The University of Southern Queensland (USQ) marked 50 years since the Moon landing by announcing that the MINERVA-Australia telescope facility is completed.
The telescope array is at USQ’s Mount Kent Observatory, and is the only facility in the Southern Hemisphere dedicated to providing ground-based observations to support NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission.
According to USQ astrophysicist and project lead, professor Rob Wittenmyer, noted that the technology provides for the next step in the human exploration of space.
“Fifty years ago we walked on the Moon, 30 years ago we found the first planets orbiting other stars and we are now in the new space race – the search for habitable planets,” said Wittenmyer.
Demonstrating the many roles that Australia can play in the space sector, the site outside of Toowoomba will play a key role in NASA’s operations.
“In the next few years NASA’s (TESS) spacecraft should detect thousands of new worlds, but ground-based facilities are critically needed to follow-up those discoveries, and to help us understand what kind of planets they might be.
“This is where MINERVA-Australis comes in. We can observe the stars around which TESS suspected planets and confirm the existence of those planets and learn more about them.
“That makes us a vital piece of the puzzle – without our facility, many of the planets TESS finds would remain unconfirmed, and uncharacterised,” said Wittenmyer.
The facility is comprised of a number of 70cm aperture robotic telescopes. These telescopes search for planets near our solar system, within roughly 300 light-years of the Sun.
The MINERVA-Australia site also provides the potential for astronomy and space science students to gain applied experience of working in the space sector.
“This MINERVA-Australis telescope array and the Mount Kent Observatory will provide students with state-of-the-art telescopes and instruments and give them the opportunity to be a part of the international quest to understand nearby planetary systems,” said USQ vice-chancellor, Professor Geraldine Mackenzie.