The hunt for ET will boost Australian astronomy

The 64-metre Parkes Radio telescope will be instrumental in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. CSIRO/David McClenaghan, CC BY

The 64-metre Parkes Radio telescope will be instrumental in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. CSIRO/David McClenaghan, CC BY

Lewis Ball, CSIRO

It’s already an exciting time for Australia in the field of astronomy and space science. But we’ve just received an astronomical boost with the announcement of CSIRO’s role with the Breakthrough Prize Foundation’s (BPF) US$100 million dollar search for extraterrestrial intelligence, called Breakthrough Listen.

CSIRO has signed a multi-million dollar agreement to use its 64 metre Parkes radio telescope in the quest to search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Breakthrough Listen will be allocated a quarter of the science time available on the Parkes telescope from October 2016 for a period five years, on a full cost recovery basis.

The Parkes observations will be part of a larger set of initiatives to search for life in the universe. The ET hunters will also use time on the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia, operated by the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and a telescope at the University of California’s Lick Observatory.

Why Parkes?

CSIRO has the only capability for radio astronomy in the southern hemisphere that can deliver the scientific goals for the new initiative. The Parkes Radio Telescope is essential for the scientific integrity of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). It is ideally situated for a search such as this. The most interesting and richest parts of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, pass directly overhead. If we are going to detect intelligent life elsewhere, it is most likely going to be found in that part of the galaxy towards the centre of the Milky Way.

The Milky Way as seeing from the south hemisphere in the winter in a 180 degrees view. The bulge towards the center of our galaxy is directly above the head of the observer. Flickr/Luis Argerich, CC BY-NC

The Parkes Radio Telescope is also one of the world’s premier big dishes and has outstanding ability to detect weak signals that a search like this requires. It has always been at the forefront of discovery, from receiving video footage of the first Moon walk on 20 July 1969 (which was dramatised in the movie The Dish), to tracking NASA’s Curiosity rover during its descent onto Mars in 2012, to now once again searching for intelligent life.

It has also played a leading role in the detection and study of pulsars, small dense stars that can spin hundreds of times a second, the recent discovery of enigmatic (but boringly named) fast radio bursts, or FRBs, and in the search for gravitational waves.

Parkes also played a leading role in previous SETI searches. In 1995 the California-based SETI Institute used the telescope for six months for its Project Phoenix search. The Parkes telescope provided the critical capability to search the southern sky that could not be accessed using telescopes in the northern hemisphere.

The latest initiative is being led by a number of the world’s most eminent astrophysicists and astronomers. Professor Matthew Bailes, ARC Laureate Fellow at the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, will be the Australian lead of the SETI observing team using the Parkes telescope.

Knock-on benefits

The program will nicely complement the existing scientific uses of the Parkes telescope. Although it will take up a quarter of Parkes time, it will benefit the research undertaken during the other three-quarters of the time the telescope is in operation. It will enable even greater scientific capability to be provided to a wide range of astronomy research through both the financial support and through the provision of new data processing and analysis systems and techniques. Incredible advances in computing technology make it possible for this new search to scan much greater swaths of the radio spectrum than has ever before been explored.

Rather than trying to guess where on the radio dial astronomers might receive a signal, they can now search an entire region of the radio spectrum in a single observation. The dramatic increase in data processing capability has also meant that astronomers can analyse telescope data in new ways, searching for many different types of artificial signals. CSIRO is thrilled to be part of this global initiative which takes advantage of the significant advances that have been made in computation and signal processing since the search for extraterrestrial life began. The probability of detecting intelligent life is small but it is much greater today than ever before.

To be the first to discover intelligent life would be a phenomenal achievement not only for the scientific community but for all humankind.The Conversation

Lewis Ball is Director, Astronomy and Space Science at CSIRO.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


A tale of three mosquitoes: how a warming world could spread disease

Will climate change cause mosquito-borne diseases to spread? Image: Steve Doggett

Will climate change cause mosquito-borne diseases to spread? Image: Steve Doggett

David Yeates, CSIRO

Changing wildlife: this article is part of a series looking at how key species such as bees, insects and fish respond to environmental change, and what this means for the rest of the planet.

