Pluto pointers: nine bite-size facts about the dwarf planet

New Horizons’ flies past Pluto in this artists’ rendition. Image: NASA/JHUAPL

New Horizons flies past Pluto in this artists’ rendition. Image: NASA/JHUAPL

By Adam Knight

We’re playing a vital role in NASA’s New Horizons mission, the first ever attempt to visit Pluto. Learn more about this historic exploration, and our other astronomical feats, at #CSIROSpace.

It’s more than five billion kilometres away, is smaller than our moon and it’s not even a planet. So why have we spent nine and a half years hurling a probe to the far reaches of the Solar System, just to catch a brief glimpse of a tiny ice dwarf known as Pluto?

Well for one, we know hardly anything about the composition of the dwarf planet and its moons. Learning more about how they formed will help us better understand the origins of our solar system.

But who knows what other secrets might be unlocked by the New Horizons spacecraft and its suite of scientific instruments: what ‘unknown unknowns’ we might discover when the data starts streaming on July 14?

Before the teams at NASA and John Hopkins University sink their teeth into this bounty of information, we thought we should take stock of some of the things we DO know about this odd chunk of ice and rock that sits on outer edge of the solar system.

1. Believed, and then seen: Pluto’s location was originally predicted by Percival Lowell in 1915, before being officially discovered on February 18, 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, USA.

2. When in Rome: Pluto was named by an 11 year old girl, Venetia Burney, after the Roman God of the underworld. Thankfully Pluto was chosen over the other options like Zymal, Constance and Cronus.

3. Out of its world: A list about Pluto would be incomplete without talking about the loss of its planet-hood status. In 2006 the International Astronomy Union finalised the definition of a planet, sadly Pluto was unable meet the criteria. Because Pluto is ‘unable to clear the neighbourhood around its orbit’ it was downgraded to the first ever dwarf planet.

4. You thought dial-up was bad: Even at the speed of light it will take 4.6 hours for our team at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) to receive data from New Horizons.

5. Pluto’s pups: There are five moons in orbit around Pluto. Charon, the largest was discovered back in 1978. Hydra, Nix, Kerberos and Styx were all discovered between 2005 and 2012.

6. In’n’Out: At its closest point to the Sun or its ‘perihelion’ Pluto is 4.4 billion kilometres away. When it reaches its ‘aphelion’ or the point where Pluto is furthest from the Sun, the ice dwarf is 7.3 billion kilometres away from the warmth of our star. Because of this orbit, Pluto is periodically closer to the Sun than Neptune.

Just how dim is the sunlight on Pluto, some three billion miles away? This artist's concept of the frosty surface of Pluto with Charon and our sun as backdrops illustrates that while sunlight is much weaker than it is here on Earth, it isn't as dark as you might expect. In fact, you could read a book on the surface of Pluto. Image credit NASA/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker

Just how dim is the sunlight on Pluto, some three billion miles away? This artist’s concept of the frosty surface of Pluto with Charon and our sun as backdrops illustrates that while sunlight is much weaker than it is here on Earth, it isn’t as dark as you might expect. In fact, you could read a book on the surface of Pluto. Image credit NASA/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker

7. Long days, longer years: The length of a Pluto day is equal to 6 days, 9 hours and 17 minutes, compared to Earth’s 24 hours. It takes Pluto a whopping 247.9 Earth-years to complete one orbit of the Sun.

8. Bring a jacket: Temperatures on the planet range from a balmy -210C to -235C.

9. A rock and a cold place: Pluto is made up of one third frozen water with the remaining two thirds consisting of rock.

The New Horizons spacecraft is due to pass by Pluto on the 14th July, and our team at the CDSCC are ready to receive the first ever images and video as they’re sent through. NASA will be making much of it available soon after, so stay tuned as we will be sharing these images on our blog, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


We’re kneading our way to bread that lowers cholesterol

That's how we (bread) roll: a cholesterol absorbing bread could have incredible health benefits for the community

That’s how we (bread) roll: a cholesterol absorbing bread could have incredible health benefits for the community

If we were to tell you that you could lower your cholesterol and your risk of heart disease – by eating bread, would you be up for it?

It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But maybe it isn’t. We’re trying to make it possible using gene technology and plant breeding techniques to develop new superior wheat varieties.

