Saving Science

Mopra Radio Telescope CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility

Three web cameras captured the bushfire that almost destroyed the Mopra Radio Telescope in January 2013. The telescope is situated just outside the mountainous Warrumbungle National Park, west of Coonabarabran in New South Wales. Between 13 January and 29 January, 40,000 hectares, which accounts for 80% of the National Park, was lost in the massive bushfire.

Two of the cameras were pointed towards the Radio Telescope, the other towards the heavens. The time-lapsed footage from that day shows blue skies and clouds passing overhead until around 4pm when a thick orange haze pours over the sky from the mountains behind.

Just over two hours later, the screens are masked by flame-filled smoke when two of the cameras fail. Via the remaining lens, it becomes harder to see the smouldering skies. Half an hour later, the recording stops.

Commander Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut aboard the International Space Station, captured an image of the fire from 400km above. The photograph shows patches of white smoke extending 14 kilometres into the atmosphere.

After the fire, the Rural Fire Service (RFS) tweeted: ‘33 homes and 50+ sheds now confirmed as lost.’ A few of those buildings belonged to the Siding Springs Observatory, Mopra’s neighbour, located about four kilometres west.

Speaking to the ABC, RFS deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said the fire was ‘absolutely ferocious.’ Thankfully, along with some power cuts, only one building at the Mopra suffered damage. The site was operational again by May that year. Mother Nature threatened to destroy the telescope but the telescope triumphed.

Today, the webcam at Mopra shows a clear blue sky with the sun slowly falling behind the mountains in the west. Greenery has returned to the National Park as the land heals itself. But recently, the telescope was again under threat until the public reached out to save it.

The Mopra Radio Telescope, named after the nearby Mopra Rock, is part of the Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF)—a collection of observatories managed by the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Other observatories in the ATNF include the Australia Square Kilometre Array (ASKA), currently under construction in Western Australia, and the famous Parkes Observatory, also known as “The Dish”. Compared with the 64m diametre dish at Parkes, Mopra’s 22m diametre dish seems relatively small.

Mopra’s current mission is massive. When speaking to the ABC, Professor Michael Burton from the School of Physics in the University of New South Wales’ (UNSW) Faculty of Science said, ‘We’re trying to develop a high-definition map of the Milky Way, 10 times better in spatial resolution than anything previously attempted.’

‘Essentially, we want to open up a new vista, a much clearer view with greater clarity of the southern skies than has ever been done before,’ he added.

Mopra’s significance lies in its geographical location. In her National Press Club address in July 2013, President of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor Suzanne Cory said, ‘There are only a handful of places in the world in which high-level astronomy can be done: Australia is one of them. Brian Schmidt has warned that Australia’s stop-and-start approach to research funding will lead to the death of optical astronomy in Australia within two years unless federal politicians drastically change the way in which research is funded.’ Professor Brian Schmidt is a Nobel Prize winner and astronomer at Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University.

In an article for The Conversation on November 20, 2014 Burton wrote, ‘We can think of mapping the galaxy in the same way as the early exploration of Australia. Great navigators such as Cook and Flinders drew the outline of a continent through their voyages of discovery around the coast, but were unable to peer within, to gather more than a fleeting glimpse of what it contained.’

In a more recent interview, Burton also said that the telescope, which is accessed remotely, also serves as a training facility, ‘so the people who are running it are the students and the post-doctoral fellows. They’re learning their trade, basically, on this facility. That’s how they get their skills.’

‘A facility like this is all part of training people up in how big science projects run and what is needed to do. If you close them, you find you essentially lose a generation of scientists, because they don’t get the skills required to run the next really big project’ he added.

Mopra’s closure almost became a reality in October 2015.

The 2014-15 May budget handed down by Tony Abbott’s Coalition government would see cuts of $115 million from the CSIRO’s budget over the next four years.

At that time, the Abbott government did not have a Minister for Science, so the then Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane said in a 2014-15 budget statement, ‘Science, research and innovation are critical determinants of the current and future wellbeing of the people of Australia.’

Minister MacFarlane also told the ABC that these cuts were minimal. He continued, ‘CSIRO actually had a very small cut relative to its overall budget if you look at the overall science budget in Australia, [which is] over $9.3 billion.’

He added, ‘We’re not slashing funding to science, as I’ve just said the science budget in my portfolio went up in the last budget.’

