PM Science Prize winner to measure a million stars


Professor Ken Freeman of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. Photo: ANU AAO staff Luke Gers (left) and Nick Staszak working on the beamsplitter for the HERMES instrument. Photo: Urs Klauser, AAO
Professor Ken Freeman of the ANU, winner of the 2012 Prime Minister's Prize for Science, is a driving force behind a major new project of the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO), Australia's national optical observatory.

He is the Project Astronomer for the AAO's HERMES instrument, which will analyse the light from a million stars in our Galaxy to determine where those stars came from and how the Galaxy was built up over time.
Due to start work in 2013, HERMES will be used on the AAO's flagship telescope, the 4-metre Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in northwest NSW.
Professor Freeman is also Science Coordinator for RAVE (the Radial Velocity Experiment), a precursor project to HERMES that involves 20 international institutions. RAVE is being carried out with the other telescope the AAO operates, the 1.2-metre UK Schmidt Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory.
Professor Freeman and Professor Joss Bland-Hawthorn (University of Sydney, formerly AAO) started the field of 'galactic archaeology', the study of how galaxies are built up over time, in 2002 with a landmark paper.
The technique's viability was first demonstrated with observations made on the AAT in 2003.
It rests on being able to determine which stars formed together, out of the same gas cloud, even if those stars have wandered away from each other and are now widely separated.
The key is measuring the abundances, or amounts, of certain chemical elements in the stars to an accuracy of within 0.5%. The astronomers do this by examining tell-tale 'spectral lines' in the stars' light.
To uncover the history of the whole Galaxy, they need to measure a lot of stars.
The AAO has taken an active role in developing this new field.
In July this year it hosted an international workshop on 'galactic archaeology' and the survey projects in the field, both current and future.
The AAO's Dr Gayandhi De Silva organised the workshop. "The standard model of galaxy formation provides detailed predictions about how our Galaxy has been built up over time," Dr De Silva said.
"We're now at a point to test those predictions, because we now have the tools to collect data on hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of individual stars, in just a few years."
Other winners of the 2012 Prime Minister's Science Prizes were:

  • Professor Eric May (UWA): Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year
  • Dr Mark Shackleton (Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre): The Science Minister's Prize for Life Scientist of the Year
  • Mr Michael van der Ploeg (Table Cape Primary School): The Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools
  • Ms Anita Trenwith (Salisbury High School): The Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.

The Australian Astronomical Observatory is a division of the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education.


Prime Minister's Prizes for Science
Timelapse movie of the construction of HERMES (52 MB MOV file)

More information

Professor Matthew Colless, Director, Australian Astronomical Observatory
M: +61 431 898 345

Associate Professor Andrew Hopkins, Head of AAT Science, Australian Astronomical Observatory
M: +61 432 855 049
T: +61 2 9372 4849

Helen Sim (AAO - media assistance)
T: +61 2 9372 4251
M: +61 419 635 905

Dr Gayandhi De Silva, Australian Astronomical Observatory
T: +61 2 9372 4854

Professor Ken Freeman,Australian National University (Canberra, Australia)
T: +61 2 6125 0264
M: +61 402 134 289