Why is cholesterol such an issue? Cholesterol is an essential type of fat that is carried in the blood. It’s vital to healthy cell function and hormone regulation, among other things, but too much of it in our bloodstream can be a bad thing – damaging our arteries and leading to heart disease. In fact, the World Health Organisation has estimated that raised cholesterol is estimated to cause 2.6 million deaths annually.

It’s no wonder our scientists have been researching foods to help lower the prevalence of cholesterol related illnesses in the community. And it looks like we’re on to something.

We know that barley and oat grains contain high levels of a soluble fibre called betaglucan (1-3 ,1-4 betaglucan), which can reduce cholesterol reabsorption in the gut. This leads to healthier blood cholesterol levels, lowering the risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, wheat (which is one of the most commonly consumed grains in the world) has low levels of betaglucan and it has a slightly different structure to the oat and barley betaglucan, which makes it insoluble.

Betaglucan is made by an enzyme that sits in the membrane at the surface of the plant cell. This enzyme links activated glucose sugars from within the cell and pushes the growing betaglucan polymer chain through a pore in the membrane into the cell wall surrounding the cell.

Betaglucan is made by an enzyme that sits in the membrane at the surface of the plant cell. This enzyme links activated glucose sugars from within the cell and pushes the growing betaglucan polymer chain through a pore in the membrane into the cell wall surrounding the cell. Click on the image for an animated version of the diagram, by Lisa Jobling.

So at the moment, it’s not possible to get cholesterol-lowering benefits from breads unless they have added barley or oat flour. This affects the taste and texture of the bread, which is why people generally prefer bread that’s made wholly from wheat flour. What we want is a bread that maximises the health benefits without sacrificing the flavour and texture that consumers want.

We now know why betaglucan in barley and oats is soluble but in wheat it’s not – and it’s to do with tiny differences between the enzymes that work in barley and oats compared with the one working in wheat to create the betaglucan. In ground breaking research just published, we’ve discovered that just one amino acid (the building blocks of enzymes) difference in the enzyme that forms betaglucan can change the structure and make it more soluble. By changing that one amino acid in the wheat enzyme we should be able to make wheat with more soluble betaglucan and cholesterol lowering properties.

In a proof of principle experiment, we used gene technology to take the gene that makes betaglucan in oats and expressed it in wheat grain. This showed we can simultaneously increase the amount of betaglucan and change its structure making it as soluble as barley betaglucan. We did this in trials using genetically modified plants, a great tool to gain knowledge. We’re using them as a small-scale means to test what’s possible and understand exactly what we need to look for when we get to the next stage which doesn’t involve genetic modification.

The trial wheat plants were grown in a controlled field trial (approved by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator) to get enough grain to evaluate the suitability for bread-making and potential health benefits such as lowering the level of cholesterol reabsorption. If this is successful, we plan to use conventional breeding techniques to develop a wheat for public consumption. This is more difficult and will take a while longer but we think it’s possible.

Our field of dreams

The controlled wheat trial: This is where we are testing how the modified wheat grows

If you’d like to know more about this research and the technical bits check out our webpage or be daring and go straight to the research on Science Advances.


5 things you need to know about today’s leap second

We're going back to the Future! Well, sort of...

We’re going back to the future! Well, sort of…

Did you know you’ve got an extra second up your sleeve this morning? You might not realise it, but the minute beginning at 9:59am AEST today will, officially, last for 61 seconds.

But beyond giving you some extra time for your morning crossword puzzle, or putting you ever so slightly ahead of schedule, why do we bother with leap seconds?

As with many things, it’s a question of time and space:

1) We do it because…

Astronomical time and atomic time don’t see eye to eye. The Earth’s rotation is actually a bit wobbly, which accounts for seasons, solstices and sunburn in summer. But it also means that over time, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC*) – which is kept on a collection of super-accurate atomic clocks – gets a little out of sync with Universal Time (or UT1). UT1 is based on where our planet is situated in relation to the Sun, wobbly spin and all.

Our planet’s official time keepers, aka the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service aka the worst place in the world to be late for work, decreed that every few years we need to add an extra second to our UTC calendar, so that we can stay on track with Earth’s spin.

