It’s been a momentous couple of days in the history of Australian space exploration. Just yesterday, the newest antenna in NASA’s Deep Space Network was officially commissioned at our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, five years to the day from its original ground breaking ceremony.
The new dish, Deep Space Station 35, incorporates the latest in Beam Waveguide technology: increasing its sensitivity and capacity for tracking, commanding and receiving data from spacecraft located billions of kilometres away across the Solar System.
The Canberra Complex is one of three Deep Space Network stations capable of providing two-way radio contact with robotic deep space missions. The Complex’s sister stations are located in California and Spain. Together, the three stations provide around-the-clock contact with over 35 spacecraft exploring the solar system and beyond. You may remember this technology being utilised recently for the Rosetta and Philae comet landing; and for communicating with the ever so far-flung New Horizons spacecraft on its journey past Pluto.
As a vital communication station for these types of missions, the new antenna will make deep space communication for spacecraft and their Earth-bound support staff even easier.
But don’t put away the space candles just yet. For today marks the 55 anniversary of the signing of the original space communication and tracking agreement signed between Australia and the United States, way back on the 26th February 1960.
It is a partnership that has that has led to many historic firsts and breakthrough discoveries – the first flybys of Mercury and Venus, the vital communication link and television coverage of the first Moonwalk, robotic rover landings on (and amazing views from) the surface of Mars, the first ‘close-ups’ of the giant outer planets and first-time encounters with worlds such as Pluto.
So, we say welcome to the newest addition to the Deep Space Network and happy birthday to our space-relationship with the US. Here’s to another fifty five years of success!
P.S. We couldn’t finish the blog without including this little gem:
By Simon Torok
Tropical cyclones are an ongoing threat during Australia’s cyclone season, which generally lasts from November to April. On average, the Australian region experiences 13 cyclones a year.
But as the coastlines of Queensland and the Northern Territory are threatened on two simultaneous fronts (Marcia and Lam), we’ve asked our climate scientists what we can expect from tropical cyclones in the future, as Australia’s climate continues to change.
1. Has the frequency of tropical cyclones changed?
Some scientific studies suggest no change and others suggest a decrease in numbers since the 1970s in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones in the Australian region.
The Bureau of Meteorology’s satellite record is short and there have been changes in the historical methods of analysis. Combined with the high variability in tropical cyclone numbers, this means it is difficult to draw conclusions regarding changes.
However, it is clear that sea surface temperatures off the northern Australian coast have increased, part of a significant warming of the oceans that has been observed in the past 50 years due to increases in greenhouse gases. Warmer oceans tend to increase the amount of moisture that gets transported from the ocean to the atmosphere, and a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture and so have greater potential for intense rainfall events.
2. Will the frequency of tropical cyclones change in future?
The underlying warming trend of oceans around the world, which is linked to human-induced climate change, will tend to increase the risk of extreme rainfall events in the short to medium term. Studies in the Australian region point to a potential long-term decrease in the number of tropical cyclones each year in future, on average.
On the other hand, there is a projected increase in their intensity. In other words, we may have fewer cyclones but the ones we do have will be stronger. So there would be a likely increase in the proportion of tropical cyclones in the more intense categories (category 4 or 5). However, confidence in tropical cyclone projections is low.
3. What are the impacts of tropical cyclones?
Today, coastal flooding is caused by storm tides, which occur when low-pressure weather systems, cyclones, or storm winds elevate sea levels to produce a storm surge, which combines with high or king tides to drive sea water onshore. Although rare, extreme flooding events can lead to large loss of life, as was the case in 1899 when 400 people died as a result of a cyclonic storm surge in Bathurst Bay, Queensland.
4. How will impacts of tropical cyclones change in future?
With an increase in cyclone intensity, there is likely to be an increased risk of coastal flooding, especially in low-lying areas exposed to cyclones and storm surges. For example, the area of Cairns’ risk of flooding, by a 1-in-100-year storm surge, is likely to more than double by the middle of this century.
5. How can we adapt to expected changes?
Almost all of our existing coastal buildings and infrastructure were constructed under planning rules that did not factor in the impacts of climate change. However, governments are now taking account of changes in climate and sea level through their planning policies. Just as the building codes and rules for Darwin changed in the wake of Cyclone Tracy, so they should now be re-assessed for each region and locality in Australia to take account of climate change.
You can track both Tropical Cyclone Marcia and Lam using our Emergency Response Intelligence Capability tool (ERIC).
And we also have more information about our latest climate projections here.
You might have heard the oceans are full of plastic, but how full exactly? Around 8 million metric tonnes go into the oceans each year, according to the first rigorous global estimate published in Science today.
That’s equivalent to 16 shopping bags full of plastic for every metre of coastline (excluding Antarctica). By 2025 we will be putting enough plastic in the ocean (on our most conservative estimates) to cover 5% of the earth’s entire surface in cling film each year.
Around a third of this likely comes from China, and 10% from Indonesia. In fact all but one of the top 20 worst offenders are developing nations, largely due to fast-growing economies but poor waste management systems.
