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.


The 3D titanium Terminator: come with us if you want to print

Our 3D printed Terminator arm: able to withstand any metal crusher (Cyberdyne microchip not included).

By Emily Lehmann

Arnie is back. Yes, you better believe it: the Terminator is out once again in full 3D glory… but he’s not just on the big screen.

After watching the fifth instalment Terminator Genesys over the weekend, we got to thinking: could we build our own Terminator cyborg, only better? The answer is, of course we can – we’re CSIRO!

Down at our underground resistance base Lab 22 we’ve started working on a 3D metallic Terminator-inspired skeleton. The new model, dubbed the Ti-1000, is made of super strong and lightweight titanium, so it can take down mortal Cyberdine enemies with greater speed and agility.

hands_composite

Our key advantage is that our Ti-1000 models are 100 per cent customisable on demand, so there won’t be any Skynet showdown they can’t handle.

We can respond to specific (state of) emergency market needs by 3D printing tailor-designed precision parts with the right qualities for the job. In fact, our sinister looking Terminator hand and pelvis were delivered with rapid response from concept to creation, in under a week!*

The pelvis was easy, but the living tissue over the endoskeleton is a work in progress.

The pelvis was easy, but the living tissue over endoskeleton is a work in progress.

We also have top-notch facilities at our doorstep meaning that we can continue to tweak and enhance our Terminator assemblage.

We recently took our parts, among other (more serious) top secret industrial designs, to the Australian Synchrotron where we used the imaging and medical beamline to create precisely detailed 3D images.

Zooming in on these pieces can tell us a lot about our products and the processes we’re using to create them. For example, it can help to expose any faults in the end-product so that the manufacturing process can be improved. After all, consistency is about ensuring that every Ti-1000 model has the same chiselled Schwarzenegger features.

Improving the process will lead to better performing, higher quality and more consistent results for Cyberdyne Systems manufacturers every time.

If ever there’s a Terminator 6, then we’ve got the next generation model covered. But until then:

P.S. While some of this blog may be science fiction, there are real bona-fide stories coming out of our Lab 22 and 3D printing facilities, such as a world-first 3D heel implant and a horse-orthotic. You can find out more, including how to do business with us, here.

*Unfortunately, we can’t send them back in time… yet


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


The smell of rain: how our scientists invented a new word

Rain: you can tell when rain is coming just by the smell. Flickr/Ulf Bodin, CC BY-NC-SA

Rain: you can tell when it’s coming just by the smell. Flickr/Ulf Bodin, CC BY-NC-SA

By Howard Poynton, CSIRO

Australia’s CSIRO has come up with some pretty amazing inventions over the past 86 years of research, from polymer banknotes to insect repellent and the world-changing Wi-Fi. But we can also lay claim to something a little more esoteric – we actually invented a whole new word.

And no, we’re not talking about one of these new-fangled internet words like “YOLO”, “selfie” or “totes”.

The word is “petrichor”, and it’s used to describe the distinct scent of rain in the air. Or, to be more precise, it’s the name of an oil that’s released from the earth into the air before rain begins to fall.

This heady smell of oncoming wet weather is something most Australians would be familiar with – in fact, some scientists now suggest that humans inherited an affection for the smell from ancestors who relied on rainy weather for their survival.

Origins

Even the word itself has ancient origins. It’s derived from the Greek “petra” (stone) and “ichor” which, in Greek mythology, is the ethereal blood of the gods.

But the story behind its scientific discovery is a lesser known tale. So, how is it that we came to find this heavenly blood in the stone?

Nature of Argillaceous Odour might be a mouthful, but this was the name of the paper published in the Nature journal of March 7, 1964, by CSIRO scientists Isabel (Joy) Bear and Richard Thomas, that first described petrichor.

Thomas had for years been trying to identify the cause for what was a long-known and widespread phenomena. As the paper opened:

That many natural dry clays and soils evolve a peculiar and characteristic odour when breathed on, or moistened with water, is recognised by all the earlier text books of mineralogy.

rain 2

Was it something in the soil that gave rise to the smell? Flickr/Georgie Sharp, CC BY-NC

The odour was particularly prevalent in arid regions and was widely recognised and associated with the first rains after a period of drought. The paper went on to say:

There is some evidence that drought-stricken cattle respond in a restless matter to this “smell of rain”.

The smell had actually been described already by a small perfumery industry operating out of India, which had successfully captured and absorbed the scent in sandalwood oil. They called it “matti ka attar” or “earth perfume”. But its source was still unknown to science.

Joy and Richard, working at what was then our Division of Mineral Chemistry in Melbourne, were determined to identify and describe its origin.

By steam distilling rocks that had been exposed to warm, dry conditions in the open, they discovered a yellowish oil – trapped in rocks and soil but released by moisture – that was responsible for the smell.