As the world warms, animals and plants will shift their ranges to keep pace with their favoured climate. While the changing distributions of species can tell us how climate change is affecting the natural world, it may also have a direct impact on us.

One good example is the disease carried by insects.

Those small, familiar flies called mosquitoes are responsible for much human suffering around the globe because of their ability to transmit diseases.

Mosquitoes transmit a number of viruses, such as Dengue, Ross River Virus, Murray Valley Encephalitis Virus and the local variant of the West Nile Virus known as Kunjin.

Could climate change cause these diseases to spread? While this an extremely important health question, the answer is far from simple.

Complicated life cycle

The life cycle of mosquitoes and its viral parasites is particularly complicated.

Only adult females consume blood, and the immature stages (larvae) live in fresh or brackish water, filtering out small organic particles.

The virus undergoes certain parts of its lifecycle inside particular mosquito organs, but also requires other organs in the vertebrate host to complete its life cycle. And to get into a vertebrate, such as us, it relies on a hungry blood-sucking insect.

These viruses always have other hosts besides humans, which may include native and domestic animals. The pathway that these viruses take to infect humans is often via our domestic animals, which are also bitten by the same mosquitoes that feed on us.

In addition, rates of virus transmission to humans is also affected by the human built environment, and also human behaviour.

Because mosquitoes breed in water, changes in rainfall patterns are likely to change the distribution and abundance of mosquitoes, and therefore could affect disease transmission.

The larvae of Aedes notoscriptus, which carries the Barmah Forest and Ross River viruses. Image: Stephen Doggett

Australian climate is characterised by its variability, however we have experienced a general trend towards increased spring and summer monsoonal rain across northern Australia, and decreased late autumn and winter rainfall in the south.

Flooding rains

Kunjin virus is mainly transmitted by a small mosquito called Culex annulirostris, the common banded mosquito, in Australia. We are lucky because human infection rarely causes disease, even though Kunjin and the common-banded mosquito are widespread in Australia.

Kunjin’s close relative, the US strain of West Nile Virus is much more virulent, causing more human disease. These viruses are well known for their ability to mutate quickly, so they are always keeping medical authorities on their toes.

Higher than average rainfall and flooding in eastern Australia in the second half of 2010 and 2011 provided ideal conditions for breeding common banded mosquitoes, and in 2011 a dangerous strain of Kunjin appeared that caused acute encephalitis (swelling of the brain) in horses. This disease has only been detected in one human, however this mosquito feeds on both humans and horses.

This new virulent strain of Kunjin also appeared in new areas east of the Great Dividing Range, suggesting other unknown changes in transmission.

As temperatures increase, mosquito activity will begin earlier in the season and reach higher levels of abundance sooner, and maintain higher populations longer. These factors will all probably tend to increase the rate of transmission of Kunjin to both humans and animals.

Drying out

While flooding may have helped spread Kunjin, drought may have helped another mosquito-borne virus.

It would be simple to assume that drought would reduce mosquito populations by reducing the larval habitat (water), and thereby reduce the incidence of mosquito-borne disease in Australia.

However, this is not necessarily the case. Another Australian mosquito, Aedes notoscriptus, the striped mosquito, is responsible for transmitting Ross River and Barmah Forest Virus in Australia.

Mosquitoes will breed wherever there is standing water. Image: Suzanne Phillips/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The striped mosquito is unusual in comparison to its cousins because it breeds in small containers of water, such as tree holes in natural environments. The main carrier of Dengue in Australia, Aedes aegypti, shares this habit.

These small container habitats abound in Australia’s urban backyard, with water features, water and food bowls for pets, and various toys providing such breeding places.