However, people in the United States – coming in at number 20 and producing less than 1% of global waste – produce more than 2.5 kg of plastic waste each day, more than twice the amount of people in China.
While the news for us, our marine wildlife, seabirds, and fisheries is not good, the research paves the way to improve global waste management and reduce plastic in the waste stream.
Follow the plastic
An international team of experts analysed 192 countries bordering the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the Mediterranean and Black Seas. By examining the amount of waste produced per person per year in each country, the percentage of that waste that’s plastic, and the percentage of that plastic waste that is mismanaged, the team worked out the likely worst offenders for marine plastic waste.
In 2010, 270 million tonnes of plastic was produced around the world. This translated to 275 million tonnes of plastic waste; 99.5 million tonnes of which was produced by the two billion people living within 50 km of a coastline. Because some durable items such as refrigerators produced in the past are also thrown away, we can find more waste than plastic produced at times.
Of that, somewhere between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes found its way into the ocean. Given how light plastic is, this translates to an unimaginably large volume of debris.
While plastic can make its way into oceans from land-locked countries via rivers, these were excluded in the study, meaning the results are likely a conservative estimate.
With our planet still 85 years away from “peak waste” — and with plastic production skyrocketing around the world — the amount of plastic waste getting into the oceans is likely to increase by an order of magnitude within the next decade.
Our recent survey of the Australian coastline found three-quarters of coastal rubbish is plastic, averaging more than 6 pieces per meter of coastline. Offshore, we found densities from a few thousand pieces of plastic to more than 40,000 pieces per square kilometre in the waters around the continent.
Where is the plastic going?
While we now have a rough figure for the amount of plastic rubbish in the world’s oceans, we still know very little about where it all ends up (it isn’t all in the infamous “Pacific Garbage Patch”).
Between 6,350 and 245,000 metric tons of plastic waste is estimated to float on the ocean’s surface, which raises the all-important question: where does the rest of it end up?
Some, like the plastic microbeads found in many personal care products, ends up in the oceans and sediments where they can be ingested by bottom-dwelling creatures and filter-feeders.
It’s unclear where the rest of the material is. It might be deposited on coastal margins, or maybe it breaks down into fragments so small we can’t detect it, or maybe it is in the guts of marine wildlife.
Wherever it ends up, plastic has enormous potential for destruction. Ghost nets and fishing debris snag and drown turtles, seals, and other marine wildlife. In some cases, these interactions have big impacts.
For instance, we estimate that around 10,000 turtles have been trapped by derelict nets in Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria region alone.
More than 690 marine species are known to interact with marine litter. Turtles mistake floating plastic for jellyfish, and globally around one-third of all turtles are estimated to have eaten plastic in some form. Likewise seabirds eat everything from plastic toys, nurdles and balloon shreds to foam, fishing floats and glow sticks.
While plastic is prized for its durability and inertness, it also acts as a chemical magnet for environmental pollutants such as metals, fertilisers, and persistent organic pollutants. These are adsorbed onto the plastic. When an animal eats the plastic “meal”, these chemicals make their way into their tissues and — in the case of commercial fish species — can make it onto our dinner plates.
Plastic waste is the scourge of our oceans; killing our wildlife, polluting our beaches, and threatening our food security. But there are solutions – some of which are simple, and some a bit more challenging.
If the top five plastic-polluting countries – China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka – managed to achieve a 50% improvement in their waste management — for example by investing in waste management infrastructure, the total global amount of mismanaged waste would be reduced by around a quarter.
Higher-income countries have equal responsibility to reduce the amount of waste produced per person through measures such as plastic recycling and reuse, and by shifting some of the responsibility for plastic waste back onto the producers.
The simplest and most effective solution might be to make the plastic worth money. Deposits on beverage containers for instance, have proven effective at reducing waste lost into the environment – because the containers, plastic and otherwise, are worth money people don’t throw them away, or if they do others pick them up.
Extending this idea to a deposit on all plastics at the beginning of their lifecycle, as raw materials, would incentivize collection by formal waste managers where infrastructure is available, but also by consumers and entrepreneurs seeking income where it is not.
Before the plastic revolution, much of our waste was collected and burned. But the ubiquity, volume, and permanence of plastic waste demands better solutions.
By Emily Lehmann
Oscar hype is in full-swing, and we all have our favourites for Hollywood’s night of nights (we must admit we are partial to Birdman taking home the ‘best picture’ gong). But the big-screen isn’t the only place to find world-class movies.
At our Discovery Centre in Canberra yesterday, we unveiled two world-class movies of our own. The animations, created by up-and-coming Australian biomedical animators, uses the latest data visualisation techniques to bring science to life in incredible 3D detail.
Created by Australian up-and-coming biomedical animators using the latest data visualisation techniques, they feature key research into Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes from CSIRO and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI).
Through narrated picture, the animations explain very complex biological processes related to each disease with scientific accuracy: zooming in on what happens inside our body but can’t be seen with the naked eye.
