Our Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory

Future site of the SKA-Low telescope

Deep in the Australian outback on Wajarri country we have developed a world-class facility for radio astronomy, the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO).

The site is about 700km north of Perth, and 350km east of Geraldton, in Western Australia. Formerly a pastoral station with sheep and cattle, the MRO is contained within the 3,500 square kilometre Boolardy Station that surrounds it. Boolardy is in the Murchison Shire which covers a land area of 49,500 square kilometres. The Shire is the size of a small European country but has a population of only about 100 people!

Low population density, coupled with a legislated radio-quiet zone, and cutting-edge infrastructure has facilitated major new discoveries by the current telescopes and established the MRO as one of the world’s premiere radio astronomy facilities.

Launched in 2012, the MRO currently hosts two SKA precursor telescopes, our ASKAP radio telescope and the Curtin University-led Murchison Widefield Array (MWA). These instruments are enabling new discoveries and paving the way for the SKA telescopes. 

Collage showing (from L to R) SKA-Low prototype antennas, Solar panels of the MRO solar-hybrid power station, MWA telescope antennas, the ASKAP correlator, the EDGES instrument, and an ASKAP antenna.

Ancient country

Artwork by Aboriginal artist depicting the Milky Way and distant galaxies beyond
RACS, by Margaret Whitehurst. “My painting represents part of the Universe being mapped from Wajarri country. The symbols in the bottom right-hand corner represent the Aboriginal people. The white boomerangs represent the ASKAP antenna dishes – receiving the radio waves. There’s Emu in the sky, black holes in my invisible Universe, the Southern Cross and Seven Sisters.

The MRO is located in the heart of Wajarri Yamatji country. Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for tens of thousands of years (up to 70,000 years) and the Wajarri Yamatji have lived in the Mid West region of Western Australia for much of this time.

Stories about the stars form a crucial part of Wajarri lore and the Wajarri Yamatji have many stories about the stars, galaxies and shapes that they have observed in the night sky.

In 2017, the Wajarri Yamatji received legal recognition of their land and culture from the Federal Court of Australia. The Court’s Determination recognises the long-standing Wajarri Yamatji connection to Country.

Before its establishment, the Australian Government, CSIRO and the Wajarri community negotiated an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) for the MRO. This agreement allows the current telescopes to operate. In exchange the Wajarri Yamatji receive long term benefits to the community. A new ILUA is currently being developed to cover current MRO operations and the addition of the SKA-Low telescope.

Whilst the new ILUA is being finalised, a heritage survey is underway, whereby Wajarri people walk over the proposed telescope site, surveying the area for any culturally significant artefacts or sites. We are working with the Wajarri Yamatji heritage service provider and other experts to thoroughly survey the land. We are grateful to the Wajarri community for working with us to enable the development of this unique scientific facility.

Quiet please! 

Radio telescopes are designed to detect faint natural radio signals from space, but this also makes them very sensitive to the interference caused by man-made radio transmissions. This radio frequency interference can be caused by radio transmitters such as mobile phones, two-way radios and broadcasting towers, or by electrical equipment such as vehicles, appliances or electrical machinery.

The main reason to build an observatory in such a remote location is to avoid interference from Earth-based radio transmissions that interfere with sensitive radio astronomy receivers. In the same way that it is necessary for us to avoid city street lights when trying to observe the night sky with our eyes, radio astronomers must distance themselves from radio communications networks that allow mobile phones and other services to operate.

The Australian Radio Quiet Zone WA (ARQZWA) was established by the Australian and Western Australian Governments to protect radio astronomy receivers from harmful radio interference, while allowing for opportunities for coexistence with other activities.

The ARQZWA is centred on the MRO and covers an area 520km in diameter. Within the radio quiet zone, licensed communications and electronic devices such as television transmitters, mobile telephones base stations and CB radios are controlled to limit electromagnetic interference to the radio telescopes on the MRO.

Due to these radio-quiet requirements, it’s not possible to visit the site in person, except during our open day events. If you’d like to join the list to be notified of our next open day, please contact us.

We’ve created the next best thing to visiting the MRO! Enjoy a virtual tour of the site and its key locations.

