Space station

Space stationCountryman

A humble Murchison station is set to become home to the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope.

Boolardy station, 300km north-east of Geraldton, is the focus of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO).

The 33,300-hectare property is run by husband and wife Mark and Carolyn Halleen, who manage 2200 Santa Gertrudis/Brahman-cross cattle.

The MRO’s 70km radius radio quiet zone attracted the world’s leading radio-astronomers to the site.

CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Project (ASKAP) is the most significant development on Boolardy so far.

One of the world’s premier projects, ASKAP is a testbed for the $2 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will lead the world in radio telescope technology.

The SKA, which will consist of 3000 telescopes covering an area of one square kilometre, will enable scientists to see how the cosmos appeared 13 billion years ago. CSIRO approached the Halleens six years ago and Mark welcomed the proposal.

“We brought them here because we were spelling the country and it (ASKAP) is in the centre of the property, so it has minimal impact on other properties,” he said.

“Eventually, CSIRO excised the property as a scientific area, so it didn’t affect our lease.”

CSIRO cordoned off a 10 x 10km section of the station to build the ASKAP project.

ASKAP will comprise 36 identical antennae, which together will have the capacity to look back in time to when the universe was created.

Construction of the project began in 2010 and is on track for completion in 2013.

There are about a dozen workers on site and during peak construction there could be as many as 200.

That’s a lot of mouths to feed which gave Mark and Carolyn a smart idea — they set up their own catering business, primarily to provide three meals a day to the CSIRO workers.

Bubinyoo, a local Aboriginal term meaning friend, is the name of the catering and cleaning business run by the Halleen family.

Carolyn said the business originated from when a university group came to the region for the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) project in 2005.

The MWA is a joint project between Australian, US and Indian research institutes to build a low-frequency radio array to study the solar system.

It provides additional infrastructure for the SKA project.

“CSIRO built their own accommodation precinct and because we had been catering anyway, they asked if we would like to set up a contract for cooking and cleaning,” Carolyn said.

Mark and Carolyn’s children, Sarah, 21, Ben, 19, and Edwina, 14, have all worked for Bubinyoo at some point.

The Halleens also employ local and international workers for the catering business.

Australia is competing against South Africa to host SKA. A decision will be reached in February 2012.

CSIRO SKA project scientist Lisa Harvey-Smith said Boolardy was the perfect site for the world-class venture.

“Everyday objects like mobile phones, radio antennas, spark plugs and electricity transmission lines emit radio waves, which can drown out the tiny radio whispers from distant stars and galaxies,” Ms Harvey-Smith said.

“For that reason, Boolardy station is one of the best sites in the world for radio astronomy.

“Not only is there a low population density, with fewer than 200 people in a shire larger than the Netherlands, but the atmospheric conditions are also ideal for radio astronomy.”

If CSIRO wins the bid for the SKA, 1000 small telescopes are likely to be built in the Murchison Shire.

If Australia and New Zealand win the bid, about 25 small stations of telescopes would be placed across Australia’s remote regions.

Ms Harvey-Smith said no specific regions were earmarked yet, but most of the infrastructure would be based in WA’s Mid West.

As Murchison Shire deputy president, Mark welcomed CSIRO’s project for the benefits it would bring to the region.

“I think it’s fantastic. If the SKA came here, the Murchison district would get a lot of opportunities out of it,” he said.

An official naming ceremony was held this month to honour the traditional owners of the ASKAP site.

The Wadjarri Aboriginal people hold native title to Boolardy station.

Wadjarri elders named the first six radio-telescopes of ASKAP. The names are Bilyari, which means galah and is also the name of a past Wadjarri elder, Bundarra (stars), Wilara (the moon), Jirdilungu (the milky way), Balayi (lookout) and Diggidumble (tabletop hill).

The ceremony attracted about 100 people from as far as Sydney.

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