The diverse nature of the host materials has led us to propose the name “petrichor” for this apparently unique odour which can be regarded as an “ichor” or “tenuous essence” derived from rock or stone.

The oil itself was thus named petrichor — the blood of the stone.

Bring on the humidity

The smell itself comes about when increased humidity – a pre-cursor to rain – fills the pores of stones (rocks, soil, etc) with tiny amounts of water.

While it’s only a minuscule amount, it is enough to flush the oil from the stone and release petrichor into the air. This is further accelerated when actual rain arrives and makes contact with the earth, spreading the scent into the wind.

According to the Nature Paper:

In general, materials in which silica or various metallic silicates predominated were outstanding in their capacity to yield the odour. It was also noted that the odour could be obtained from freshly ignited materials rich in iron oxide, with or without silica.

It’s a beautiful sequence of events, but one that may be hard to visualise.

Thankfully, in a testament to the ongoing scientific fascination with this finding, a team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have just this year released a super slow motion video of the petrichor process in motion.

Using high-speed cameras, the researchers observed that when a raindrop hits a porous surface, it traps tiny air bubbles at the point of contact. As in a glass of champagne, the bubbles then shoot upward, ultimately bursting from the drop in a fizz of aerosols.

The team was also able to predict the amount of aerosols released, based on the velocity of the raindrop and the permeability of the contact surface which may explain how certain soil-based diseases spread.

Lasting legacy

There’s a small body of research and literature on petrichor that’s fascinating in its own right, including Thomas and Bear’s subsequent paper Petrichor and Plant Growth a year after they first named the smell.

So what happened to Joy Bear and Richard Thomas?

Richard Thomas with Joy Bear, studying petrichor (date unknown).

Richard Thomas with Joy Bear, studying petrichor (date unknown).

Richard had actually retired from CSIRO in 1961 when he was First Chief of the Division of Minerals Chemistry. He died in 1974, aged 73.

Joy, aged 88, a true innovator and pioneer in her field, retired from CSIRO only in January this year, after a career spanning more than 70 years.

The joint discovery of petrichor was just part of a truly remarkable and inspiring career which culminated in 1986, with Joy’s appointment as a Member of the Order of Australia for services to science.

We are thankful to both for the lasting legacy on giving a name to the smell of rain and to Joy for the role model she has been to so many women in science.


This is part of a series on CSIRO Inventions.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Read the original article.


Happy Valentine’s Day! Our hearts beat for you… with about 1.6 Watts.

hearts

Solar research makes our hearts beat faster. [Image by Wendy Brian of iHeartGuts.com]

By Tania Ritchie, Valentine’s Day 2013 

Aww. It’s Valentine’s Day today in many countries around the world, meaning the annual bombardment of hearts is upon us again: sugary-sweet hearts, super-sweet hearts, super-sized hearts and even some super-strange hearts. But the iconic curvy ‘love heart’ might have originated from a simplistic drawing of the human heart, which long ago was seen as the place in the body where the soul (and, presumably, romance) lived.

Nowadays, thanks to science, we have much less poetic notions about what the heart actually does (although, to compensate, what we know now is much, much more likely to save your life). We all know, for example, that the heart is the powerhouse that keeps your blood circulating.

So, just for fun, we thought that this Valentine’s Day it’d be fun to compare the power of the human heart to the power we can get from some of the different technologies we’re working at CSIRO.

The power of the heart

We can work out the average power of the heart by multiplying the peak pressure inside the heart (120 mmHg, or 16 kPa) by the rate of blood flow (say about 6 litres per minute, or 0.0001 m3/s). This gives us the magic number we’re going to use for the heart’s power: 1.6 Watts. Over the course of a day, this adds up to an energy output of 140 kJ (or 33 Cal) each day.

So we created a thing called the Heart-o-meter. It shows the power output of some of our energy technologies from our National Energy Centre in Newcastle, in a unit we’re pretty sure we’ve just pioneered here at CSIRO – equivalent human hearts. Aww. Who said science can’t be romantic?

2013-02-14_valentinegraph

You can see that yesterday the photovoltaic cells in our Virtual Power Station had a power output that equalled, at one point, the total number of people’s hearts in Newcastle. That’s a lot of love.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

This article was originally published in February 2013. 


Viva Parkes-Vegas!

Viva Parkes-Vegas!

When stars collide: Elvis meets The Dish

By Glen Nagle

The town of Parkes, NSW – home of our famous Parkes Radio Telescope – has slipped on its Blue Suede Shoes.

In the second week of January each year, Parkes marks the birthday of Elvis Presley with a massive festival celebrating everything Elvis. It started over 20 years ago as a one-day get together of just a few hundred fans. In 2015, the festival has grown to cover a week of events, shows, parades and exhibits and over 15,000 visitors more than doubling the town’s population.

