Saturday, 29 August 2015

Aussie Astrophysics Leading Research into how the Universe Will End

By Angela Hogan

The Universe is expanding faster than ever and it could go in an instant, without anyone even knowing it. Welcome to the world of astrophysics, and the people who look into space and ask - “why”?

Brian Schmidt, a distinguished astrophysicist from the Australian National University, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for proving that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. Katie Mack is a theorist who works with computer modelling and data, and is a regular contributor to Cosmos Magazine.

Brian noted that throughout his career he has been inspired by three main questions about the universe:
1.     What planets out in space are like our own and is there life out there?
2.     What is the history of the universe?
3.     What is dark matter and dark energy?

Australia is playing its part in answering these questions. While the accomplishments of Australian physicists or scientific research into the universe are not widely publicized, behind the scenes Australian scientists are in fact contributing to significant research into the past and present of our universe.
Australia has its fair share of powerful observatories from which these physicists collect their data. Whilst the Parkes Observatory in NSW is well-known to most Australians as a scientific research facility, most have probably never heard of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in WA. Home to the Murchison Widefield Array groups of radio telescopes, this site will also shortly house the Square Kilometre Array, which will have the ability to collect data in an area of one square kilometre. This is an enormous advancement as it will be around fifty times more sensitive than any other radio telescope in the world.

With almost 2000 planets being discovered so far, the quest to find habitable planets has been pursued by scientists in Australia, amongst others.  The main issue with pursuing these earth-like planets has been precision.  Australia is helping its European counterparts to build the next generation telescopes that will be able to see even further into the universe. The question is - what are we going to find?
Australia also plays a pivotal role in dark matter research. Dark matter is invisible and undetectable by modern standards and its presence is merely inferred from its gravitational effects.  In the Northern Grampians, the obsolete Stawell’s mine is being remodelled to house the new dark matter lab. Physicists hope that the depth of the mine will ensure that sundry particles from space will strike the earth before reaching the instruments, which aim to detect dark matter particles only.

Schmidt’s popular theory that the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate is good to know - but what does it mean?  The theory lends itself to a point in time where everything was on top of everything else, meaning the big bang was inevitable.

One of the interesting things about this is that scientists have the ability to look back in time, but cannot predict the future of the universe.

Ultimately there comes a point at which even the most powerful telescopes are not enough and new ones are needed to see much earlier in the past.  Funding from successive governments has been unstable and inconsistent, making the research environment unpredictable. Lack of funding and job instability means research into the universe can become unviable for those who study in the field, even though, as Schmidt and Mack argue looking into the universe can have practical applications to real world problems.

While they are pursuing their own research, their wish lists of research expand with knowledge are understanding dark matter and dark energy, where is it and how did it come into being, and the first moment before the big bang. These are questions that have probably crossed most people’s mind. Brian would also like to discover life on other planets.

The debate is not if the universe will end, but how and when.

Edited By Bella Ferra

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