And that’s what is happening this morning: instead of our clocks counting seconds from 59 to zero, clocks are adjusted to count to 59, then 60, then zero.

2) An atomic clock is…

Ahead of its time, literally. Atomic clocks are regulated by the vibrations on an atomic scale, and are so accurate that they’re used as the primary standards for international time distribution services. But as we’ve explained, they’re so good that they also put us out of whack with Universal Time.

The US Government's first official atomic clock, built in 1949.

The US Government’s first official atomic clock, built in 1949.

Atomic clocks are important to our everyday way of life. Without them, GPS navigation wouldn’t work, the Internet wouldn’t synchronize, and the position of the planets would not be known with enough accuracy for space probes and landers to be launched and monitored.

There are atomic clocks ticking all around the world. Australia has one in Sydney, at Lindfield, that’s managed by the National Measurement Institute. But there’s also a bunch in Japan, in the US and Europe.

3) Leap seconds can cause trouble with…

A few things. Because leap seconds happen at irregular and ad hoc intervals (anywhere between one and seven years, and often announced only six months in advance) software developed for big pieces of equipment like telescopes and spacecraft can be caught off guard. An example: our pulsar astronomy team use telescopes to predict the arrival of pulses to nano and even micro seconds. If UTC leaps forward a full regular second, and their software isn’t updated, it can result in huge disagreements in the data.

It can have real implications on the ground too. The last leap year in 2012 caused significant disruptions to airlines in Australia, and this time around it could potentially wreak havoc with trading markets, web operations and 60 second microwave meals.

4) It’s happening at…

10am this morning, AEST. That’s midnight for the UTC, but if you’re in Adelaide it will be at 9:30am or 8am if you’re in Perth.

5) You need to do…
Not much. Most connected devices that use network time protocols, like computers, phones and smart watches, will update themselves. But anything you might need to set yourself, like a normal watch or your old kitchen clock, will need to be changed manually. And hey, while you’re at it, you might like to alphebetise your record collection and colour-code your undies drawer.

Or, if you’re really picky, you could just use a quasar to keep time:

*formerly known as Greenwich Mean Time


Remote-I: connecting science and sight in remote communities

Medical service via email: an image of a patient's retina can be easily sent to an ophthalmologist.

Medical service via the net: an image of a patient’s retina, pictured here, can be easily sent to an ophthalmologist to review.

We can thank high speed internet for many things: the social media revolution, streaming services like Netflix and iView, and a never ending supply of cat videos on YouTube.

But it also has applications in the real world, providing connections to people and places that may otherwise miss out on services and technology that are otherwise taken for granted.

The perfect example of this? Remote-I: our new healthcare technology that uses satellite broadband to help prevent blindness in remote communities.

It’s a high-tech but simple solution to a widespread problem for Indigenous Australians, known as diabetic retinopathy, or DR.

DR, which can affect any diabetes sufferer, damages the small blood vessels in the light-sensitive tissue in the retina (nerve layer at the back of the eye) which leads to vision loss. According to a 2008 National Indigenous Eye Health Survey, around 1 in 16 Indigenous people have diabetes, and of these people with diabetes around one in three have DR. Diabetes was the cause of 13% of vision loss and 9% of blindness among Indigenous adults.

Not only does DR affect the Indigenous population at nearly four times the rate of the non-Indigenous population, it’s also estimated only one in five Indigenous people with diabetes has had an eye exam in the last year. DR can be avoided by having regular eye checks, however those in remote communities simply don’t have access to these services.

Patient’s retinal images and health data can be sent from a remote community health clinic to the desk of a city based ophthalmologist.

Patients’ retinal images and health data can be sent from a remote community health clinic to the desk of a city based ophthalmologist.

Enter Remote-I. Developed by Prof Yogi Kanagasingam and his team, the Remote-I platform works by capturing high-resolution images of a patient’s retina with a low-cost retinal camera, which are then uploaded over satellite broadband by a local health worker.

Then comes the really cool part: once the health worker uploads the patient’s image, an ophthalmologist can access it anywhere at any time. It takes about five minutes to read the images, create the report, and then send it back to the health worker.

The team recently trialed the technology in the Torres Strait Islands and southern Western Australia. As part of the trial, over 1,000 patients received a free eye screening appointment at a local community health centre.

