An update from Australia's Astronomer-at-large
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Astronomy in Australia

Newsletter #20

October 2020
What's in this issue? Our editor and Astronomer-at-large Fred Watson gives you a preview.

The six months since the last edition of this Newsletter have been among the most extraordinary in all our lives, bringing dramatic changes for most of us. The field of astronomy has had no immunity to this, with observatories and institutions making sweeping operational changes to impede the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Who would have imagined that Astronomy magazine would ever publish a diagram like the one below? Red dots indicate shut-downs for the world’s major optical/infrared observatories in April 2020.

Wolrd map with superimposed red dots indicating telescope closures
Observatory closures at 7 April 2020. Credit: ‘Astronomy’/Roen Kelly

Many of the world’s radio telescopes, including here in Australia, have however remained operational and little more than a month after the diagram was published in April, the Anglo-Australian Telescope restarted remote observing, a mode in which it is currently operating. Most optical observatories on more remote sites are still in caretaker mode and European Southern Observatory (ESO) facilities are just beginning to be restarted. Caroline Foster’s guest editorial heads this issue, with a personal account of the issues facing users of these facilities. Not only is Caroline the Australian representative on the ESO Users’ Committee, but she was also based at ESO in Chile for a number of years.
However – in the midst of all the difficulties, there is also good news. Major efforts have been made to keep the Square Kilometre Array project as near its original timeline as possible. Following the signing last year of the SKA Observatory Convention in Rome, every effort has been made to have the Convention ratified by the prescribed number of countries to bring the SKA Observatory into being by the end of the year. An account of progress with this heads the SKA section of the Newsletter. (Hint: celebrations may be in order…)
And – as you can also read below – a Guinness World Record has been broken!
There is plenty of other news and information on a wide variety of astronomy topics with an Australian flavour in this edition of the Newsletter, which we hope you will enjoy. It is brought to you with the help of many colleagues, and it’s a pleasure to acknowledge their generous support, particularly Bob Eccles, Rob Fuller and Andrew Stevenson of SKA and Astronomy Branch in DISER, and Stuart Ryder of Astronomy Australia Limited (AAL) – not to mention all the contributors credited below. Many thanks everyone.

Fred Watson
Editor, Astronomer-at-large

 Guest editorial

The impact of COVID-19 on Australian ESO users

Like Australia, Chile, which hosts the ESO telescope facilities, is battling the double crises of COVID-19 and the economic downturn. Added to this, Chile is still simultaneously facing the civil unrest that started before the pandemic. These three crises have had an impact on ESO’s ability to carry out normal observing operations.

Cerro Paranal is home to the Very Large Telescope, a suite of four 8-metre telescopes. Paranal is very remote, far away from light pollution/cities, and at high-altitude; qualities that make it such an amazing astronomical site. This means it is located several hours drive to the closest hospital and is operated by staff who are mainly based in cities across the country (e.g. Santiago), requiring regular flight travel. Unfortunately, the qualities that make Paranal such a great astronomical site also make it risky to operate during a global pandemic. Like most observatories around the world, ESO had to stop operating its observatories in March as cases grew worldwide, but reopening must be a slow and careful process. Now that case numbers have stabilised in Chile, Paranal is slowly resuming observations, but with limited staff on site and only for a handful of instruments at a time.
4 large cylindrical structures on a mountain top at sunset
Just before sunset the four VLT telescopes at Cerro Paranal
The observatory shutdown has led to a significant backlog of unobserved programmes that were competitively allocated telescope time prior to the shutdown. It also has stopped astronomers getting access to their data, with obvious impacts on their research progress. To alleviate the accumulation of further unobserved programmes, ESO has decided to suspend the competitive bi-annual call for observing proposals last round (ESO period P107). This difficult decision was generally well understood/received by the Australian astronomy community, who acknowledged its necessity in these unprecedented times.
While this has given some weary astronomers a breather from the relentless cycle of applications (with little hope of successful observations in this climate), it also raises concerns. In particular, students and postdocs on short-term contracts who rely on ESO data are particularly adversely impacted by the inability to apply for time or get data before the end of their tenure. With other more accessible observatories already having resumed observations, the impact of COVID-19 leads to an uneven playing field for astronomers across the world. Thankfully for Australians, the AAT is still operational and some also have access to other facilities that are operating during the pandemic through university arrangements or overseas collaborators. Astronomers also have access to a wealth of archival data, which provide fair opportunities in this season.
With the slow resumption of operations on Paranal, astronomers now hope for clearer skies lie ahead!