Current MRO Infrastructure

[Music plays] [Image shows a starry sky with a spinning earth globe, which zooms in on Western Australia. Concentric blue lines move around a point, and text appears: Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory] [Image changes to show a red earth desert landscape, and the camera pans across the landscape] [Image changes to show a series of telescopes and the text appears: CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope, Surveying the structure and evolution of the universe] [Image changes to show the telescopes from directly above, then shows two vehicles driving between the telescopes] [Image changes to follow the two vehicles, then focuses on the telescopes] [Image changes to show a closer image of the telescope, and the text appears: Equipped with wide-field phased array receivers, CSIRO technology surveying the sky faster than ever before] [Image changes to show the landscape with the telescopes] [Image changes to show tracks on a desert landscape with two vehicles, then changes to show a checkerboard pattern installation of small telescopes] [Image changes to show a closer view of the small telescopes and the text appears: Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) 4096-dipole antenna low-frequency telescope] [Image shows the camera scanning around the telescopes and then zooms in on one telescope] [Image changes to show a man’s face, and then changes to show the small telescopes] [Image changes to show a signpost and text appears: MWSA has helped map more than 300,000 galaxies] [Image changes to show a view from above, and then zooms further to show the entire installation] [Image changes to show a complex of buildings and text appears: MRO Control Building, High tech custom supercomputing facility] [Image changes to focus on one building, then an image appears of a woman walking through the door of the building] [Image changes to show man walking along a corridor of glass doors, and passing through a door] [Image changes to show bundled data cables connected to a blue grid, then zooms out to show stacks of similar objects] [Image changes to show a vehicle driving towards a large solar array power station, and text appears: MRO Solar Hybrid Power Station, Astronomy’s first major hybrid energy system] [Image changes to show the solar panels, and the camera pans along the panels] [Image changes to show a shipping container, and text appears: One of Australia’s largest lithium-ion batteries (2.5MWh) Renewable energy storage – maximising the use of renewable power] [Image changes to show the inside of the battery] [Image changes to show an aerial view of the battery site, then change to show a vehicle moving towards a circular pattern of antennae. Text appears: ‘AAVS’ Antenna Test Platform, Testing the next generation of telescope technology] [Image changes to show two men walking amongst an array of base plate rings on the ground, then shows the two men working on a triangular antenna above a ring] [Image changes to show an array of triangular antennae, and text appears: New antenna and software technology will pave the way for the Square Kilometre Array telescope] [Images pan through of two men working on the antennae, an aerial view of the site, and a series of completed antennae. Text appears: Square Kilometre Array, 131,000 antennas build in Australia from 2020 along with hundreds of dish antennas in South Africa] [Image changes to pan across a series of square kilometre array antennas dotting the landscape around a telescope] [Image changes to show the blue sky, and then shows a starry sky] [Image changes to show the Square Kilometre Array logo, the CSIRO logo, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research Logo, the Australian Government logo and the Western Australian logo] [Text appears: We acknowledge the Wajarrai Yamaji as the traditional owners of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) site. The MRO and the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope are managed and operated by CSIRO – www.csiro.au. The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope is an international collaboration led and operated by Curtin University – mwatelescope.org. The ‘AAVS’ test platform is an initiative of the Aperture Array Design and Construct (AADC) SKA consortium hosted by the MWA – skatelescope.org/lfaa. The international Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) is a joint venture between Curtin University and the University of Western Australia]

See all the innovative technology that we’ve brought together with our partners to create the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.

Control Building

The MRO control building houses the ASKAP and MWA correlators, sophisticated computing systems that process the massive pipeline of data that streams from the telescopes.

ASKAP’s 36 antennas send analog radio signals via optical fibers to the building where they are digitised, processed to form 36 beams from each antenna, and combined to turn all the 36 antennas into one giant telescope. The MWA correlator uses off-the-shelf fast computing hardware to combine signals from 512 tiles of antennas.

Massive steel doors at the entrance to the control building form an airlock to ensure that the radio frequency emissions from the computers inside can’t escape outside to pollute the pristine radio-quiet environment of the MRO. The building also houses chillers that extract waste heat from the correlators and transfer it to a large bore-field, making use of the cooler temperatures underground.

CSIRO is designing a new control building to house the SKA-Low correlator which will process the telescope data and send it to the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, in Perth for imaging.

Powering the MRO

CSIRO has built a dedicated off-grid solar-hybrid power station consisting of a 1.85 MW solar array, a lithium-ion battery that can store 2.5 MWh of electrical energy, and four diesel generators. It is the world’s first hybrid-renewable facility to power a large remote astronomical observatory. It was built by Horizon Power and Energy Made Clean (EMC) in partnership with CSIRO.

CSIRO modelling indicates the photovoltaic system and storage battery saves up to 800,000 litres of diesel a year and cuts carbon dioxide emissions by about 2,000 tonnes a year. What makes this power station unique is the RFI shielding, designed by CSIRO. The shielding keeps electromagnetic interference to levels that don’t harm the radio astronomy observations.

Preparing the MRO for SKA-Low   

We led a team working in collaboration with industry partners to design the infrastructure for the SKA-Low telescope, including roads, control buildings, a power station, and water and sanitation facilities. The designs were completed in 2018 and include 210km of power supply and fibre-optic trenching for the telescope’s array of antennas and 200km of access tracks.

