10 Minute Genius: Kirsten Banks on galactic archaeology

When we gaze upwards and look at stars, we’re looking back in time. On a clear night, anyone with access to a patch of night sky can see light that has travelled unfathomable distances and stars that have been twinkling for millions and millions of years. But when it comes to the big questions of the cosmos, it feels almost impossible to comprehend how far away those twinkling stars really are...or whether they even exist anymore. Fortunately we have cosmic archaeologists to answer these mind bending questions. “The light we’re seeing has spent a long time travelling unfathomable distances through the cosmos to our eyes. Even the light from our nearest star, the sun, takes over 8 minutes to reach us from over 150 million km away,” UNSW astrophysicist Kirsten Banks says.

While an archaeologist digs down to explore mysteries of our past, a cosmic archaeologist digs upwards through space to illuminate the story of our universe. The relationship between time, light and space is second nature to an astrophysicist - which is why we measure distance in space as light years, or the distance light travels in one earth year. In under ten minutes or roughly the same amount of time it takes for light to travel 180,000,000 km, Kirsten explains how light emitted by the stars can unlock the secrets to our galactic neighbourhood.

Kirsten is currently completing a PhD in the School of Physics at UNSW Sydney. She  is a proud Wiradjuri woman with an undeniable passion for all things space and astronomy. She grew up on Ku-ring-gai country in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, always loving the sky. Kirsten was appointed to an Astronomy Guide position at Sydney Observatory, and it was at the Sydney Observatory where Kirsten first sought out to determine where she and her ancestors came from: she learned she is of Wiradjuri descent. Kirsten has appeared on countless radio shows and is the resident astronomer on Triple M’s Night Shift with Luke Bona. Kirsten speaks regularly at Sydney Observatory, has presented at numerous conferences and loves to present Aboriginal Astronomy workshops.  Kirsten is also a 2017 CSIRO Indigenous STEM Award finalist.  If you’d like to follow and support Kirsten’s journey to becoming a great Science Communicator, you can follow her on Twitter - @AstroKirsten.