With the drought, Australians became much more water wise, and installed various water storage devices in their gardens, ranging from buckets left out in a storm, to professionally installed rain tanks. All these are potential habitat for the striped mosquito to breed.

In this case drought has caused an increase in the abundance of a mosquito virus carrier because of a change in human behaviour.

The return of Dengue?

Dengue fever is transmitted in Australia by the mosquito Aedes aegypti. The mosquito is restricted to Queensland, and Dengue fever transmission is restricted to coastal northern Queensland.

Recent modelling predicts that moderate climate change would extend the Dengue risk zone to Brisbane, exposing much larger human populations to risk.

However, before the 1930s, Dengue fever transmission was known south almost to Sydney, and Aedes aegypti was known throughout mainland Australia except the deserts.

Both the mosquito, and the disease, have retreated to Queensland since then, and we don’t know why. What is clear is that we don’t really understand what controls the distribution of Aedes aegypti or Dengue in Australia, but given the contraction of the disease in historical time, it is unlikely that a warming climate will produce a simple response in the insect or the disease.

Australian insects will be affected by climate change, but simple predictions based on increasing average temperatures and changing rainfall patterns miss the important effects of complex biological interactions.

In addition, we are only just beginning to use models that are sophisticated enough to consider how insects might evolve under changing climate.

Investing in a deeper understanding of these complex biological webs, and their outcomes for human society, will result in great returns. Our predictions of the future state of Australian plants and animals will become more accurate and we will also improve human health and manage our biodiversity more sustainably into the future.The Conversation

David Yeates is Director of the Australian National Insect Collection at CSIRO.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Wearable tech flying high in aerospace industry

ReMoTe (Remote Mobile Tele-assistance) is hands free, wearable, technology that connects remote experts with on site operators to provide real-time assistance when problems arise.

Google Glass has got nothing on our wearable tech.

Wearable tech is everywhere. Take a glance at your colleague’s arm, you may see them sporting a new smart watch. The person sitting next to you on the train might be wearing shoes that count their steps. This technology has captured the imagination and interest of shoppers and inventors alike. And we’re not immune to the trend.

So it should come as no surprise that our scientists have a few wearable projects up their sleeve.

You may recall the electiFIED backpack Mashable featured earlier this year, or perhaps you read about our wireless ad-hoc positioning system (WASP) for tracking athletes? Well, we’re not done yet, because another of our favourite wearable projects is about to go global.

An Aussie aerospace company, TAE, has just signed an agreement to commercialise our Guardian Mentor Remote platform (GMR).

Think of GMR as a combination of Google Glass, Tom Cruise’s gloves from Minority Report and the ComBadge from Star Trek. GMR is an augmented reality technology that uses a wearable computer, helmet-mounted camera and a near-eye display to remotely connect technicians with aviation experts from around the world.

How will it help the aerospace industry? By connecting experts with technicians remotely, companies can undertake aircraft and engine repairs and maintenance without having to fly in specialist engineers or mechanics.

Using this touch screen, experts can see what the technician can see, offer advice and share documents.

Using this touch screen, experts can see what the technician can see, offer advice and share documents.

It’s not enough to connect a technician and an expert via a video conference. The GMR system allows an expert to see exactly what the technician is seeing, make suggestions, share technical documents and annotate the information in real-time.

For technicians it will be like having an expert in the room with them, even if they’re in another state or even another country. That means there’s no more waiting days to get aircraft back up and running.

Maintenance is a big issue for the aerospace industry. If a plane’s not operational, it can cost a company up to $12,000 per hour and worse cause massive delays. This is why the likes of Boeing and Aviation Australia have already trialled the GMR prototype. And now that TAE is commercialising this technology globally, our device is set to reduce aircraft down-time and maintenance costs for commercial, regional and defence aircraft operators worldwide.

The GMR is not just limited to the aerospace industry, already we are seeing interest from other sectors including the manufacturing, mining, automotive, paper and pulp and rail industries. It could even be used to provide remote medical assistance for field health workers and emergency scenarios.