The staggering amounts of data collected each second by the SKA-Low antennas will be transmitted via 65,000 fibre optic cables to the telescope’s site-based supercomputing facility. That facility has required innovative thinking to help solve the problem of how to contain the radio frequency interference generated by the computers. The building has been designed as a fully welded box within a box, very similarly to the current control building at the MRO for the precursor telescopes. The inner box will house computing equipment within an inner shield, and support plant equipment will be within an outer shield.

With construction due to start in 2022, we are also involved in managing SKA-Low construction. Along with industry partners, we will be overseeing the infrastructure construction and antenna installation contracts.

There is much to be done to provision for new facilities, from planning for new expanded permanent accommodation at the MRO and in Geraldton and Perth, through to working on the management of construction contracts.

Being site-ready will also mean dealing with various road and land use permits and provision of electricity requiring a small on-site power station with a very high level of renewable energy.

Throughout this process, it’s also critical to ensure that the project design, construction planning and operations pay acute attention to the radio quiet zone restrictions, to ensure they don’t impact the currently operating telescopes.

[Music plays and an image appears of a cloudy night sky and text appears across the centre of the screen: Was Einstein right about gravity?] Narrator: Was Einstein right about gravity? [Image changes to show another view of the night sky and outer space and the camera zooms through space and text appears: What makes magnetic fields in space?] What makes magnetic fields in space? [Image changes to show another view of outer space and text appears: How have galaxies evolved over time?] And how have galaxies evolved over time? [Image changes to show a view of outer space and 12 different country flags appear in the centre and then the image changes to show a spinning world globe and text appears: SKA, Square Kilometre Array] To answer these questions and more, a dozen countries are building the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array or SKA in Australia and South Africa. [Image continues to show the spinning world globe and small inset video clips of different scientists at work surround the spinning globe and text appears inside the globe: Global Mega Science Project] It’s taking 500 engineers and scientists from 20 countries to design the SKA, a truly global mega-science project. [Camera zooms in on the world globe until South Africa can be seen on the face and the South African flag and text appears: South Africa, Design Infrastructure Approved] This massive billion dollar observatory has just passed an important milestone. [Image shows the world globe spinning again and then Australia can be seen on the face and the Australian flag and an inset video of an outback road to the site can be seen and text appears: Australia Oceania, Design Infrastructure Approved] The overarching designs for infrastructure at the Australian and South African sites are now approved bringing this innovative telescope one step closer to reality. [Image shows the inset video being replaced by the CSIRO and the Aurecon logos on the map and then the camera zooms in on the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory site on the map] CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency worked with industry partner Aurecon to design SKA infrastructure at the Australian site, our Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in the remote Western Australian outback. [Images flash through of the outback in Western Australia, an employee working on the antenna, various people working on the project, and a car moving along an outback road] Experience in designing infrastructure for radio astronomy and a long standing partnership enabled the team to solve technical challenges with innovative solutions. [Image changes to show an aerial view of large groups of antennas in the outback and text appears: 132,000 antennas, 2,000 square kilometres] Building the telescope will involve installing up to 132,000 antennas spread over 2,000 square kilometres of Australian outback. [Images move through of a close-up view of two employees working with cables, the employees working on the site, and an aerial view of the SKA data processing site] They’ll be linked by hundreds of kilometres of fibre optic and power cables to a purpose built data processing facility. [Images move through of a male walking into the super-computer room, opening a door and looking at the bank of wiring inside, and then the image changes to show a “Radio Quiet Zone” sign] The telescope’s own equipment including custom super-computing and electrical infrastructure has the potential to interfere with the unique radio quiet environment. [Images move through of a model of the shielding equipment and text labels appears on the model: Radio frequency interference, Fully welded steel skin] So, CSIRO and Aurecon developed innovative shielding techniques, reducing the level of radio emissions by factors of billions. [Images move through to show the South African SKA site, drilling equipment, a female working on computing equipment, an aerial view of a telescope, and South Africa on the globe and text appears: South Africa] CSIRO and Aurecon also work closely with the SKA infrastructure team in South Africa and develop joint solutions where they face similar challenges both designing the key infrastructure for this world class radio telescope. [Image changes to show Australia on the world globe and inset images move through on the map of the antenna groups in the outback and then the camera zooms out to show the globe in space] Together we are moving into the detailed design stages of the SKA and onto construction in 2020. [Camera continues to zoom out into outer space until the globe disappears] [Music plays and the camera continues to zoom out and the SKA, CSIRO and Aurecon logos and text appears: For more information, visit www.csiro.au/mro or www.skatelescope.org] [Text appears: We acknowledge the Wajarri Yamaji people as the traditional owners of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory site]

We partnered with industry for SKA-Low infrastructure design, with designs completed in 2018.