Despite the Minister’s assertion that the cut was only small, the reduction had serious consequences. Simon McKeon, chairman of the CSIRO and 2011 Australian of the year, told the ABC in December 2014 that the reduction in the budget has forced the organisation to ‘cut to the bone’ resulting in 20% of its staff being laid off.

Professor Burton explained why Mopra was ear-marked for closure, ‘Telescopes like Mopra, one of their good telescopes aren’t perhaps central to their facilities that they run, unless they’ve had to make cuts. So Mopra was one of the ones that had to close. CSIRO had to close quite a few things across their entire research infrastructure. We’re the only telescope but not the only science facility which CSIRO to close as a result of this.’

Parkes Observatory was also marked for closure; however, due to its crucial role in relaying the images Apollo 11’s 1969 moon landing, those plans have been abated for now. The Australian film The Dish (2000) saw the observatory at Parkes enter in to popular culture and served as a bridge between science and the community. Professor Burton said, ‘Indeed if Parkes were to be closed, there would certainly be a public outcry, and much more so than a telescope like Mopra.’

Another reason why Parkes has survived is private funding, ‘There has been some private money that’s come into Parkes quite recently to do with the SETI campaign (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life), this thing called Breakthrough Science. That’s basically a private benefactor from—actually it’s a Russian oligarch, would you believe, putting some money into research for extra-terrestrial life.’

Without its own Russian oligarch, Mopra was also about to suffer the consequences. Phil Edwards, the Head of Science Operations at the CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science headquarters in Sydney said as a result of these cuts, the CSIRO ‘announced last year it would cease funding the telescope at the end of October 2015.’

If the radio telescope was closed down, it would never reopen. ‘Once you shut something, it costs a lot more to get it up and running again than it ever did to keep it going,’ said Burton.

On September 14, 2015, six weeks before the planned closure of Mopra, Professor Burton penned another article for The Conversation with a plan to save the telescope. ‘Cutbacks to Australia’s science funding from the federal government are forcing us to look at a new funding model for one of the nation’s best space research facilities.’ He continued, ‘There is a passion for science in the community, for furthering our understanding of nature. We just have to find a way of connecting people to that science.’ The new funding model was crowd-sourcing with Kickstarter.

Launched in 2009 by creators Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler, and Charles Adler, the Kickstarter website helps project creators connect with financers. People who finance these projects are called backers. Instead of potential ownership in the company, should one be so successful, backers are rewarded with gifts. The type of gift depends on how much money they pledge to the project.  Pledges are not collected until a project has been fully funded.

In Professor Burton’s article, he asked the public to help fund Mopra, ‘This is a new experiment for us, a step into the unknown. As we chart unknown reaches of the galaxy, we are seeking support from a new community, one we do not yet know.’

Doctor Catherine Braiding is a Research Associate in the UNSW’s Astrophysics Department and created the Kickstarter campaign for ‘#TeamMopra’. The initial goal was to raise $65,000. On the campaign website Dr Braiding explains why the small amount, ‘we’re actually only requesting enough funding to buy one month of observing time, enough to finish the original 90×1° of the survey.’ But what Mopra really needed was three years of funding.

‘We actually need a lot more than the Kickstarter to actually keep the telescope running the next three years. It costs about half a million a year in total to keep a facility like this running,’ said Burton. For the past three years, the National Astronomy Observatory of Japan has been one of Mopra’s largest private funding sources, along with the UNSW and the University of Adelaide.

Phil Edwards said that the Kickstarter campaign was ‘one part of the efforts by groups (external to CSIRO) to obtain sufficient funds to operate the telescope beyond that date.’

According to Kickstarter’s website, 9.8 million people have backed projects, raising $2.1 billion, with 9,537 projects fully funded. As Burton explains, the team was unsure about launching a campaign for a science-based project. ‘There are a lot of different things out there; a lot of them are more for artistic things rather than for science. But we decided we had to give it a try.’

One of Team Mopra’s backers was Mary-Jane from Sawtell, New South Wales. Mary-Jane has been interested in astronomy since she was a child. She found the link to Mopra’s Kickstarter campaign on Facebook and was compelled to assist. ‘All that effort preceding cessation of funding, all that time and science mapping nebulae; how could it be left unfinished?’ she said.

This campaign wasn’t the first that Mary-Jane had backed; in the past she has donated funds to other projects including “Save Our Marine Life” and recently “The Bentley Effect”—a grassroots community film event in relation to Coal Seam Gas dangers and threats.

