Waking Up to New Horizons

Nicholas Kachel:

Our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex just received a signal, sent at the speed of light, from 4.8 billion kilometres away. Who was it from? What was it about? Find out below…

Originally posted on Universe @ CSIRO:

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

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

I guess we all love to sleep in on a Sunday morning, maybe just snoozing under the doona, laying there for a few hours before getting up for a late brunch. Ah! Luxury.

On Sunday 7th December 2014, the New Horizons spacecraft, 5 billion kilometres away from the warmth of Earth, had little time to sleep in. It was ‘wake up’ day. The final awakening from hibernation for the next 2 years until well after its encounter with rapidly approaching dwarf planet, Pluto, set for the 14th July 2015.

Waiting back on Earth to hear the spacecraft’s morning ‘alarm’ go off was the giant 70 metre antenna dish at the CSIRO-managed, Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex – Deep Space Station 43 (DSS43).

Deep Space Station 43 in Canberra receiving the 'wake up' call from the New Horizons spacecraft. Image: CDSCC/CSIRO Deep Space Station 43 in Canberra receiving the ‘wake up’ call from the New…

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Make our ASKAP telescope a star of the night sky

By Emily Lehmann

There’s a new star in the making in the world of astronomy, with our Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) named as a finalist in The Australian Innovation Challenge’s Manufacturing, Construction and Infrastructure category*.

We recently shared some of the first images produced  by the amazing ASKAP telescope. It comprises a cluster of 36 radio dishes that work in conjunction with a powerful supercomputer to form what is, in effect, a single composite radio telescope a massive six kilometres across.

This allows it to survey the night sky very quickly, taking panoramic snapshots over 100 times the size of the full moon (as viewed from Earth, of course!).

One of the ASKAP radio dishes, located in a remote area of Western Australia.

One of the ASKAP radio dishes, located in a remote area of Western Australia.

The world-leading facility is revolutionising astronomy, and this award nomination is a welcome recognition. You can vote for it here – just scroll down to the bottom of the page.

Now, for all you space cadets, here’s five astronomical facts about why ASKAP is out of this world and a sure-fire winner:

  1. ASKAP’s 36 radio dishes, each 12 metres in diameter, give it the capacity to scan the whole sky and make it sensitive to whisper-quiet signals from the Milky Way.
  2. ASKAP is an outstanding telescope in its own right, as well as a technology demonstrator for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). This pioneering technology will make ASKAP the fastest radio telescope in the world for surveying the sky.
  3. Once built, the SKA will comprise of a vast army of radio receivers distributed over tens to hundreds of kilometres in remote areas of Western Australia and Africa.
  4. The SKA will generate five million million bytes of information in its first day. That’s almost as many grains of sand on all of the world’s beaches.
  5. ASKAP is located in the remote Murchison Shire of Western Australia, which was chosen because there is hardly any human activity and so little background radio noise.

ASKAP is one of four CSIRO projects already in the running for different categories in the Oz’s Innovation Challenge (we’ve also written about swarm sensing and Direct Nickel). You can #voteCSIRO for any and all of them – just follow the links from the Challenge’s home page!


Who will win, the Swans or the Hawks? We asked science

MCG grand final

Which bird is going to fly at the MCG?

By Fiona Brown

Wondering who’s going to win the AFL grand final on the weekend? We were too, so we did what scientists do best and undertook some research to predict whether it will be the Swans or the Hawks taking home the cup on Saturday afternoon. This is what we found.

In favour of the swans is their size and weight. They are among the largest flying birds, with a wingspan of up to 3 metres and weighing in at up to a solid 15 kg. Compared with the hawk*, which has a wingspan of around 95 centimetres and is lucky to tip the scales at 355 grams, we’re guessing that the Swans will surely have the advantage when it comes to tackling.

Will the Swans fly?

