Astronomer wins award "to make sky dark"

Professor Joss Hawthorn of the Anglo-Australian Observatory in Sydney has been awarded a prestigious Federation Fellowship by the Australian Research Council (ARC), to work on a revolutionary new approach to infrared astronomy.

 Professor Hawthorn will receive $1.6 M from the ARC over 2008-13, plus matching institutional funding. He will use this to develop his techniques to the point where they can be incorporated into instruments for large international telescopes, such as the Gemini telescopes in Hawai’i and Chile in which Australia has a share.

 “Galaxies and other objects in space put out infrared radiation, and this radiation can tell us a lot about the physical processes going on in those objects,” says Professor Hawthorn.

 “But it’s extremely difficult to do these studies from the ground, because some molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere glow in the infrared and that radiation swamps the radiation you want to look at.”

 The main culprit causing this “sky brightness” is the hydroxyl molecule (OH), which puts out hundreds of narrow spectral lines in the infrared.

Professor Hawthorn’s breakthrough has been to find a way to use optical fibres to filter out that unwanted radiation from the atmosphere, letting the cosmic radiation pass through.

“In effect, we can make the bright infrared sky dark,” says Professor Hawthorn. “It’s like being able to turn off unwanted lights with the flick of a switch.”

 Professor Hawthorn will take up his Federation Fellowship at the University of Sydney. He will be working closely with Redfern Optical Components in Sydney, a company world-renowned for the quality of its optical-fibre filters.

Professor Hawthorn’s work is expected to attract large instrument contracts to Australia from the world’s leading observatories. Australian research facilities, including the Anglo-Australian Observatory, have an international reputation for innovative astronomical instruments, and have already built instruments for four of the world’s major telescopes in Chile and Hawai’i.

 The Australian Government initiated the Federation Fellowships to support and encourage researchers of international renown to conduct research of significant national benefit. Professor Hawthorn is one of Fellowship recipients announced on Tuesday 22 May (2007) by the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Julie Bishop.

 Researcher contact

 Professor Joss Hawthorn
02-9372-4851 (office)


 ARC announcement

Media assistance: Helen Sim 
+61-(0)2-9372-4251 (office)
+61-(0)419-635-905 (mob.)