University of Toronto Joins Murchison Widefield Array Consortium


A “tile” of 16 dipoles or antennas. MWA comprises 128 such tiles, arrayed in the Western Australian outback. Image: MWA

On June 3, 2016, the University of Toronto officially joined the international consortium operating the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope in Australia.

The MWA is an interferometric radio telescope with over 2000 separate antennas located in the Western Australian outback. The maximum distance between antennas is approximately 3km, and the entire array has a collecting area of roughly 2000 sq. metres.

Using the MWA, astronomers observe hydrogen gas in the distant Universe, at a time when the first stars and galaxies were forming; they survey radio emission from the Milky Way Galaxy, enabling the study of our galaxy’s magnetic field; they search for short-lived and variable sources of radio waves like pulsars, X-ray binaries and neutron stars; and they monitor “space weather” caused by the Sun.

The MWA has been in operation at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) since 2012. The consortium includes partners from Australia, India, New Zealand, China and the United States.

U of T’s MWA representative is the director of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, Prof. Bryan Gaensler. “The MWA is a project that marries ground-breaking technology and engineering with exciting new science,” says Gaensler. “This combination is what we at Dunlap do best, and the MWA therefore presents major new opportunities for us.”

The MWA is one of four radio telescopes designated as a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) which, when completed in the mid-2020s, will be the largest radio telescope ever built. The SKA collaboration currently includes ten countries.

With several thousand antennas at the MRO and a sister-site in South Africa, the SKA will perform as a single, intercontinental radio telescope able to conduct new tests of General Relativity; observe star and galaxy formation in the very early Universe; and investigate dark energy and cosmic magnetism. SKA will even be used in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

In addition to his role with the MWA, Prof. Gaensler is the Canadian SKA Science Director & Chair of the ACURA Advisory Council on the SKA (AACS). “To maintain U of T’s standing as the leading centre for astronomical research in Canada, it is vital that we continue to participate in major international programs and partnerships”, says Gaensler. “Our membership in the MWA consortium and our participation in the SKA keep us at the leading edge of radio astronomy.”

It is also in keeping with a priority established by U of T President Meric Gertler in 2015. The goal, he has stated, is to “…position the University of Toronto as a strong research and teaching partner with leading peer institutions around the world, while creating more opportunities for our students to benefit from an internationalized learning experience.”

The University of Toronto joins an already productive MWA collaboration that has produced more than 70 papers and is currently being upgraded to improve its resolution by a factor of two and its sensitivity by a factor of 10.


Contact details:

Prof. Bryan Gaensler, Director
Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics
University of Toronto
p: 416-978-6223

Chris Sasaki, Communications Co-ordinator
Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics
University of Toronto
p: 416-978-6613

The Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto is an endowed research institute with over 40 faculty, postdocs, students and staff, dedicated to innovative technology, groundbreaking research, world-class training, and public engagement. The research themes of its faculty and Dunlap Fellows span the Universe and include: optical, infrared and radio instrumentation; Dark Energy; large-scale structure; the Cosmic Microwave Background; the interstellar medium; galaxy evolution; cosmic magnetism; and time-domain science. The Dunlap Institute is committed to making its science, training and public outreach activities productive and enjoyable for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, nationality or religion.