The rewards Team Mopra offered their backers ranged from a membership card and having their name listed on the Mopra website in exchange for a $2 pledge, to a one-on-one Skype presentation and Q&A session with one of Mopra’s astronomers for any pledges over $500.

Mary-Jane’s pledged $120 and her reward is out of this world. The reward for a pledge of this level, the campaign website says: ‘One of our astronomers will pick a molecular cloud from the survey just for you. You’ll receive a numbered certificate of authenticity, featuring the Mopra image of your cloud and an optical one to help you visualise where it might be.’

‘That was a pretty cool and irresistible offer, something that can be handed down the generations. In a way it’s like making your own stamp on the Galaxy. Just as cool as having a star or comet named after or for you,’ she said.

But, that is not the only reward she is receiving, ‘The best reward, however, is knowing how happy these astronomers will be to be able to continue their work in the field,’ she said.

On 11 October, Dr Braiding updated the status of their campaign website—they had not just reached their target of $65,000, but exceeded it. ‘We’re done! $93,374 and 1,251 backers!’

‘We had no idea whether it would be successful or not, but we thought we should give it a try and indeed it has been successful. An astonishment in many ways,’ Burton said. ‘We had a mini-celebration when we reached the initial goal. And then we had another celebration when we finished.’

The average pledge was about $74 but Burton said there were people who gave much more, ‘people were generous, yes, people were definitely generous.’

Because the project was fully funded, Team Mopra will now send an image of Mary-Jane’s molecular cloud which she plans to ‘have it blown up big and framed to hang on my wall and teach my grandchildren that it pays to put your money into worthwhile projects.’

Over 250 backers selected the option to have a molecular cloud named after them and in doing so, raised over $25,000 for the team. Burton commented on the unique nature of this gift, ‘giving them a molecular cloud with a space which we’ve mapped and worked out from our telescope, something which no one else is going to be able to give that to you.’

The CSIRO website says Mopra is only operational from April to October each year ‘as this is the usual “winter semester” when conditions are best for millimetre wave observations.’ Although the current season is over, Team Mopra has plenty to do.

Professor Burton explains, ‘We have some software to work on this and to find clouds and work out their basic dimensions. Of course we’ve got to put all the rewards together now. We’re staffed to do about that, we’re going to have a mass working-bee probably in about December, once we’ve got all the materials together to turn things out.’

But what about Mopra’s future? On 14 September, 2015, the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull was sworn in as Australia’s 29th Prime Minister. During his cabinet reshuffle, Turnbull announced Christopher Pyne as the new Minister for Industry, Innovation, and Science. Turnbull said that Pyne’s department ‘will drive the Government’s focus on investing in science; promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematic education; supporting start-ups and bringing together innovation initiatives right across Government.’

Turnbull’s discussion about investing in science was welcomed by Professor Burton, however, there is still some scepticism, ‘There’s certainly a new optimism but of course this has all got to translate into actual funding, and there have been a lot of cuts via the cost of education and science in the last couple of years. There’s been a lot that needs to be restored. While there’s optimism, it’s not going to come on a time scale which can keep this telescope alive, because the budget runs out literally end of this month. But yes I am hopeful that in the year ahead that funds will start flowing into science.’

On 30 October, less than two weeks after that interview, Catherine Braiding sent out another tweet to her followers: ‘Mopra got funded!’

The Mopra Radio Telescope is listed on the Australian Research Council’s website under ‘Approved Projects’ for 2016. $150,000 of government funding will go towards Mopra’s operation for the next year.

Will there be another crowd-funding campaign at the end of Mopra’s current project? Burton says, ‘The current project we’re doing, we can complete in three years. What we really need to, if we want to take the telescope beyond that, you need to upgrade the instrumentation. But that starts to become kind of expensive. We’re now talking about several million to put a new instrument in, a new receiver on. Certainly, I can’t see how a Kickstarter’s likely to be able to get that. ‘

What Mopra needs is someone like Parkes’ Russian oligarch, ‘We’ll probably need a private benefactor. Someone who is prepared to put a few million into a project,’ said Burton.

With the federal government’s science funding in question over the next three years, community backers like Mary-Jane might be at the centre of Australia’s ability to remain at the forefront of scientific exploration.

Mary-Jane said, ‘When a project is so worthy of funding as in this case, or any science or environmental, arts project that lacks the ability to proceed without funds, crowd-funding is a very real and fruitful alternative to making things happen. When people believe in something strongly enough they will be generous with their donations.’