Caroline Foster
ESO Users’ Committee Australian representative, University of Sydney 

Outreach news

Cosmic Relief

With the shut-down of public talks, many astronomy communicators turned their attention to webinars to get their message out. In your editor's case, it was to start a series of free popular-level webinars under the banner of Cosmic Relief, which resulted in a steep learning curve but also brought some very encouraging attendance numbers. And who could forget the night when a lightning strike brought the talk on fast radio bursts to an even faster end? Future talks are at, where a selection of past webinars is also available.

Again, along with many other science communicators, National Science Week brought out the best and worst in your humble editor, with a video welcome, an interview on Mars exploration, and an SKA-themed webcast panel discussion with some very distinguished radio astronomers.


Siding Spring Observatory StarFest

Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we live and work, but it also has changed the way we engage with the community. Unfortunately, events such as the Siding Spring Open Day and Science in the Pub will not be able to run in the same way as they have in previous years. Instead, we are organising a number of Virtual events centred on the October Long Weekend. Events include a Virtual Science in the Pub (2 Oct), virtual tours of the Observatory (3 Oct), astrophotography classes and a goose chase. To learn more, please visit the StarFest webpages.

Chris Lidman
Australian National University 


Allison-Levick Lecture

The 2020 Allison-Levick Public Lecture will again be jointly hosted this year by DISER and AAO-Macquarie, in keeping with the spirit of the original bequest to the former Anglo-Australian Observatory. This year’s lecture will be a webinar presentation on 3 December 2020 by Dr Jason Spyromilio of ESO. Jason is the Telescope Scientist for the ESO Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), and a former Director of La Silla Paranal Observatory. He set up the design effort for SKA at Jodrell Bank, and has a long association with the former AAO, making him the ideal choice of Allison Levick lecturer for 2020. Details will appear on the AAO-MQ website within the next few weeks.

Conference update

Communicating Astronomy to the Public 2020 (CAP2020)

The International Astronomical Union’s CAP2020 conference was intended to be held at Macquarie University during the week 21-25 September. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference has now been rescheduled as CAP2021 with tentative dates of 8-12 February. The organisers have confirmed they are still working towards that date, but it remains tentative. They will make another public announcement when the registration and abstracts are opened.

SKA and precursor news

SKA Observatory Convention ratified!

On 29 September 2020, the SKA project took a significant step forward with Australia’s ratification of the SKA Observatory Convention.
The SKA Observatory, which will be the Intergovernmental Organisation responsible for building and operating the telescopes, can only be created once the three host countries (Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom), plus two other member countries, have ratified the convention. The convention outlines each country’s commitments to the new organisation.
With Australia, the Netherlands, South Africa and Italy having ratified, and the United Kingdom expected to ratify shortly, the establishment of the new Observatory is on track for the end of 2020.
This opens the way for approval of the construction proposal and contracts to be awarded ahead of construction of SKA-Low onsite at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, in the second half of 2021.
The Hon Karen Andrews MP, Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, issued this video message to acknowledge the ratification milestone.


SKA meeting backdrops

Brighten up your virtual meetings with some spectacular SKA (and SKA precursor) virtual backgrounds. A set of six background images have been provided, featuring the SKA globe graphic and images of the Global HQ, the SKA-Mid prototype, the SKA-Low prototype, ASKAP and Meerkat. 

Hundreds of christams tree-like metal antennas standing in the desert under a wide view of the starry sky
20-second exposure showing the Milky Way over the AAVS station. A great back drop image for virtual meetings. Credit: Michael Goh and ICRAR/Curtin.

Contact magazine

The September 2020 edition of Contact (the SKA magazine) is out now and well worth a read.

Australian SKA Project Director's Update

For more news on the SKA project, please find the September Project Director's update by following the link below.
Read the full story

Science highlight

Silence from Vela

CSIRO astronomer Chenoa Tremblay and Professor Steven Tingay from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) have put the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) to novel use. The instrument is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory and is one of the four precursor telescopes for the SKA, boasting an extraordinarily wide field of view. This makes it perfect for large-scale survey work – including the needle-in-a-haystack search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. 