Could the Swans’ size, weight, and speed in the air see them fly away with a win? Image by Smudge 9000

However, when it comes to speed, is all that extra weight going to slow the Swans down? If you’ve ever seen a swan walk, you’ll know the answer to this one – yes. Swans are clumsy walkers, moving at slow speeds on dry land thanks to their short legs and large bodies. In contrast, hawks have relatively long legs for birds and will sometimes be seen stalking prey by running along the ground. The Swans will need to be careful that the Hawks don’t literally run away with the game.

Will the Hawks stare the Swans down?

Or will the Hawks’ speed on the ground and agility in the air see them dominate their prey? Image David Jenkins

Interestingly, in the air it’s not quite so clear cut as to who has the advantage – swans have the speed but hawks have better agility. The top speed of a Mute Swan** is claimed to be around 85 km/h, whereas when in pursuit of prey the hawk is reported to only reach speeds of up to 61 km/h. However, hawks are highly agile in flight, able to power through very small gaps in the canopy without colliding with branches. They use this ability to hunt, so are well-practised at using sudden, short bursts of speed to spring from a concealed perch, surprising unsuspecting prey. The take-home message? Watch out for some great marks!

Another key factor in predicting who will win any sporting match is the elusive team spirit. Who has the drive and aggression to get the job done? Which team will come together when it matters most? When it comes to aggression, both birds have pretty nasty reputations. Swans will aggressively protect their nests and young, using their size and powerful wings to ward off would-be predators (including humans). Hawks will also aggressively defend their territory, and they don’t get the title ‘bird of prey’ for nothing. They prey mainly upon other small to medium sized birds (including crows and magpies, which could explain Hawthorn’s defeat of Adelaide and Collingwood earlier in the season), but also eat mammals, amphibians, reptiles and occasionally insects. However, when it comes to commitment to the team, the Swans have it in the bag, with adult swans usually mating for life.

And lastly, what about the all-important weather forecast? With our friends at the Bureau of Meteorology predicting showers in Melbourne over the next couple of days and drizzle on Saturday morning, the G could be a bit damp under foot, which might be an advantage if those feet are webbed…!

Okay, so our ‘research’ might not be the most accurate method of predicting who’ll win the big game, but we definitely learnt something about our Australian feathered friends, and as Paul the Octopus clearly demonstrated, animals shouldn’t be dismissed when it comes to predicting results of football matches.

If you’d like to learn more about hawks, swans or any other Australian species for that matter, check out the Australia’s species page on the Atlas of Living Australia.

*Information about the hawks is based on our assumption that ‘hawk’ is short for ‘Brown Goshawk’, as this species of hawk has a brown head and body, yellow legs, and bright yellow eyes.

**The Swan’s mascot is based on the white species of swan found in Australia, which is the Mute Swan.


Eureka, they’ve done it

Winners on stage

All the winners take to the stage at the ‘Oscars of Australian science’.

More than 2 200 years ago, legend has it, Archimedes got into a bath and had a lightbulb moment. He worked out that you could use the amount of water it displaces to measure the volume of an irregularly-shaped object. He was supposedly so excited about this that he jumped out, and ran, dripping wet and naked, down the street yelling ‘Eureka!’ (Ancient Greek for ‘I’ve found it’).

This story might not be entirely true, even though it deserves to be. But something that is unquestionably true is that several of our peeps had their very own Eureka moment, winning an Australian Museum Eureka Award, while fully clothed.

Here’s what they did to earn it.

WUE Initiative team (James Hunt, John Kirkegaard, CSIRO and Stuart Kearns, GRDC)
Department of Agriculture Landcare Eureka Prize for Sustainable Agriculture.

Winners on stage

WUE Initiative team accepting their award.

One of the biggest limiting factors for Australian agriculture is water. CSIRO and the Grains Research Development Corporation have been working on a five-year research project – the WUE Initiative – to increase water use efficiency in grain farming.