The screening program identified 68 patients who were at high risk of going blind.

The technology also has the potential to benefit older Australians living in remote areas who may have trouble accessing medical facilities

According to Yogi, technologies like Remote-I can help close the gap in access to healthcare in remote and regional Australia.

“If we can pick up early changes and provide the appropriate intervention, we can actually prevent blindness,” says Yogi.

“After our successful trials, we’re really looking to see how we can work with governments and health care providers to continue the roll-out of this technology across other states and territories.

Yogi and his team are also conducting trials to further refine the Remote-I system with a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) development grant to create an algorithm that can automatically identify all the pathologies related to diabetic retinopathy, and send them for referral.

After achieving such successful results in Australia, we’ve also licensed Remote-I to a Silicon Valley spin-off TeleMedC, which plan to take the technology to the US and world market as part of its ‘EyeScan’ diagnostic solution.

Find out more about our work in Digital Health. 


PLUTO: T-20 Days and Counting

Nicholas Kachel:

The final countdown begins! New Horizons is on the home stretch for its ever-so-brief celestial encounter with Pluto, and it’s safe to say we’re getting a little excited. Read on to find out what the spacecraft will be doing once it reaches this distant world. And for more #CSIROSpace news, be sure to fly over to http://www.csiro.au/en/Research/Astronomy

Originally posted on Universe @ CSIRO:

Australia’s key role in NASA’s New Horizons mission

Historic Encounter: Artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon. Image: NASA Historic Encounter: Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon. Image: NASA

After a voyage of 3,443 days and travelling nearly 5 billion kilometres from home, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is now just 20 days away from its historic encounter with the distant world of Pluto.

The science team located at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas have been dreaming of this moment since plans for the mission were first hatched back in 1989.

Key to the success of this mission are the powerful, yet ultra-sensitive communication dishes at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex – a part of the Deep Space Network (DSN) – one of three NASA tracking stations located in Australia, Spain and USA.

Listening for Whispers: Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. Listening for Whispers: Canberra…

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Stop the dust: how we’re avoiding Mad Max’s Fury Road

Dust events affects, like this storm over paddocks on the outskirts of Adelaide, SA, affects many parts of our community.

Dust events, like this storm over paddocks on the outskirts of Adelaide, SA, affect many parts of our community.

By Virginia Tressider

The world often thinks of Australia as a desolate, dust-ridden landscape (that is, when they aren’t freaking out about our abundance of deadly creatures). And the recent box office hit, Mad Max: Fury Road, certainly did a good job of reintroducing audiences to the landscape this wide brown land is famous for – one that is parched, brutal and above all else, dusty!

If you think that the environment that George Miller has so lovingly filmed for Mad Max is an outlandish, unreal take on the Australian landscape – you’d be right, it was shot in Namibia (though Broken Hill was the original set of choice for the movie makers). This doesn’t change the fact that dust is one of the defining characteristics of our continent, and it could be about to get dustier.

Why? Because the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has made the call: El Niño’s back, meaning that large parts of Australia could look like a lot like the Fury Road.

Look at all that unsettled top-soil loss, AKA dust. Image: Max Max: Fury Road

Look at all that top-soil loss, AKA dust. Image: Max Max: Fury Road

Australia’s climate and topography make it particularly vulnerable to topsoil loss. And topsoil loss is exactly what dust is. Almost all Australian soils are geologically old, because most of the continent hasn’t had the conditions that cause soil renewal for many millions of years.

Renewing soil needs earthquakes, volcanic activity, glaciers and rivers, things notably rare or absent in much of Australia. Earthquakes can build mountains, bringing fresh rocks to the surface, and volcanoes spew out lava. Both these are eventually ground down into small particles by the movement of glaciers and rivers. But without these, we’re left with a thin coating of not-very-good soil, weathered, leached, and prone to blowing away.

So keeping an eye on dust is a way to monitor soil health. We can’t – unfortunately – create the conditions for soil renewal, but we can target remediation where it’s most needed. Australia’s a big place, though, and sparsely populated in the areas where dust is likely to be stirring. How do we monitor it?

The maps show the ground cover anomaly in April 2015. The red ares indicate low ground cover, meaning the soil is more exposed and prone to erosion.

