Searching for the Cosmic Dawn
Cosmology, the study of the origins and evolution of the universe, is an exciting area of research that addresses some of humanity’s oldest questions. It is an area of research that consumes Dr Cynthia Chiang, a Senior Lecturer in UKZN’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science and a member of its Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU).
How did the universe begin? How has it evolved? What is it made of? To answer these questions, Chiang, whose research focuses on instrumentation development and data analysis for observational cosmology, has travelled to some of the most remote corners of the world in order to build specialised telescopes that have access to the clearest skies.
In a recent public lecture delivered at UKZN’s Science and Technology Education Centre, Chiang elaborated on her trip to Marion Island in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean.
Chiang’s presentation focused on PRIZM, a specialised radio telescope that aims to study the period of the universe’s history known as the “cosmic dawn”, which was when the first stars ignited. PRIZM consists of two radio antennas that were deployed to Marion Island in April this year. Observations are continuing throughout the austral winter.
Chiang gave a fascinating account of how the PRIZM instrument was built, the unique adventures and challenges of doing science from the Roaring Forties, and a sneak preview of what her scientific team has learned from the PRIZM observations so far. Chiang was accompanied on her trip by Astrophysics PhD students Mr Liju Philip, Ms Ridhima Nunhokee and Mr Heiko Heilgendorff.
‘In our quest to capture uncontaminated data, we selected Marion Island as the location for the telescope as it is separated from the nearest continental landmasses by 2 000km and is one of the most radio silent locations in the world,’ explained Chiang.
‘We had only three weeks to get everything up and running. In spite of high winds, rain and mice (with a penchant for nibbling through high-tech equipment) we succeeded in deploying two new antennas on the PRIZM telescope observing at 70 and 100 MHz.
‘Marion Island is a fantastic new location for radio astronomy, and we’re very excited to see the data from our year of observations. The telescope worked beautifully thanks to the input from the whole team, especially the students who participated in the voyage and who relentlessly braved the long hikes and harsh weather to get the science done!’
Exploring Marion Island as a new place for low frequency astronomy is exciting as the island may actually provide the best place to observe ultra-low frequencies (10 MHz). If researchers can get to those low frequencies, it would be possible to start looking back to an earlier time in history.
Dr Chiang received her BSc degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2002 and her PhD from the California Institute of Technology in 2009. She has worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton University and also spent one year working at the South Pole as a winter-over scientist.
She has a lifelong addiction to tinkering and solving puzzles, and is delighted her job allows her to pursue both of these every day.
Words and photograph by: firstname.lastname@example.org