By Rachel Rayner
Dr Keith Bannister knew from an early age he wanted to do something technical with his life. The bedroom floor of his childhood home was usually littered with wires, screws, nuts and bolts.
“So I chose to study engineering,” Keith says. After five years designing satellite equipment, he then started a PhD in astronomy. “It was the most fun and the least responsible thing I could think of doing at the time.”
Now, as CSIRO’s principal research engineer for space and astronomy, Keith has been re-engineering our ASKAP radio telescope. He’s searching the skies for slippery signals: fast radio bursts. And he’s won a flurry of awards, including the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year in the 2021 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science.
Signals from space
A fast radio burst is a sudden pulse of radio waves that lasts just milliseconds. One burst has more energy than our Sun emits in 80 years, and yet it is extremely hard to detect.
“To find even just one fast radio burst, even with a telescope as good as ASKAP is incredibly hard,” Keith says. “We have to look through so much data. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack the size of 50 football fields.”
The bursts were first discovered in 2007, and until Keith and his team started searching for them in 2017 with ASKAP, only 30 bursts had been found. After Keith changed ASKAP’s sky scanning mode into an arrangement similar to a fly’s eye, they detected 20 more bursts within a year and a half.
Not stopping there, he went on to design a world-class system for ASKAP that could narrow down where each burst was coming from. It’s like a ‘live action replay’: recording the telescope’s data stream when a burst is detected. This information let other telescopes, including Hawaii’s Keck telescope, ESO’s Very Large telescope and the Gemini telescope in Chile, help pinpoint a burst’s home galaxy, four billion light-years away.
This achievement won Keith and his team of 54 international astronomers the 2020 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize for the best science paper of the year, presented by the prestigious publication, Science.
“It was a massive team effort,” says Keith. “It’s thrilling to be part of cutting-edge science and technology in Australia, and to have it recognised internationally.”
Back at home, Keith is pulling stuff apart and building new things with his kids all the time. They’re currently working on an automated paddle for a kayak. It’s the type of creative invention that got Keith into engineering in the first place.
“It’s better than when I was a kid! We’ve got so much going on in this house, it’s an exciting place to be.”
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