The animations illustrate key research techniques into Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes, based on work we have done with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI).
The first video looks at Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia – which affects one in four people over the age of 85, a number that will increase significantly as our population ages.
This animation takes you on a journey to the neurons of the human brain, revealing how normal protein breakdown processes become dysfunctional, and cause plaque to form during Alzheimer’s disease.
This build up of plaque in the brain can take decades and is one of the main indicators of the disease.
The Insulin Receptor and Type 2 Diabetes
About one million Australians currently live with diabetes and about 100,000 new diagnoses are made each year.
These staggering statistics are fuelling research efforts aimed at finding a cure or ways to prevent or better manage the disease.
Highlighting a recent discovery by WEHI, this animation focuses on the role that the insulin receptors play in the disease and what might cause resistance to the hormone insulin.
It’s part two in a series of animations on type 2 diabetes, you can check out part one here.
These are the second round of animations created through VizbiPlus – a joint project between CSIRO, WEHI and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.
Under the guidance of internationally-acclaimed biomedical animator Drew Berry from WEHI, VizbiPlus is training-up the next generation of biomedical animators, to raise the bar in science communication and bring critical research to the world.
You can read more about our data visualisation work here.
Heart rhythm disease is a life-threatening, electrical disorder that stops the heart from pumping blood effectively. It is a lethal condition that is responsible for around 12 per cent of Australian deaths each year.
In order to open the door to better diagnosis and treatment for heart rhythm disease, we’ve been working with the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute to develop our very own ‘virtual heart’. What’s more, we’ve done this using the same technology that drives your favourite computer games.
Impressively, when we ran a simulation through the virtual heart, it was able to model hundreds of thousands of different heart beats. This then allowed scientists to screen all of those heart beats, and search for abnormalities.
According to the Victor Chang Institute’s Dr Adam Hill who led the research, this has taken us a step closer to understanding rhythm disturbances in our most vital muscle.
“This research is hugely exciting! We were able to identify why some patients have abnormal ECG signals, and how a person’s genetic background can affect the severity of their disease,” he says.
Analysis on this scale has simply never been possible before. The simulation took just ten days, thanks to the computational grunt of CSIRO’s Bragg supercomputer cluster, which combines traditional CPUs with more powerful graphics processing units or GPUs.
GPUs have typically been used to render complex graphics in computer games. However they can also be used to accelerate scientific computing by multi-tasking on hundreds of computing cores.
By comparison, if you were to try to do the same simulation using a standard desktop PC, it would take 21 years to get the job done.
Adam hopes the new technology will help doctors read ECGs more accurately, which will mean faster, more accurate diagnosis of heart rhythm disease. By understanding why the same disorder affects people differently, the right treatment can be given to the right patients.
Scientists at the Victor Chang Institute are now using these discoveries to develop automatic computerised tools for diagnosing heart rhythm disorders.
Read more about how we’re using data and digital technologies to tackle health challenges on our website.
Ever heard of the Lizard Squad? They’re an online group that’s claimed to have hacked some pretty large and well-known web identities in recent times. As well as attacks on the Sony, Microsoft and Facebook networks, they’re even alleged to have gained access to Taylor Swift’s Twitter account.
Surely that’s enough to get alarm bells ringing!? But in all seriousness, these sort of attacks are becoming a global concern as our interaction on all levels moves increasingly online. Keeping data private is of the utmost importance. That’s why we’ve been working with global software giant IBM and other partners through the AU2EU project to strengthen how we can protect our own data and improve collaboration in secure environments.
One of the technologies we’re using is IBM’s new Identity Mixer software. Identity Mixer uses cryptographic algorithms to encrypt profile information like age, nationality, personal address and credit card details. By keeping this data hidden from websites and only revealing the most relevant information, we get to hold onto our data, rather than constantly handing it over when we collaborate online.
Identity Mixer will allow our scientists to securely authenticate who they are, and share sensitive data with experts and our partners. For example, in the event that there is a biosecurity issue, it is imperative that this team can freely share data and collaborate with partners and other labs in instances when the lab is locked down, or if the threat requires a rapid response.
Identity Mixer will improve our ability to securely respond to these issues. This is all part of an emergency response plan we have developed with the Australian Government to maintain our agricultural disease free status. In order to deal with these threats it is important to bring together academic, government and research together swiftly and securely to deal with issues.
Adding another level of security, to ensure that this plan can be actioned, is a great outcome for our biosecurity teams.
Looking ahead, Identity Mixer could be really useful for the individual web user. When we are exchanging information online, there is only certain data any websites or vendor really needs. Identity Mixer will only share the relevant data and keep the rest locked away – think of it like a sober friend stopping you from declaring your deepest feelings for a close friend, after you have had one to many bottles of wine.
It doesn’t matter who you are – from the single user, paying bills online to a massive multi-national corporations – securing data and protecting our privacy is vital. Especially when you have national treasures as important as our awesome database of insects – who else is going to protect the arthropods? Check out this video, which runs through some interesting scenarios to help you understand better how the technology works: