There is something altogether unassuming about the five men gathered in a little room at the University of Malta’s physics department.

If Einstein was correct, then about 96 per cent of the universe is still undiscovered...

No lab coats, horn-rimmed glasses or self-evident idiosyncrasies distinguish them from any other person milling about the campus on a summer morning.

But the five are among Malta’s finest scientific minds, working on two of the world’s largest space observation projects and flying the country’s flag at the highest echelons of the international astrophysics community.

The two projects – the international Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project and the European-funded Euclid space telescope mission – hope to reveal untold secrets of our universe.

“If Einstein was correct, then about 96 per cent of the universe is still undiscovered and unknown to us,” senior physics lecturer Kristian Zarb Adami explains. “So we’ve either got a load of things to discover or Einstein was wrong.”

Dr Zarb Adami and his colleague, senior ICT lecturer John Abela, are spearheading Malta’s contribution to the SKA and Euclid projects.

The University’s team, which includes engineering masterminds Carmel Pulè and Owen Casha, is one of hundreds working on the projects across the globe.

The SKA project will create a giant net of 3,000 satellite dishes and hundreds of thousands of antennae spanning across Australian and South African plains.

It is still in its preparatory stages, with construction scheduled to start in 2016 and the first images set to be grabbed in 2020. Once completed, it will be the largest, most accurate radio telescope ever built, scanning the sky 10,000 times faster than possible today.

The optical Euclid space telescope is one of the European Space Agency’s key projects. Set to be launched into space in 2019, it will map dark matter and look for examples of gravity-induced distortions, or gravitational lensing.

Every telescope has to factor in distortion, be it externally induced or real, explains PhD student Ian Fenech Conti. “If you draw circles on a whiteboard and then look at them through a wine glass, you’ll see them distorted. The same happens with light through space.”

Mr Fenech Conti specialises in image processing algorithms, finding ways of calculating lens or atmospheric distortion and then factoring it out of final image data.

His student colleague, Alessio Magro, is the group’s computer whiz, working out how to crunch the masses of observational data generated by radio telescopes such as SKA in real time.

Radio data comes in at all sorts of frequencies and filtering out man-made interference is the toughest part of his job, Mr Magro says.

Exploding stars give off a signal at a fixed 1.4 gigahertz (a measure of frequency equivalent to one thousand million cycles per second). But as the universe expands, that frequency gets stretched and becomes harder for scientists to detect.

Their task is made somewhat easier by people like Dr Zarb Adami, who designs radio telescope technology.

“I’m designing the technology to be able to amplify very weak signals and transform it into data which the others can then use,” he explains.

The fifth member of the group, PhD student Jackson Said, plays the role of theoretical guru.

“I work on new theories of gravity,” he grins. “It’s all well and good gathering observational data but then we have to try and interpret it in a way that is consistent.”

Contributing to the SKA and Euclid projects was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the young physicists. They form part of a growing coterie of home-grown scientific talent, Dr Zarb Adami says.

“There are a couple of other guys involved in the projects too, like Adam Gauci, who’s working on how to place antennas to get the best possible image. And, of course, others like Alan Tua, who contributed to the discovery of the Higgs-Boson. It’s a growing field but the trick is enticing the best to not go overseas.”

While there is no shortage of physics students interested in taking part in astrophysics projects, the subject often leaves the average Joe cold. Studying the universe is all well and good but what is the point?

The provocation elicits a list of spin-off inventions fuelled by astrophysics discoveries, from GPS trackers to Adobe Photoshop. But Dr Abela cuts the conversation short.

“Such inventions are important but we have a greater calling. Mankind has an obligation to find out how the universe works and why. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves unable to explain something when it happens. And where would that leave us?”

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