5 Things You Didn’t Know Astrophysics At UWC

Big Science, Big Data: UWC collaborates to tackle 21st century astronomy

Space is big - and it’s pretty mysterious.

Yes, we’ve learned a lot about the Universe over the centuries - that the Earth wasn’t the centre of everything, that our sun was just another star, that  our galaxy was just one of billions, and so much more. We’ve even sent people out to explore a tiny bit of the solar system - and some of them even made it to the moon (on 20 July 1969, to be exact).

But there’s so much more we can still learn about the cosmos. What is dark matter (the mysterious matter that holds galaxies together and makes up 25% of the matter in the Universe)? And what about dark energy (the thing that seems to work counter to gravity on a cosmic scale, causing the Universe to expand faster and faster, and makes up about 70% of the Universe)? Why are galaxies distributed the way they are? What exactly is the deal with pulsars and black holes? What is the history of the cosmos, and where is it all going?

That’s just a small sample of the many mysteries astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists are grappling with every day. Luckily, plenty of our finest minds are doing all they can to find some answers.

Here are five ways University of the Western Cape (UWC) researchers are doing their part to explore the many mysteries of the cosmos.

1. SKA - The Biggest (Radio) Telescope Ever: When the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) comes online, it will be a telescope unlike any other – 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument, able to look deeper into the history and nature of the universe than ever before, and very, very big (the SKA name comes from the fact that it will be composed of a variety of smaller instruments that collectively form a telescope with a combined collecting area of about one square kilometre). And UWC scientists are heavily involved in the SKA project. Roy Maartens, SKA Research Professor at UWC and Mario Santos, a Research Professor from UWC, and also chair of the international SKA Cosmology Working Group,  have played a leading role in setting out the cosmological science that can be done with the SKA. And dozens of UWC researchers are involved in a variety of SKA projects.

2. Centre for Radio Cosmology - Listening Together: The SKA project will change (and is already changing ) how radio astronomy is conducted in the Southern Hemisphere.  To make the most of that change, UWC’s  Department of Physics & Astronomy has taken a crucial step on that journey with the creation of the Centre for Radio Cosmology (CRC).  Funded by the SKA project and led by Prof Mario Santos, the CRC aims to fully exploit the use of the next generation of radio telescopes for measurements in cosmology - in particular with South African-based experiments at MeerKAT, HERA and SKA. The CRC focuses on the development of data pipelines and technical know-how in order to have a world leading group capable of conducting the required radio surveys and tackling the huge data volumes that will be provided by these telescopes and ultimately provide exquisite cosmological constraints.

3. IDIA - Big Data, Big Science, Big On Teamwork: But tackling all those questions raised by SKA requires collecting, processing and analysing truly vast amounts of data. The SKA dishes will produce 10 times as much information as global internet traffic. The SKA central computer will have the processing power of about one hundred million PCs. The data collected in a single day would take nearly two million years to play back on an iPod.  This is Big Data - too much for any one institution to handle. That’s why UWC has joined forces with the University of Cape Town and the North-West University to form the Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA). Under the leadership of Prof Russ Taylor, an SKA/ UCT/ UWC chair and IDIA’s founding director, the Institute brings together researchers in the fields of astronomy, computer science, statistics and e-research technologies, to create data science capacity for leadership in the MeerKAT SKA precursor projects, other precursor and pathfinder programmes and SKA key science.

4. All Together Now - Astronomy For All: UWC has three astronomy-related SARChI Chairs and three astrophysicists who are National Research Foundation A-rated scientists - Maartens, Taylor and Prof Romeel Dave.  UWC's Astrophysics Group, headed by Prof Roy Maartens, has built up a major presence in the field of astrophysics. And some of our students and staff go on to attend meetings with Nobel Laureates or identify ancient galaxy clusters or conduct nuclear experiments at CERN that may reveal some of what goes on in the hearts of stars. But the University also believes in sharing our findings with the world at large. That’s why our researchers write popular articles and present workshops and lectures explaining their work, and do their bit at the Iziko Planetarium to spread the word about the joys of the cosmos to the world at large.

5. Cultural Astronomy - a different way of looking at the skies: Astronomy and astrophysics focus on celestial objects, phenomena and mechanics. Cultural astronomy focuses on people, and the way they relate to the skies – and how that’s changed over the years and in different parts of the world. UWC’s Prof Jarita Holbrook is a leading light in the cultural astronomy movement, and her journey to understand the relationship between humanity and the night sky bridges astronomy, anthropology and African studies. She’s co-founded the African Cultural Astronomy Network, started the African Cultural Astronomy Conferences and workshops, written books on the subject and hosts a Cultural Astronomy channel that explores how astronomers and non-astronomers think about space. Astronomy is entwined in the lives of everyday people, and transcends borders - and that’s something worth celebrating.

And that’s just for starters. Want to know more? Why not visit the UWC Astrophysics Group, or follow them on Twitter? Or join the UWC-CPUT Student Space Association and spend a few evenings gazing at the stars and learning about astronomy? And if you want to BE an astrophysicist (and why wouldn’t you?), UWC offers some very nice undergraduate bursaries...

To infinity...and beyond!