Leading telescope science and technology group moves to Macquarie University

Leading telescope science and technology group moves to Macquarie University

Effective 1 July, Macquarie University has assumed responsibility for the research and optical instrumentation capability of the Australian Astronomical Observatory, a group with 45 years of excellence in astronomy instrumentation.

Macquarie Vice-Chancellor Professor S Bruce Dowton with Industry, Innovation and Science Department Secretary Sue Weston

The group will be known as AAO-Macquarie and will partner with the University of Sydney, the Australian National University, and Astronomy Australia Limited to form a collaborative national capability for astronomical instrumentation, Australian Astronomical Optics (AAO).

“The consortium will build new optical astronomy instruments for the world’s largest telescopes, create new opportunities for Australian industry, and enhance career pathways for young scientists and engineers,” says Professor Michael Steel, interim director of AAO-Macquarie, and head of Physics and Astronomy at Macquarie.

“By combining the distinct capabilities and expertise of the three largest optical instrumentation groups in the country, Australian Astronomical Optics will present a unified and compelling case for securing major international contracts from the leading astronomical observatories in the world,” he says.

“In 45 years of operation the Australian Astronomical Observatory has developed and built over forty precision astronomy instruments. Today, AAO-Macquarie is leading the design and construction of the new AESOP fibre positioning system for the European Southern Observatory (ESO). It will use optical fibres to track thousands of stars simultaneously for the most comprehensive survey of our own Milky Way galaxy and the large-scale universe ever undertaken,” he says.

“After many years of close collaboration with the AAO we’re delighted to welcome over 40 staff as new employees at Macquarie University,” says Professor Barbara Messerle, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

“Their remarkable expertise will be complemented by our leadership in lasers and photonics, optical micro and nano-fabrication, and a host of optical sensing technologies.”

“We’re looking forward to building closer relationships with our colleagues at AAO-Stromlo (ANU) led by Professor Anna Moore, and the AAO-USydney team led by Dr Julia Bryant,” says Professor Steel. “And the participation of Astronomy Australia Ltd provides a voice for the astronomy community in the development of the new AAO consortium.”

The transfer of the instrumentation team to Macquarie follows the disestablishment of the Australian Astronomical Observatory, previously a division of the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS). As part of the same restructure, the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) at Siding Spring Observatory will henceforth be operated by ANU on behalf of a 13-university consortium.

The development of the new AAO is supported by a 4-year $20 million government investment through NCRIS (the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy), managed by Astronomy Australia Limited.

“It is an important reshaping of Australian astronomy infrastructure and I’d like to record my deep appreciation of the effort of my colleagues at Macquarie and of the government team led by Sue Weston and coordinated by Jane Urquhart and Clare McLaughlin,” says Professor Messerle.

“We thank the Australian government for their commitment to ensuring that Australia maintains its leading position in optical astronomy research, instrumentation and industry innovation,” says Professor Messerle.


The AAO has a world-renowned reputation for building successful precision instrumentation for the world’s largest telescopes. It has particular strengths in the use of fibre optics and positioning systems that allow telescopes to observe many astronomical objects simultaneously, massively increasing the productivity and flexibility of observatories around the world and opening new views of the universe and its contents.

Examples include the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey, which enabled the Anglo-Australian Telescope to conduct the first comprehensive and accurate mapping of galaxy positions and motions in the nearby universe, revealing the large-scale networks of galaxies that carry the imprint of conditions just after the Big Bang. The AAO now leads the design and construction of a new system that builds on this legacy in partnership with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), positioning thousands of fibres simultaneously, which will allow the most comprehensive survey of our own Milky Way galaxy and the large-scale universe ever done.

The AAO will continue to advance astronomical instrumentation for large ground-based telescopes like Gemini (e.g. GHOST spectrograph, which will measure the properties of the oldest stars in the universe), ESO’s Very Large Telescope (e.g. proposed MAVIS imager and spectrograph, which will explore the formation of star clusters across cosmic time), and next generation ‘Extremely Large Telescopes’ (e.g. MANIFEST for GMT, which will facilitate the detection of the earliest galaxies, and the faintest stars in our galaxy). The AAO will also continue to engage with the emerging opportunities in space (e.g. proposed SkyHopper CubeSat telescope, aimed at detecting Earth-like planets and measuring radiation from the first galaxies to light up the universe).

Published 3 July 2018.

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