The astronomers used the MWA to complete the deepest and broadest search at low frequencies for alien technologies, scanning a patch of sky known to include at least 10 million stars. Their search in the constellation Vela was for powerful radio emissions at frequencies similar to those of FM radio stations that could indicate the presence of an intelligent source.

In 17 hours of observation, no signals were found. “Even though this was a really big study, the amount of space we looked at was the equivalent of trying to find something in the Earth’s oceans but only searching a volume of water equivalent to a large backyard swimming pool”, said Prof. Tingay. And all such searches make the assumption that any extraterrestrial intelligence will use the same kind of technology as we do, which might operate for only a very limited window of time.

When the SKA is operational, its 50 times greater sensitivity will enable it to survey billions of star systems for Earth-like radio signals.

Fred Watson and ICRAR Media Release

View of a squat four legged metal antenna on a metal mesh on red soil.
Lizard’s-eye view of a single tile of the Murchison Widefield Array showing 16 of its 4096 dipole antennas. Credit: Dragonfly Media.

European Southern Observatory news

ESO careers and studentship opportunities

One of the privileges enjoyed by Australia as part of the Strategic Partnership with ESO is preference in recruitment, alongside citizens of ESO member states. ESO nearly always has multiple job openings open on its Recruitment Portal, ranging across engineering, administrative, scientific and outreach roles. Current openings that may be of interest include:
  • ELT Deputy Scientist – applications close 4 Oct 2020.
  • ESO Fellowships in Germany and in Chile – applications close 15 Oct 2020. Note that ESO Fellows in Chile are granted a 4th year with little or no functional duties at either ESO-Santiago, ESO-Garching, any astronomy/astrophysics institute in an ESO member state or in Australia.
  • ESO Studentships in Germany and in Chile – applications close 30 Nov 2020.
While we do recognise the difficulties in relocating presented by the current COVID-19 situation, these ESO jobs and studentships do offer the opportunity of a lifetime, particularly for early-career researchers, working within the world’s premier optical and sub-millimetre observatory environment.

ESO Period 106 proposal outcomes

For Period 106 (Oct 2020 – Mar 2021) a record total of 58 proposals seeking the highest number of hours ever requested (1650) were submitted by Australian PIs, despite the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the total amount of ESO time awarded in P106 (493 hr) was the second-highest ever, just 20% of this was time on the VLT/I, with the remainder on APEX. However P106 will hopefully see the execution of the 114 hr backlog of Australian Priority A programs from P105, as well as the remaining 224 hrs of the MAGPI Large Program allocation from P104, in effect bringing the total VLT/I share closer to 10% than the nominal new allocations would indicate.

La Silla Paranal Users Workshop

Due to COVID-19, the 2020 La Silla Paranal Users Workshop that had been planned as a 3 day event at ESO Headquarters in Garching has now been rescheduled as a series of 3 online events, the first of which took place on 7-8 September on the topic of “Optimising data exploitation”. Further events covering the various available instruments, the preparation of proposals and the observations of approved programs will occur in 2021. Of the ~80 registered participants, 10% were from Australia, with the scheduled sessions taking place via Microsoft Teams at the not-too-inconvenient time of 7pm-midnight on the east coast.  Presentations and recordings from each session are available from the Workshop Programme page.

Recent ​Astronomy Australia Limited (AAL) ESO blog posts

AAL regularly posts updates and articles from Australian users of ESO facilities, as well as representatives on ESO governing bodies. Since the last Newsletter posts include science highlights from Anna Marino on globular clusters; Adam Rains on measuring stellar diameters with the VLTI; Stuart Ryder on finding the “missing baryons” with ASKAP and the VLT; Christopher Onken on the biggest black hole in the early Universe; and Mark Durré on measuring black hole masses with the NTT. In addition Adriano Poci relates his experiences on an ESO Studentship, and Caroline Foster provides her regular Users Committee update. If you have something you’d like to share about ESO, please contact

Stuart Ryder
Astronomy Australia Limited

Science highlight

APEX discovers “bullets” of cold, dense gas shot out from the centre of the Milky Way  