The maps shows the ground cover anomaly in April 2015. The red areas indicate low ground cover, meaning the soil is more exposed and prone to erosion.

You’ll be pleased to know there’s some Furiosa… we mean furious, high-tech monitoring going on. Soil scientists from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, CSIRO, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture keep an eye on soil health, using tools like the groundcover monitoring system. This uses satellite data to keep track of the level of vegetation in soil – soils with less than 50 per cent cover are more prone to wind erosion.

Increased dust conditions – caused by wind erosion – can be a significant problem for the environment, community health and the economy. A massive dust event, like the storm that hit NSW in 2009, was estimated to cost the state’s economy around $300 million. So it’s important to manage the risk.

And we aren’t relying solely on satellite images. We also utilise small-scale local observations. Which, in a proud Australian tradition, involves groups of volunteers to be our feet and eyes on the ground.

The Community DustWatch project involves local residents helping with the readings from solar-powered aerosol-monitoring instruments located in strategic areas. They also maintain the machines. But their local knowledge is vital, because the monitoring devices measure all aerosols, and can’t identify whether the substance is dust, smoke or fog. The volunteers can.

By connecting the insights of the DustWatchers program with our high-tech monitoring tools we’re able to form a useful – albeit dusty – picture of country’s soil conditions. Find out more about our soil work here: http://www.csiro.au/en/Research/AF/Areas/Sustainable-farming/Soil-water-landscape

The project is funded by a combination of Australian Government state and local-level agencies. The Australian Government Department of Agriculture, CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network support much of the research, data and infrastructure used by the DustWatch program.


Eureka! A solid gold solution to make Archimedes proud

We've found a golden solution for gold extraction.

We’ve found a golden solution for environmentally friendly gold extraction.

By Roger Nicoll

‘Eureka!’ cried the Ancient Greek scholar Archimedes as he (allegedly) ran naked through the streets of Syracuse. He’d just discovered a method to prove the purity of gold by measuring its density, and was decidedly proud of his finding.

Thankfully, these days we favour blog posts to running naked through the streets when we make important new discoveries… but it doesn’t mean we can’t still give a good shout: 

‘Eureka! We’ve found a way to produce cyanide-free gold!’

We’ve been working with an American company, Barrick, at their Goldstrike plant in Nevada, to produce the first ever gold bar that doesn’t involve the use of cyanide extraction. Cyanide is, of course, highly toxic and a potential environmental hazard. The new process we’re so excited about uses a chemical called thioshulphate, which will greatly reduce the environmental risks and costs associated with gold production.

Thiosulphate has long been seen as a potential alternative to cyanide for liberating gold from ores, but it has proved difficult to master – until now. Thanks to the new process, which incorporates patented technology we’ve developed with Barrick, the company will be able to process and profit from four million tonnes of stockpiled ore that was uneconomic to process by traditional methods.

As part of the thiosulphate process at Goldstrike, gold-bearing ore is heated in large pressure chambers, or autoclaves. It’s then pumped as a thick slurry of ore, air, water and limestone into the new ‘resin-in-leach’ circuit that takes place inside large stainless steel tanks.

Within the tanks, the slurry interacts with thiosulphate and a fine, bead-like substance called resin that collects the gold. At full capacity, 13,400 tons of ore can be processed daily, with leaching taking place simultaneously in two sets of seven tanks.

Our very own minerals expert Danielle Hewitt had a hands-on role in developing and proving the CSIRO technology incorporated at the Goldstrike plant. But for security reasons, it was strictly hands-off the resulting gold bar.

Danielle Hewitt with the first  gold bar produced using the new process.

Danielle Hewitt with the first gold bar produced using the new process.

“This was a golden moment more than 20 years in the making, including three years working with Barrick to refine the commercial process,” said Danielle.

She said the new process will contribute an average of 350 to 450 thousand extra ounces of gold each year to the operation, allowing the large plant to keep operating.

The new technology could also have some benefits closer to home, with the potential to safely recover gold in Australia where cyanide would otherwise pose a significant environmental risk and environmental protection cost.

As with Archimedes, another gold standard solution.

For more about this and other innovations from our Mineral Resources Flagship see the latest issue of Resourceful.


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