Learn more about our suite of lightweight assistive technologies, known as Guardian, and how these devices are helping Australian industries.


Are we really alone?

Parkes Radio Telescope

Sunset at ‘The Dish’ Parkes Radio Telescope.

For more of our astronomical feats, visit #CSIROSpace

By Indra Tomic

From the moment mankind looked up at the sky we’ve been fascinated by the possibility that we might not be alone in the Universe.

It’s been easy to let our imagination go into hyperdrive. We’ve fallen in love with ET, wanted to have Mr Spock over to a dinner party and dreamt of red cape shenanigans with Superman. Popular culture, and science fiction, have filled our minds with a breadth of extra-terrestrial characters because we want to believe there is more to this Universe than the humble limits of our Earth. After all, there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, some very small with only a few million stars, and others possibly having as many as 400 billion stars.

Can we really be the only form of intelligent life out there?

The quest to solve this cosmic mystery has just gotten more interesting… and exciting. Russian entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Yuri Milner and theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking announced in London yesterday that the Breakthrough Prize Foundation will provide $100 million to dramatically accelerate the search for intelligent life in the Universe.

Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking at the press conference in London.

Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking at the press conference in London.

This initiative will be the most powerful, comprehensive and intensive scientific search ever undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. It will involve an unprecedented survey of the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth and it will scan the center of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane.

The program is being led by the world’s most eminent leaders’ in astrophysics and astronomy using three of the largest and most capable radio telescope’s in the world, CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope, the Green Bank Telescope and Lick Observatory in the US.

Watch the live press conference here.

We have the only capability for radio astronomy in the southern hemisphere that can deliver the scientific goals for the new initiative. Our Parkes Radio Telescope has always been at the forefront of space discovery for decades. We received video footage of the first Moon walk back on this day back in 1969, and we helped track NASA’s Curiosity rover during its descent onto Mars in 2012.

supermanbatmanActually, this isn’t the first time Parkes telescope has played a leading role in Searches for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). From February 1995 to March 2004, we were involved in the most ambitious SETI search conducted to date, called Project Phoenix. Even though it was successful in achieving many of its observing goals, there were no signs of ET detected.

The Parkes telescope provides critical and unparalleled capability to search the southern sky, with its ideal location it is perfectly positioned to provide the best and most powerful view of our galactic plane.

The planets have never been more aligned then they are today, making this endeavour possible – the availability of significant observing time on the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescopes; significant developments in the field of astrobiology; and incredible advances in computing technology, making it possible to scan greater swaths of the radio spectrum than even before.

Not only will the program deliver excellent science and contribute to world-leading astronomy, but it’s projects like this that will inspire scientists of the future in the pursuit of an answer to the fundamental question, ‘Are we alone?’.

To read more about our work with the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, have a look at the FAQs page on our website.


Giant insects help improve hearing aid tech

A New Zealand tree weta.

A New Zealand tree weta: holder of many surprises.

By Andrea Wild

New Zealand’s weta insects are the stuff of legend: portrayed by Hollywood as huge, spiky man-eaters attacking King Kong explorers in faraway lands (well, as seen below in the 2005 version at least… WARNING: Terrible acting!):

In reality, weta are a little less fantastic than their popular culture portrayal – but that’s not to say they don’t still hold a few surprises of their own. They are indeed big: some weta species are among the largest and heaviest insects in the world. And while they are technically vegetarian, their large mandibles have been known to deliver an aggressive and painful bite to wayward humans.

But perhaps most surprisingly, weta may hold the key to developing better hearing aids.

Yes, you heard correctly! It turns out that a unique lipid – a fatty waxy material found in the ears of the weta – may hold the key to better hearing for us humans.

One of our postdoctoral fellows, Kate Lomas, studied the hearing of the New Zealand tree weta (Hemideina thoracica) at the University of Auckland, discovering the unusual lipid and finding that it moves in response to sound as a travelling wave.