An international team of researchers have discovered a dense, cold gas that's been shot out from the centre of the Milky Way "like bullets". The gas was observed using the Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment (APEX) operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. 
Exactly how the gas has been ejected is still a mystery, but the research team, including Professor Naomi McClure-Griffiths from The Australian National University (ANU), say their findings could have important implications for the future of our galaxy. "Galaxies can be really good at shooting themselves in the foot," Professor McClure-Griffiths said. "When you drive out a lot of mass, you're losing some of the material that could be used to form stars, and if you lose enough of it, the galaxy can't form stars at all anymore. The study raises new questions about what's happening in our galactic centre right now. 
"The wind at the centre of the Milky Way has been the topic of plenty of debate since the discovery a decade ago of the so-called Fermi Bubbles - two giant orbs filled with hot gas and cosmic rays," Professor McClure-Griffiths said. "We've observed there's not only hot gas coming from the centre of our galaxy, but also cold and very dense gas. "This cold gas is much heavier, so moves around less easily." 
The centre of the Milky Way is home to a massive black hole, but it's unclear whether this black hole has expelled the gas, or whether it was blown by the thousands of massive stars at the centre of the galaxy.  

Stuart Ryder and ANU Media Release (Abridged)

Siding Spring Observatory news

Movers and shakers

In the bowels of the Anglo-Australian Telescope is a small room that contains a ‘fibre shaker’ for the planet-finding Veloce spectrograph. The shaker mechanically moves and bends the fibre cable, scrambling the signal in each fibre to give greater sensitivity to the detection of exoplanets.
But the shaker is hard on the cable, and was on the point of severing the fibres inside it when an attentive AAT technician spotted the impending failure. With catastrophe narrowly averted, a temporary repair was carried out. Then, thanks to excellent work by AAO-MQ and SSO staff, the fibre shaker was redesigned, built, and installed in time for the Veloce run starting on August 19th. The photo below shows Kristin Fiegert (SSO) and Vlad Churliov (AAO-MQ) appropriately masked up for the installation.

[Anyone who has worked with multi-fibre spectroscopy equipment will recognise the heart-stopping nature of this story, due to the delicacy of the fibres and the extreme difficulty of replacing them… Ed.]

Chris Lidman
Australian National University
Two people in masks looking back at the camera, leaning over work bench
Kristin Fiegert (SSO) and Vlad Churliov (AAO-MQ) appropriately masked up for the installation.

Other Astronomy news

Blanco Telescope (CTIO) call for proposals

The proposal deadline for the Blanco Telescope in Semester 2021A  (1 February 2021 - 31 July 2021) is: 6 October 2020, at 17:00 Australian Eastern Daylight Time (UTC + 11 hrs)
The AAL and NOAO/CTIO is continuing a time-swap arrangement between the AAT and the 4m Blanco Telescope in 2021A to allow our respective communities to maximise their scientific opportunities through access to a broade
r range of facilities. This semester, there will be 5 nights of CTIO time on the Blanco Telescope available to the Australian community.
Proposals will be assessed by the Australian Time Allocation Committee (ATAC), and as such they must follow the new ATAC Policies and Procedures and be submitted before the deadline using the Lens proposal form ( All graded proposals will be provided to CTIO for scheduling.
The Blanco telescope offers two instruments, the wide-field imaging camera DECam and the CTIO Ohio State Multi-Object Spectrograph (COSMOS). The purpose-built Dark Energy Camera (DECam) was used for the Dark Energy Survey that imaged nearly a billion galaxies. Note that DECam can produce useful imaging in the reddest filters (izY) on all but the very brightest nights. The COSMOS instrument can be used in imaging, long-slit and multi-object spectroscopy modes. 
Further details about the available nights and instruments can be found from the NOAO 2021A Call for Proposals. Note that as of the date of this Call, 1 September 2020, CTIO remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with no scheduled reopening date; however, proposals are being solicited for Semester 2021A.

