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.


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!


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.


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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Gifts of the GAB: Five not-so-fishy facts about the Great Australian Bight

Southern right whale at the Head of Bight, South Australia.

Southern right whale at the Head of Bight, South Australia.

Tomorrow is World Ocean Day, the United Nations-recognised day of ocean celebration and action. It’s a day to stop and take stock of the importance of the ocean and its major role in our daily life. Our coastlines and the waters beyond are an intrinsic part of Australian life; not to mention their importance to our climate, biodiversity, and countless industries.

We’re involved in a veritable ocean of research around the sea and skies of Australia, which you can learn more about here. There’s so much that we could talk about, from our world-leading shark research, to our sustainable prawn fisheries in the Timor Sea … but today we’d like to focus on that great expanse of salty water to Australia’s south: the Great Australian Bight. Or, as it’s so affectionately known, the GAB.

IMG_2443It’s an amazing place. Here are just five gifts of the GAB:

  1. The GAB produces 25 per cent of Australia’s seafood (by value), supporting Australia’s largest commercial fishery (by volume).
  2.  More than 85 per cent of known species of fish, molluscs and echinoderms in the waters off Australia’s southern coast are found nowhere else in the entire world
  3. The region contains great white sharks and iconic marine mammals such as whales, seals, dolphins and seabirds, and is home to more than 80 per cent of Australian sea lions.
  4. The GAB’s physical characteristics make it globally unique and quite distinct from the adjacent seas east and west of Australia.
  5. A 4-year, $20 million Great Australian Bight Research Program is one of the largest whole-of-ecosystem studies ever undertaken in Australia. Specimens will be collected from the deepest set of samples ever taken from the area, to a depth of 3 kilometres. Did you know we recently deployed 125 archival tags into juvenile southern bluefin tuna in the Great Australian Bight to understand the movement and behaviour of these fish in what is their most significant feeding ground in the world. If you find a fish tag, please let us know. You can find more info here.

We’re also working with BP, the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), the University of Adelaide, and Flinders University to improve understanding of the Great Australian Bight. Our collaborative research will ensure future development in the region is ecologically sustainable. Find out more here.


Putting Cyprus Hill on the map: how we’re bringing our solar technology to the world

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see a solar field constructed in less than three minutes? Of course you haven’t, but what the heck, here it is.

This timelapse footage was taken on the south coast of Cyprus, where our team recently designed and installed a solar thermal field of 50 heliostats (mirrors that reflect the sun’s heat to a central tower) which could generate enough heat to boil a kettle in less than five seconds.

Super quick cups of tea aside, solar energy has enormous potential for Cyprus.

Being the southern-most member of the EU, the country is blessed with abundant sunshine. However most of the island nation’s electricity is generated – expensively – using oil, making solar an attractive option for power generation.

This is good news for Cyprus which, under European legislation, is required to derive 13% of its total energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020.

These are just some of the driving forces behind the Cyprus Institute’s decision to establish a solar thermal research facility at Pentakamo on the south coast, a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean Sea.

Solar Field low

A Mediterranean getaway like no other. This thermal solar field is part of a plan for Cyprus to generate 13% of its energy requirements through renewable sources. Credit: Cyprus Institute

For the team in our Energy Flagship, this project was a big step, as it’s the first time we’ve deployed this cutting edge technology outside of our own backyard.

“We’ve developed a lot of confidence building our own fields,” said our solar research leader Wes Stein, “but we were glad to step out of our comfort-zone for the Cyprus Institute because we shared a common goal. They’ve been a fantastic partner, and in fact we’ve just signed a MoU to further the partnership and undertake joint solar research with them.

“The project has given us a strong understanding of how to deploy these projects outside of our own safety zone and into other environments. And that’s where we want to go, we want solar thermal to be commercialised by building on the good research that we’re doing now.”

The Solar field of dreams and the dreamers. From left to right: Professor Costas Papanicolas, President of the Cyprus Institute, Mike Collins, CSIRO Mechanical Engineer, Wes Stein, CSIRO Solar Research Leader

The people who made it happen, from left to right: Professor Costas Papanicolas, President of the Cyprus Institute, Mike Collins, CSIRO Mechanical Engineer, Wes Stein, CSIRO Solar Research Leader

With a unique and smaller than usual design, our high-performance heliostats are well suited to the rugged terrain on Cyprus’ south coast. They also give the user more control over the intensity of the solar concentration and versatile installation.

Solar-thermal tower technology uses many mirrors (heliostats) that accurately track the sun, reflecting light towards a receiver on top of a tower which heats a fluid. The heated fluid is then used to drive a turbine for generating electricity and, in the case of the Cyprus Institute’s research, also powering a sea-water desalination plant.

As thermal energy can also be stored relatively cheaply compared to other technologies, there’s great potential for large-scale power generation regardless of when the sun is shining.

The experimental facility in Cyprus will be used for demonstration purposes by the Cyprus Institute. In the longer-term, we will be looking into the commercial use of the technology for other Mediterranean islands and the Middle East.

You can read more about the work we’re doing in solar and other renewable energy here.

Solar field of dreams. Credit: Cyprus Institute

Solar field of dreams. Credit: Cyprus Institute


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