Along with one of the largest collections of Elvis memorabilia on permanent display at the Henry Parkes Visitor Centre (donated by Wiggles performer, Greg Page), the Parkes Elvis Festival is one of the town’s major icons.

The other great icon of course is the Dish – our very own Parkes radio telescope – so combining these two great icons into one stellar event was always going to be, quite literally, a match made in Heaven.

'Return to sender' took on a new meaning for the Dish last night.

‘Return to sender’ took on a new meaning for the Dish last night.

On Wednesday, 7th January an inaugural concert was held at the Dish to help mark the opening night of the Festival – and to celebrate what would have been the King’s 80th birthday the following day.

Starring popular Elvis tribute artist, Shakin’ Rick Mackaway, and backed by the fabulous rock band, The Wilsonics, the dinner and show night attracted hundreds of people from across the region and as far and wide as Canberra, Wollongong, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne.

Storm clouds threatened earlier in the day, but nothing was going to rain on this parade of love for the King and the Dish. The clouds almost magically bypassed the telescope and the brightest stars in heaven came out for an incredible night of songs, dancing and laughter against the impressive backdrop of Australia’s iconic radio telescope.

Shakin' Rick, rockin' in to the night.

Shakin’ Rick, rockin’ in to the night.

Continuing to observe the heavens throughout the show, the Dish even performed during the intermission with several large moves enthralling the audience and provoking  questions about both the science behind, and the history of, the Dish.

As the evening came to a close with a final encore performance and the audience departed, the number one question was, “Are you going to do it again next year?!”

Hmmm? Elvis and the Dish 2! Two icons, exciting audiences everywhere with music and astronomy.

The possibilities are endless. Watch this space.


Sports science is getting gnarly, dude

The future of surfing? Credit: Seth de Roulet / Red Bull Content Pool

A laptop backpack: the future of surfing, or a sure-fire way to get dropped in on? Credit: Seth de Roulet / Red Bull Content Pool

A company more traditionally associated with energy drinks has been busy making waves in the world of sports science. Red Bull recently took two top professional surfers and a team of scientists to Mexico to test a range of new performance-enhancing technologies in one of the harshest arenas possible: an overhead, barreling wave breaking only a few feet over a bed of sand and rock.

We’re all for trying out new technologies in novel conditions, but this was a particularly impressive feat – the surfers were hooked up with all sorts of electronic equipment before paddling out into the lineup and doing their thing. At one point, surfer Jake Marshall even managed to ride some amazing waves with a laptop strapped to his back.

Surfing is a sport that is usually described in terms of instinct, intuition and unpredictability – so studies like this are providing scientists with amazing insights into areas of surfing that have previously held an almost mystical status. As well as hooking up the surfers with wi-fi headsets for instant feedback from coaches on land, and pressure-sensing feet ‘booties’ to analyse and optimise how they controlled their boards, the scientists were even able to measure surfer ‘stoke’ levels using a waterproof EEG.

You can watch the video here:

We’ve done a fair bit of sports science ourselves, too. Most recently, we partnered with Melbourne company Catapult Sports to deliver a new wireless athlete tracking device using our Wireless Ad-hoc System for Positioning (WASP) technology. The device, called ClearSky, gives coaches the ability to monitor their athletes more accurately in indoor and GPS-poor environments.

It works much like a GPS, but instead of using satellites in space, ClearSky uses fixed reference nodes that are located either within or just outside of a building. You can read more about the benefits of it here.

ClearSky can triangulate an athlete’s position to 20cm accuracy. Credit: Catapult Sports

ClearSky can triangulate an athlete’s position to 20cm accuracy. Credit: Catapult Sports

Of course, it doesn’t take a scientist to figure out how useful this technology could be on a cloudy day at a Melbourne AFL match when traditional GPS coverage is low. But it also has great applications for other (editor’s note: wussier) sports that are played undercover, like American football, basketball and soccer.

Indeed, the Catapult client list is a veritable who’s who of the international sporting world: the New York Giants (NFL), Orlando Magic (NBA), AC Milan (soccer), the Socceroos (soccer), Brisbane Broncos (rugby league), New Zealand Silver Ferns (basketball) and dozens of others. Many of these organisations are either already using ClearSky, or are preparing to do so.

Obviously, this is a winning technology that can be applied across a diverse range of sports. Who knows, maybe one day ClearSky will even be used to track the performance of professional surfers in a wave pool in the middle of Melbourne?

But in the meantime, some mysteries of surfing – like why the waves were always better yesterday, who stole my wax, and where surfing commentators get their t-shirts from – will forever remain unanswered.

Find out more about WASP here. 


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