groups. It has built and now operates a number of astronomical facilities, including an innovative large optical telescope in northern China, a low-frequency radio telescope for studying the early Universe, and another radio telescope for studying the Sun. It is now building the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, FAST (the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope), in southwest China. Australia’s CSIRO has designed a powerful 19-beam receiver system for FAST and is negotiating a contract for its construction.

The Australian astronomical community comprises more than 500 people. Australian astronomy focuses on theoretical and computational astrophysics, and observational astronomy with optical and radio telescopes: the latter include the low-frequency Murchison Widefield Array and CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder, both located in Western Australia. Like China, Australia participates in international collaborations to build radio and optical telescopes.

ACAMAR has grown out of a 2013 Memorandum of Understanding between the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Australian Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science, which proposed collaboration on areas of common interest in astronomy.

CAASTRO is a collaboration of The University of Sydney, The Australian National University, The University of Melbourne, Swinburne University of Technology, The University of Queensland, The University of Western Australia and Curtin University, the latter two participating together as the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR). CAASTRO is funded under the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence program, with additional funding from the seven participating universities and from the NSW State Government’s Science Leveraging Fund.