Lucyna Chudczer
Astronomy Australia Limited

Nova Reticuli 2020

On 15 July 15, former Siding Spring Observatory astronomer and well-known comet and asteroid hunter, Rob McNaught, discovered a naked-eye transient in the constellation of Recticulum. The transient was soon targeted by the SALT telescope in South Africa and the ANU 2.3m telescope and classified as a classical nova, similar to Nova Sagittarii 1991. The new nova is known as Nova Recticuli 2020.
Using data from an all sky camera operated by AAT telescope operator Andre Phillips, it was soon realised that the nova was visible to the naked eye for about a week before it was discovered. In this age of all sky digital surveys, it is amazing that no one detected it earlier.
A nova (or “new” star) is thought to occur in a binary system consisting of a star and a compact object. Material from the outer layer of the star, which consists of mostly hydrogen, is drawn onto an accretion disk and eventually settles on the surface of the compact object, which is thought to be a white dwarf. Once there is enough hydrogen, the hydrogen ignites and fuses into helium creating the nova that we see. Naked-eye nova occur once every couple of years, but this one is rare for another reason - it is only the third time that we knew of the progenitor (a cataclysmic variable) before the explosion. The nova has now faded to below naked eye visibility.

Chris Lidman
Australian National University

Satellite constellations update

The effects of large satellite constellations on astronomical observations continues to concern the astronomical community. SpaceX will launch its 13th tranche of Starlink satellites later this month, bringing the total in orbit to approximately 720, with two further launches planned before public internet service testing can begin. SpaceX competitor OneWeb was rescued from bankruptcy in July and between these two companies 90,000 satellites could be in operation.
Last April, ESO released its study analysing the likely impact on optical/infrared facilities in detail, while new assessments have been presented by the American Astronomical Society and partner organisations, once again for optical/infrared astronomy. SpaceX has been active in developing optical reflection mitigation technologies for its spacecraft, and there is some optimism that these will be effective.

Conference update


Originally scheduled to be held from 15 to 22 August 2020, the 43rd COSPAR Scientific Assembly has now been rescheduled to 28 January to 4 February 2021 as a hybrid in-person/virtual event at the International Convention Centre, Sydney. This is the world’s major space forum, and with a strong industry focus, it is expected to attract a large gathering of specialists in all aspects of the off-planet economy. A particular highlight is a Space Park initiative called COSPAR-K that will run alongside COSPAR 2021, so teachers and students can explore activities in a creative environment.

Dark Sky news

Guinness World Record!

How to raise awareness about light pollution… On 21 June, the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance held an event that brought the reality of light pollution to the people by asking them to count stars from their own backyard. 
#World Record Light challenge was held on the shortest day of the year with the aim of breaking the record for the largest number of people participating in a sustainability lesson. The statistics speak for themselves:
- 10,800 people signed up
- 76 countries participated
- 7,900 people completed the online lesson.
And Yes! We broke the record with 4,823 participants walking away as official Guinness World Record holders!
With the support of Siding Spring Observatory, ICRAR, ASTRO3D and others, we brought hundreds of families a few hours of joy under the stars. Here's just a few things participants told us:
I spent some time watching the sky. To my absolute delight, as my eyes adjusted, there appeared the Dark Emu. I had never seen it before, didn’t really know where to look. That was so thrilling for me.
Thank you, it was amazing being a part of it and my 10 year old is obsessed now with our amazing night sky.
My daughter has been explaining Light Pollution to everyone who will listen and is eagerly awaiting her World Record Certificate.
Who knows how many people we can share the night environment with next time!

Marnie Ogg
Australasian Dark Sky Alliance


The original GMT takes shape

To wrap up this edition of the Newsletter, here’s a 150th birthday photograph of the 1.2-metre Great Melbourne Telescope with an Astronomer-at-Large giving it scale. The instrument is undergoing restoration to its original 1869 condition (with modern optics) at Scienceworks in Melbourne. The work is being undertaken by Museums Victoria, the Astronomical Society of Victoria, the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria and the Bureau of Meteorology. Many Australian astronomers are familiar with the extraordinary history of this venerable telescope, but it’s only when you stand beside it that you realise what an astonishing piece of engineering it is.
Prof. Fred Watson standing in front of a tall (about three times his height) very old telescope.
Fred Watson and the Great Melbourne Telescope.
SKA Australia Twitter
Department of Industry, Innovation and Science LinkedIn
Australia’s Square Kilometre Array on YouTube
Australian ESO user community forum
Department of Industry, Innovation and Science astronomy email

On behalf of the Astronomy teams

Professor Fred Watson
Science and Commercialisation Policy Division
Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources
Square Kilometre Array |
Optical astronomy in Australia |


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Copyright © 2020 Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, All rights reserved.
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