Weta are known to have excellent hearing: they can detect the gentle rustling of a predatory bat creeping through leaf litter. Their ears (which are in their legs!) have an unusual channel that functions like a human’s cochlea, but that uses the lipid, instead of hair cells, to cause vibrations.

We think it’s this unique function that gives the weta their excellent auditory skills.

Weta and the king cricket have their ears to the ground, quite literally, located on each of their front legs.

Weta and the king cricket have their ears to the ground, quite literally, located on each of their front legs.

In a classic example of New Zealand ingenuity being exported across the ditch to Australia, Kate and her team are now attempting to isolate the lipid from the weta’s close cousin, the Australian king cricket, to understand its structure. They can then learn how to synthesise the lipid in the lab, so that they can study its acoustic properties and test its potential acoustic applications.

This is a process known as biomimetics: the mimicking of naturally-occurring systems and elements to solve complex human problems. By unlocking the basic properties of the lipid, Kate and her team hope to replicate its success in, and improve the capability of, auditory technologies like hearing aids, highly sensitive audio sensors, microphones and even ultrasound probes.

Who knows what other surprises the weta may hold for us yet?

Find out more about other bio-inspired materials and devices we’re working on.


Bio-Argo: getting deep with the Indian Ocean

Bio-Argo deployment

Final preparations before throwing the bio-Argos overboard, all in the name of science

Right now, out in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, one of our marine scientists is on a special mission. Equipped with a suite of state-of-the-art bio-robots, he’s profiling the physical and biological makeup of the world’s third largest ocean in a way that’s never before been possible.

Our oceanographer Francois Dufois is onboard the Norwegian research vessel Dr Fridtjof Nansen, using robots (otherwise known as bio-Argo floats) to help understand how the Indian Ocean influences its surrounding climate and, ultimately, the food security of hundreds of millions of people.

Think it sounds uber-important? That’s because it is.

The east Indian Ocean alone is home to almost half of the world’s fishers, and it yields around 8 per cent of global fish production. It contains the third-largest tuna fishery in the world, with an estimated value of US$2-3 billion annually. Plus, it contains mineral resources such as copper, iron, zinc, silver and gold. All up, the nations bordering the Indian Ocean count for about 16 per cent of the entire population of Earth. So understanding how it works is a pretty big deal.

Our bio-Argos will help us understand the ecosystems of immediate concern to India and Australia, like the Bay of Bengal and the waters of north Western Australia.

The bio-Argos, which are about the size of a barracuda, are programmed to dive to depths of one and two kilometres over a ten day period, measuring the ocean’s temperature and salinity, as well as biological indicators including dissolved oxygen, nitrate, chlorophyll and dissolved organic matter. They will then repeat this cycle for many months – sending their information back to us via satellite when they resurface.

The vessel left Christmas Island on 6 July, and are due to arrive in Mauritius, some 5,200 kilometres west, sometime today on the 17th July.

Before they reached Mauritias, Francois and the team aboard the research vessel sent us a selection of images from the Indian Ocean, showing the deployment of bio-Argo floats. So we scooped them together in a slideshow for your viewing pleasure:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You can find out more about these floating bio-robots here.


How the right diet can control diabetes and reduce its massive economic costs

Studies based on Mediterranean diet, combined with exercise, have proved groundbreaking in managing type 2 diabetes. Image: Flickr / Moyan Brenn

Studies based on Mediterranean diet, combined with exercise, have proved groundbreaking in managing type 2 diabetes. Image: Flickr / Moyan Brenn

Chris Proud, South Australian Health & Medical Research Institute; Grant Brinkworth, CSIRO, and Manny Noakes, CSIRO

More than 350 million people worldwide suffer from type 2 diabetes. The condition is already rampant in several Western countries and numbers are now rising fast in emerging economies, such as India and China. But the right kind of dietary changes could dramatically reduce the impact of the illness on both patients and economies.