The results showed that it’s possible to a significantly improve water use efficiency in the southern and western growing regions, demonstrating an increase in the long term average winter crop yield without increasing input costs, and lifting average Australian wheat yield by around 25 per cent across all regions.

Two thirds of the yield gains from improved WUE come from pre-crop management.

Watch a rundown of their work.

Hendra Virus Research Team
Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre Eureka Prize for Infectious Diseases Research

Winners on stage

The Hendra team accepting their award.

Well, what can we say? Horses and their owners all over Australia are very, very grateful for Equivac® HeV. This vaccine was the culmination of years of painstaking work by the Hendra Virus Research Team. It was also a novel approach to preventing a disease that kills humans – developing a vaccine for the horses that pass it on to humans, and who are also vulnerable to it. Hendra Virus has killed four out of the seven people it has infected – and with the help of this vaccine, they might be the last.

Watch the video about what the team have achieved or get a rundown on Hendra on our website.

Mark Talbot
Science Photography Prize

Microscopic image of wheat

Wheat through the looking glass.

Mark is a microscopist in CSIRO’s Bioimaging & Plant Development unit. He has developed a technique using a scanning electron microscope, to look deeper into plant cell tissues. His images speak for themselves.

Listen to Mark explain his magic.

We’d also like to congratulate the other CSIRO finalist at the Eureka’s last night:

The AIBL Research Team (CSIRO Lead Scientist Lance Macaulay)
University of New South Wales Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research

This – the Australian Imaging, Biomarker & Lifestyle Flagship Study of Ageing – is a truly massive multidisciplinary undertaking. It’s a long-term study to discover which are the biomarkers, cognitive characteristics, and health and lifestyle factors that determine whether a person will develop symptomatic Alzheimer’s Disease. It has more than a thousand participants, and is now showing positive results both in detecting biomarkers and developing diagnostic tests.

Watch a short clip about AIBL or read about what curry and Alzheimer’s have to do with each other.

Dr Terence Speed.

And finally, a congratulations to the winner of the CSIRO Leadership in Science award, Professor Terence Speed from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

At the Institute, the team that Terry leads uses computational mathematics to help researchers interpret massive amounts of experimental data.

Terry’s extraordinary leadership in the field extends well beyond the walls of the Institute. His techniques for improved DNA data analysis are distributed free-of-charge and used by thousands of researchers around the world. He is one of the world’s most cited scientists—not only in mathematics, but in computer science, biology and biochemistry.

Read more on Terry’s work at WEHI on the Australian Museum website.

Congratulations to all the finalists and winners of this year’s Eureka Prizes. Archimedes would be proud.


The spice is right: how curry and the cloud may improve Alzheimer’s testing

By Carrie Bengston, James Davidson and Olivier Salvado

Mmm . . . lovely! A hot Indian curry is simmering away on the stove on a wintry night. The smell of spices fills the kitchen. One of the spices is turmeric, from the ginger family. Its vibrant yellow colour comes from the compound curcumin which is finding a use in clinical tests for Alzheimers disease (AD).

Who knew? Soon everyone will! We’re presenting our research this week at a major conference in Copenhagen, AAIC2014.

Indian curry in a dish

Curry night! The golden yellow spice turmeric contains curcumin – a key ingredient of a new eye test for Alzheimer’s

A clinical trial of the spice-infused eye test is being led by our own Dr Shaun Frost and team, with WA’s Edith Cowan University, US company NeuroVision Imaging, and the McCusker Alzheimer’s Research Foundation in Perth. Several hundred volunteers have taken part. They include healthy people, mildly cognitively impaired people and patients with AD. It’s all part of the Australian Imaging Biomarkers and Lifestyle study of Aging (AIBL)

The trial asks volunteers to come along to two visits for retinal fluorescence imaging, ie an eye scan. This is quick and painless. Patients sit in front of a specialised camera and a photo is taken of the retina at the back of their eye.

