National Science Foundation funds radio telescope project

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HERA Team/Courtesy

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In hopes of better understanding the early universe, the National Science Foundation issued roughly $9.5 million of new funding for the radio telescope project called Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array, or HERA.

“We’re working in the dark — literally and figuratively,” said HERA investigator Andrei Mesinger. “You have to be kind of an adventurer.”

HERA — named after the Greek goddess in order to support women in the sciences — is headed by UC Berkeley professor of astronomy Aaron Parsons. The project incorporates roughly 60 members from numerous national universities as well as from University of KwaZulu-Natal, the Scuola Normale Superiore, University of Western Cape and the Square Kilometre Array of South Africa.

According to HERA investigator Jonathan Sievers, scientists have a substantial gap in knowledge of the workings of the universe that spans more than a hundred million years —  from its conception to far into its maturity. The project aims to create the largest three-dimensional map of the universe by observing hydrogen, the early universe’s most abundant element.

“We’re looking for something in between baby photos and adult photos,” said University of Washington professor of physics and HERA investigator Miguel Morales. “If you look at the environment in which (someone) grew up … they make more sense as adults.”

The early universe created regions that have very little radio signal, and the project uses radio dishes on telescopes to locate these regions by tuning the receivers to different wavelengths.

Parsons said that designing a radio dish sensitive enough to differentiate the early universe’s faint signals from those produced by our own galaxy has been a challenge. The constructed HERA equipment was specifically modeled after equipment used in similar projects around the world in order to tease out the signals, Morales said.

The reason for the equipment’s sensitivity is that natural radio signals are much harder to detect than man-made ones, Morales said. He added that in an effort to avoid competing signals — such as those from satellites and mobile phones — the project’s observational facilities are located in South Africa, because there is an absence of man-made radio interference but also an accessibility to modern-day technology.

The NSF funded this project in an effort to shed light on the early universe, and also discover knowledge that could affect our economy and way of life, said NSF spokesperson James Ulvestad. Ulvestad said when researchers made major discoveries, such as GPS, the findings originated from “pure research of astronomy and geophysics” similar to HERA.

MIT professor and HERA investigator Max Tegmark also emphasized the need to expand research in fields such as astronomy and physics.

“I think humanity without cosmology is like a person with Alzheimer’s — always confused, without ever knowing where he is, where he comes from or where he’s going,” Tegmark said.

Contact Charlene Jin at [email protected].

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