Alongside the impact of the disease and its associated complications on the lives of patients and their families, diabetes’ cost to health-care systems is huge. In Australia, for example, the total economic impact of type 2 diabetes is estimated at A$10.3 billion, while in the United States it is likely to exceed US$174 billion.

There are many ways to beat diabetes or reduce its impact; the key is making changes to your diet and lifestyle that you then follow for life. Indeed, lifestyle modification – eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly – is the cornerstone of any effective diabetes-management plan.

More than sugar

For decades now, the general recommendation has been for everyone to cultivate a high-unrefined-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. More recently, reducing sugar intake, even though it is one of the most popular carbohydrates, has been receiving a lot of attention. But a healthy eating plan for diabetes is not just about cutting out sugar. And scientific opinion is now turning in favour of lower carbohydrate diets – for everyone.

While excessive sugar will no doubt increase blood sugar levels, especially if you’re having sweetened drinks, any source of carbohydrate will have the same effect. This includes anything that contains flour, rice or pasta, as well as fruit and potato.

Burger and chips

Eating foods like this will only increase the risks of diabetes and its associated complications. Josephine Stenudd/Flickr, CC BY

Carbohydrate foods with a low glycaemic index (GI), such as oats and legumes, on the other hand, will dampen down the blood sugar response. That’s why careful carbohydrate selection is now recommended for everyone, especially people who have type 2 diabetes.

New data from high-quality nutrition research now strongly suggests that restricting carbohydrates even further, while moderately increasing protein and unsaturated fat intake, may have further benefits for controlling type 2 diabetes and reducing the risk of complications.

What we did and found

Based on these ideas, our research teams have been studying the effects of a “Mediterranean” diet – which has low carbohydrate, high protein and includes a lot of vegetables, nuts, lean meats and healthy fats – in combination with an exercise plan. We wanted to see how much we could improve the health of people with type 2 diabetes.

We assigned 115 adults with type 2 diabetes to one of two weight-loss programs. One group followed a very low-carbohydrate and high-protein diet for 24 weeks. The other had a higher carbohydrate, but still low GI, diet.

Early results have been ground-breaking; our diet is better at improving diabetes control compared to traditional weight-loss diets. But its most striking benefit is that it reduces the amount of medication someone with diabetes has to take by half. This reduction was three times greater than for people who followed the lifestyle program that incorporates a traditional high-carbohydrate diet plan.

Our very low-carbohydrate diet also improved blood cholesterol profile by increasing the levels of good (HDL) cholesterol and decreasing triglyceride (blood fat) levels to a greater extent than the traditional high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. Both diets achieved similar reductions in bad (LDL) cholesterol levels – often a concern with some low-carbohydrate diets.

There’s more

Variation of blood glucose levels through the day is emerging as a strong independent risk factor for diabetes complications. In our study, the very low-carbohydrate diet was also more effective in reducing the number and levels of blood glucose variations over a 24-hour period.

In 2008-09, of the estimated A$1,507 million spent on the health care of diabetes in Australia, A$490 million was spent on diabetes-related medications. Our findings suggest that, by implementing a lifestyle program incorporating a healthy low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-unsaturated-fat diet at a national level, the country could save up to A$250 million annually through reductions in diabetes-related medication alone.

This does not even account for any additional cost savings that could be generated from the marked improvements in diabetes control and patients’ well-being. It is these costs – related to the complications of diabetes and patients’ ability to contribute to the economy – that account for most of the economic impact of type 2 diabetes.

Our research shows evidence from the latest nutrition science can guide dietary approaches to tackling one of the most serious global health challenges of this century.

The Conversation

Chris Proud is Theme Leader, Nutrition and Metabolism at South Australian Health & Medical Research Institute.
Grant Brinkworth is Senior Research Scientist in Human Nutrition at CSIRO.
Manny Noakes is Professor of Nutrition & Research Director for the Food and Nutrition Flagship at CSIRO.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


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