Patient having eye scanned by researcher

Dr Shaun Frost takes a photo of the back of a patient’s eyes, not for Instagram but for a clinical trial

Between visits, volunteers eat some curcumin which binds to beta-amyloid plaques, the sticky proteins that indicate Alzheimers, and fluoresces. The plaques (if there are any) show up in the eye scans as bright spots which can be counted and measured. The data is then used to calculate a special number for each patient, a retinal amyloid index (RAI), and compared between healthy, mildly cognitively impaired and AD patients.

Bright spots showing Alzheimer's plaques in retinal scan

Amyloid plaques, a sign of Alzheimer’s, show up in retinal scan as fluorescent spots as curcumin binds to them

Encouragingly, as we announced this week, early results show the amount of plaque in the retina closely mirrors the amount in the brain. If confirmed, retinal imaging may be the beginnings of an easy, non-invasive test for early detection of AD. Combined with results of cognitive tests and other markers it could help doctors diagnose AD more confidently.

Eye scans like this also find plaques when they’re smaller than the ones in brain scans, potentially finding signs of AD earlier – maybe up to 20 years before cognitive symptoms appear. If diagnosed, AD patients could start treatment sooner and have regular eye scans to see which treatments work best for them.

Brain imaging on the cloud

From curry to the cloud. More research presented this week is about more accurately interpreting brain images sometimes used to diagnose AD.

To get a brain scan, a patient lies on a bed in a large machine like a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or Positron Emission tomography (PET) scanner. These machines record a series of images through the brain, which are then visually checked by a radiologist who compiles a report for the patient’s doctor.

This visual inspection can be subjective, tedious and time consuming. But recent advances in scientific computing and machine learning allows systems to accurately measure features of the 3D scan, such as brain size or concentration of a tracer molecule, that support a diagnosis.

Using these techniques, a new trend is emerging for improving radiologists’ productivity. Scanners and specialised medical software can report quantitative values and compare them to the values expected for normal, healthy patients – just like blood test results from a pathology lab do.

Our researchers, led by health imaging specialist Associate Prof Olivier Salvado, have just released a new cloud computing application, MILXCloud, that automatically delivers standardised radiology reports.

brain surface showing the concentration of a radioactive dye imaged by PET scan

Our new software, MILXCloud, automates brain scan analysis and reporting on the Cloud

Users will be able to upload a PET scan and within 15 minutes be emailed a one page quantitative report showing a diagram of the brain with colour coded values compared with what’s normal. This data will help support diagnosis by the radiologist and enhance delivery of eHealth services.

Whether it’s curry or the Cloud, the future of Alzheimer’s detection sure looks bright.

Media: Andreas Kahl  |  0407 751 330  |  andreas.kahl@csiro.au


Women can help bridge the ‘valley of death’ in science innovation

Cathy Foley reflects on her time as Woman of the Year.

Cathy Foley reflects on her time as Woman of the Year.

By Cathy Foley, President of Science and Technology Australia

As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8 and my time as NSW Premier’s Woman of the Year draws to a close, I have been thinking about diversity in the workplace, and in particular, the relationship between diversity and innovation.

Science and technology that lead to innovation are critical for the changes that lead to a better quality of life, greater business opportunities and a happier, healthier and more equitable society.

We don’t have to look far from our own backyard to see examples of this. The rapid global expansion of wireless communications is in part possible because of the now widely acknowledged work by John O’Sullivan and his team at the CSIRO. Wi-Fi is now estimated to be used in more than 3 billion devices worldwide.

Given the huge benefits that innovation can bring – economically and socially – we should be doing everything we can to encourage environments where this type of thinking and practice can thrive. One of the most effective ways to do this would be achieve gender balance in our innovation system.

The gender balance

There is strong evidence that companies operating with a gender-balance actually enhance their innovation quotient and gain a competitive advantage.

Reports also suggest that advances in gender equality correlate positively with higher Gross National Product (GNP) and that increasing women’s labour force participation and earnings generates greater economic benefits for a family’s health and education. Surely this can only be a good thing.

