Behind-the-scenes of the MWA radio telescope.

About MWA

‘To construct and operate a low-frequency radio array.’

This is the mission of the international consortium of organisations behind the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) project.

The MWA is the longest-running precursor instrument to the SKA project, operating since 2013 to uncover the mysteries of the Universe – studying everything from our own ionosphere and solar emission, through to far-away pulsars and galaxies, and even further back to the Big Bang.

Support for the operation of the MWA is provided by the Australian Government via the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), under a contract to Curtin University administered by Astronomy Australia Limited. Additional funding and in-kind contributions are provided by MWA partner institutions.



An overview of MWA system development

The first stage of the MWA was a 32-tile prototype.

The prototype was constructed and operated with increasing capability over the period 2007–2011, testing telescope hardware and making preliminary science observations, including initial observations of EoR fields. This was overseen by the first MWA Director, Dr Colin Lonsdale: 10.1109/jproc.2009.2017564 

The MWA was originally to be situated at Mileura Station, where initial testing had been conducted. It was then moved southwest to Boolardy Station in outback Western Australia, at the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO), 800 kilometres (500 mi) north of Perth. This location offers a quiet radio environment and stable climate for observations.

MWA became the first fully-operational SKA precursor in 2013.

In mid-2013, the MWA officially commenced operations in its Phase I, 128-tile configuration – a A$51 million phase that was driven largely by
the MWA’s second director, Steven Tingay: 10.1017/pasa.2012.007

The antennas were largely assembled by a ‘student army’ in mid-2012; this  tremendous effort as well as the ground clearing and mesh-laying work was documented by ICRAR participants Kirsten Fredericksen (nee Gottschalk) and Pete Wheeler on their blogs: raspberryastro.wordpress.com, petewheeler.wordpress.com

In 2016 and 2017 the telescope received the planned substantial upgrade to Phase II. 

In Phase II, the MWA can operate in one of two modes: a compact configuration or an extended configuration, of 128 tiles each. This doubled the number of antennas of the array and expanded its physical footprint from 3km in diameter to 5km. The resolution of the instrument also doubled, and the array’s sensitivity increased by a factor of approximately 10.

Installation of the additional antennas and commissioning of the Phase II array was led by the MWA’s third director, Randall Wayth: 10.1017/pasa.2018.37

In 2018, MWA launched its online archive through the All-Sky Virtual Observatory (ASVO).

MWA data is sent to Perth and stored in the long-term archive at the Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre. Researchers from around the world access the massive archive via the MWA All-Sky Virtual Observatory (ASVO) web portal: asvo.mwatelescope.org

A large portion of the archive is also available to the public. The MWA ASVO enables users to download and convert raw sky data to standard formats. It provides the metadata that researchers use in offline processing, such as imaging, through a pipeline developed by Curtin University engineers.

Astronomy Australia Limited provided funding via Astronomical Data and Compute Services (ADACS) for development of the Pilot (2017) phase of this project.

In late 2021, the MWA received a new correlator.

The signal processing operations of the MWA telescope are mainly achieved by a correlator. A new correlator, dubbed ‘MWAX’, was designed with increased functionality to remove arbitrary limits and support more flexible observing modes and the expansion of the telescope. MWAX was funded by an NCRIS Contingency Reserve grant to Curtin University administered by Astronomy Australia Limited (AAL): https://astronomyaustralia.org.au/blog/news/major-upgrade-to-outback-telescope-a-resounding-success/

This was the first capital refresh project in MWA’s history. Development of the correlator was led by the fourth MWA Director, Melanie Johnston-Hollitt.

Even more upgrades are in the pipeline!

In 2022, the MWA upgraded its signal pipeline and back-end processing, received a new long-term archive at the Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre, and deployed brand-new cables for all 4096 antennas.

This is in preparation for an enhanced signal path of the telescope, with new receivers and new capabilities, which will allow astronomers to see the radio sky in more detail than ever before with the MWA telescope.

This work is overseen by the fifth MWA Director, Steven Tingay.


An International Collaboration

The MWA is an international Collaboration, comprised of 250 astronomers and 26 partner institutions from Australia, Japan, China, Canada, the United States and Switzerland.

MWA Documentation

Team Policies

On the path to the SKA-Low.

In 2012 it was announced that Australia and South Africa would share hosting of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a global mega-science project to develop the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The low-frequency SKA (SKA-Low) will be built at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, where the MWA resides. The MWA is one of four precursor instruments that are supporting the cutting-edge science and technology needed for the SKA (along with ASKAP, HERA and MeerKAT), and was the first to be fully operational. The knowledge and expertise obtained through the development, construction and operation of the MWA is directly applicable to the many science and engineering challenges on the path to SKA-Low.

Since it commenced operations, the MWA has observed for many thousands of hours and collected tens of petabytes of data. The MWA has already explored solutions for low-cost, high-performance antennas; and has addressed computing challenges produced by very high data rates and volumes, and the operating and maintaining of large-scale archives. Ongoing algorithm development from interpreting this data will be directly relevant to the eventual processing of data from SKA-Low. In addition, our understanding of interferometric calibration and imaging is being pushed in highly innovative directions. The MWA will continue to explore and question what we understand of space, science and engineering, as we work towards even more incredible telescopes like SKA-Low.

SKAO Website