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.

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.

How to send a photo from Pluto (and 8 other cool New Horizon facts)

All you need to know about  getting images of Pluto back to Earth

Interplanetary MMS explained. 

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.

Talk about a long distance call.

Some time tonight, around 9:57pm AEST, we’re expecting a world-first ‘phone call’ from the outer edges of the solar system.

The team at our Canberra Deep Space Communications Centre (CDSCC)  will be the first to hear from the New Horizons spacecraft as it completes its nine-and-half-year journey to the solar system’s most famous dwarf planet, Pluto. NASA and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are the lead agencies on this multi-million dollar project, but our CDSCC facility will be integral in communicating with the far-flung vessel.

Scientists have never before had an opportunity to study Pluto and its surrounding moons (Charon, Hydra, Nix, Styx and Kerebros) with such detail and precision. Even images from Hubble have shown us little more than blobs. Using an immense array of sensors and cameras, New Horizons will send us the most comprehensive images and data from the icy dwarf planet the world has ever seen. This information will not only shed new light on Pluto’s mysteries, but it will also help us better understand the origin and evolution of Earth and our planetary neighbours.

Before New Horizons reaches its mission objective, let’s find out a little more about this spacecraft and the amazing science powering it to Pluto.

  1. A long time ago: New Horizons (NH) blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on the 19th January 2006: the same year the X-Box 360 was released in Australia, the Beaconsfield mine disaster hit the headlines and Peter Brock and Steve Irwin passed away.
  2. A powerful name: The probe is powered by a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which transforms the heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium dioxide into electricity. Can you guess which dwarf planet plutonium-238 is named after?
  3. An interplanetary pit stop: NH made a quick detour to Jupiter in 2007. During this interplanetary layover, the probe used the opportunity to test some of its scientific instruments, before using the gas giant’s gravity to give it a 14,000km/h slingshot towards Pluto.
  4. Short but sweet: It’s only going to be in range of Pluto for 5 hours, capturing immense amounts of data, before it starts a new mission. After Pluto, NH will venture on to the mysterious Kuiper belt.
  5. A close-ish encounter: NH will duck between Pluto and its neighbouring moon, Charon, before it skims approximately 12,500 kilometres above Pluto’s surface, unleashing its suite of scientific observations.
  6. Me first: Our CDSCC will be one of the first places on Earth to receive the data from New Horizons, in binary form (a massive cache of 1s and 0s)… which is great if you can read the Matrix.
  7. Whispers from space: By the time it reaches Earth, the radio signals from New Horizons are 20 billion times weaker than the power of a watch battery. These are the signals captured and processed by CDSCC’s giant antenna dishes before being sent to waiting mission scientists.
  8. Six of the best: Alice, LORRI, Ralph, PEPSSI, SWAP and Rex. No, it’s not the next team of contestants on The Voice – these are the names of the six scientific instruments mounted to New Horizons. The instruments are equipped to collect a vast array of information, and include imaging spectrometers, particle detection instruments and a passive radiometer.
  9. Students riding shot-gun: There is also a plus-one tagging along: a dust particle counter created by a group of students from the University of Colorado, which puts pretty much every other student group student project in the history of the world to shame.

Remember to check out #CSIROSpace for the latest updates!

Five tips for NASA when preparing to encounter Pluto, by Aussie kids

The Pluto Nine

The Pluto Nine: Rubie, Jayda, Anthony, Sam, Sophie, Sudistee, Ryan, Kelan and Caitlin.

NASA has spent the last nine years navigating New Horizons towards Pluto. Within days, the first high resolution images will be beamed back to earth giving the world its first real insight into what makes the tiny ‘planet’ tick. But for now, not even NASA can claim to know very much about it. So we thought we’d speak to some of Australia’s youngest and brightest minds to see what they think.

In summary, here are five ways NASA can prepare for an encounter with Pluto.

  1. Before you get to Pluto give them a call, and let them know you’re coming: According to our ‘young astronomers’ there is a man on Pluto with a phone, and he may be able to tell you how cool or fun it is before you get there.
  2. Definitely pack a hairbrush: You never know when you’ll need to look your best. And you might just really like brushing your hair. Oh, and bring toys.
  1. Be prepared to eat a lot of cheese: Right now we don’t know exactly what Pluto is made of. One theory is that ‘like the moon’ it could be made of cheese. Hopefully a nice Brie or Camembert.
  1. Be aware of Pluto’s emotional state: Our young scientists have warned that Pluto may be dealing with some hurt feelings. Since it was forcibly removed from the planets’ friendship ring, Pluto is believed to be “upset, angry, stressed, left-out and unlucky”.
  1. It’s never too late to say sorry: NASA might consider apologising on behalf of planet Earth. #plutoisaplanet

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.

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

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

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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