So where exactly are we at? As a nation we have achieved great things. Last year Australia was named the country with the highest quality of life in the world, according to the OECD better life index.

The gender gap

But we still have considerable work to do in many ways, including closing the gender gap in the workplace. The World Economic Forum has reported that in 2013 Australia continues to sit at 24th in closing this gap – just above Ecuador and Mozambique.

Australia still has only 17.6% representation of women on ASX 200 boards (as of 14 February 2014), and almost a quarter of boards of the ASX 200 still do not have any females at all.

Women working in science remain hugely underrepresented in leadership roles and some areas of physics and engineering have as little as 5% female participation.

The Australian Businesswomen’s Network says that women are starting small businesses at twice the rate of men. Despite this, a US study has found that female-owned companies are less likely to attract private investment compared to male-owned companies.

The recipe for success

If the nexus of women, science and business is the recipe for success in innovation, then how do women, science and business meet?

Equity, diversity and the lost opportunity of not capturing the full human potential are important arguments for having more women involved in science, technology and business.

But I have a new reason. As the traditional “social organisers” women bring a lot to the table. Business and science success is all about relationships and networking. You have to meet to do business.

Take the science world as an example. On average it takes about 20 years for a discovery to develop into a product. This has been an international rule of thumb. Everyone wants this to happen faster.

When you look at the reason for the delay, it is often when the development gets caught up in what is often called the “valley of death” or a black hole in the commercialisation process which can add years to transitioning time. Translating a discovery in the science lab to the engineering and development, then finally securing industry adoption can be a tortuous process.

What women can do

Women can offer a great deal in making that link as years of social conditioning means that it comes naturally to us.

Could the gender gap be a factor holding back the transition of science to industry, leading to missed opportunities? The diversity that women bring as scientists, technologists, engineers and nascent entrepreneurs might be the answer.

If women’s participation is a demonstrated element for business success and innovation is the essential ingredient for businesses to flourish, then why have we not embraced the opportunity to boost the role of women in science and business? Perhaps if we did we would witness greater translation of research to industry and our economic success would grow even more.

So at the end of a year thinking about what needs to change if we are to grow our economic and social prosperity, I think that increasing the participation of women in science, technology and business (big and small) is critical if Australia is to continue to have world leading quality of life, close the gender gap and have internationally competitive businesses.

Economic and social prosperity depends on change. This is one change we need to make now.

Cathy Foley is one of the keynote speakers at the Open Space free event today at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, Melbourne, 11:30 am to 2:30 pm 20/2/14.

Cathy Foley is affiliated with CSIRO. She is Chief of the Division of Materials Science and Engineering where she has worked for 29 years.

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


Why we ♥ science

As many spend big this Valentine’s Day on roses, chocolates and novelty balloons – $791.4 million is expected to be spent nationally – we think that love is all you need. Over the past few months, we’ve had a summer romance-of-sorts with some of Australia’s brightest young minds. We’re talking about our vacation scholarship program, where about 200 undergraduate students spend their summer working on research projects across the country, from searching for black holes with our Parkes radio telescope to helping develop CO2 absorbent polymers.

This week, a group of our summer students got together for our annual Big Day In at the University of New South Wales, where they presented about their summer research. The student who took out the top presentation prize, Fletcher Talbot, worked on a gesture recognition system for the Museum Robot, or “M-Bot”, which roams the galleries of the National Museum of Australia. Fletcher created 40 custom hand gestures the M-Bot can detect.

Move, robot.

Fletcher’s gesture recognition system in action.

The students also took the opportunity to declare their love for science. “I love Science because it’s a way of understanding the world,” and “I love Science because it’s really innovative, it’s always changing and it’s really dynamic.” Check out the video below.

Video transcript available here.

Why do you love science? Let us know in the comments.

And happy Valentine’s Day.

Here’s more information on our scholarship programs and careers with us.


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