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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World Soil Day: a chance to worship the ground we walk on

By Leon Braun

It’s downtrodden, underfoot and often under appreciated, yet so crucial to our existence that one of our scientists describes it as “the complex natural medium that supports all life on Earth”. It holds our crops, stores and purifies our water, and provides habitat for amazing creatures like the giant Gippsland earthworm, which can reach up to 3 m in length. But most of us only think about it when we’re trying to get it out of footy socks on laundry day.

It’s soil – and today (and all next year) it gets a bit of long-overdue recognition. December 5 is World Soil Day, and the United Nations has declared 2015 to be International Year of Soils. That’s a good thing, because globally, soils are under threat: from erosion, poor land management and urbanisation. At the same time, we need soils more than ever to produce the food we need for a growing population, to help manage climate change and to ensure ecosystem health.

Cracked soil at Chowilla, South Australia.

Cracked soil at Chowilla, South Australia.

Luckily for Australia’s soils, they have CSIRO looking out for them. We started researching soils in 1929, published the first soil map of Australia in 1944, and have been working hard ever since to improve our understanding and management of soils. We’re looking at ways to make agricultural soils more productive and to ensure they’re used sustainably, so future generations can continue to reap their bounty. And we’re working internationally too, so it’s not just Australia that benefits.

Our latest achievement (with allies from around the country) is the Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia, a digital map of Australia’s soils with two billion ‘pixels’ of about 90 by 90 metres, down to a depth of two metres below the surface. It contains information such as water holding capacity, nutrients and clay, and has applications for everyone from farmers deciding where to plant their crops to conservationists looking for habitats for endangered native species. You can read more about it here.

We’re also home to the Australian National Soil Archive, which has just gotten a new home in Canberra. The archive contains about 70,000 samples from almost 10,000 sites across Australia, the oldest dating back to 1924. Each sample represents a time capsule of the Australian landscape at the time it was collected, so we can measure things like caesium dispersal from the British nuclear tests at Maralinga and the impact of phosphate-based fertilisers on agricultural land. The archive is a vital national asset for soil researchers and industry, and has even been used by the Australian Federal Police to examine the potential of new forensic methods. Finally, data from the archive powers our first official app, SoilMapp, which puts information about Australian soils at your fingertips. This is incredibly useful, whether you’re growing canola on a farm in Western Australia or planning a major roads project in Victoria.

So as you go through your day today, eat your lunch, wipe your shoes, just remember: it takes 2000 years to form 10 centimetres of fertile soil suitable for growing our food, but just moments for that soil to blow away or get covered in a layer of asphalt. Something to think about next time you sit down to a meal – or do your laundry.


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. 


Sensing your diagnosis on the spot

On the spot blood analysis provides immediate results to doctors and patients.

On the spot blood analysis provides immediate results to doctors and patients.

By Emily Lehmann

“We’ve got your test results back and…” *Gulp*

Does that feeling sound familiar? Having any kind of medical test can be nerve-wracking – not just because of the necessary probing – but for the fear of a potential diagnosis while you wait for the results.

Thanks to developments in point-of-care testing, the waiting game is over for certain crucial blood tests which can be performed and analysed on the spot using sensitive ‘biosensor’ devices. These are the types of instruments that doctors or diabetics use to measure blood sugar levels.

Test results can be provided immediately so that you can avoid the potentially unnecessary stress that often comes with waiting. There’s the opportunity to get onto treatment and the path back to better health faster – and it’s also much more efficient for healthcare providers.

We’ve been working with Universal Biosensors, a small-to-medium sized (SME) manufacturer who makes these devices locally, to help them improve their products and test for a broader range of diseases.

The project started through the Researchers in Business program, which brought on board our materials expert Dr Helmut Thissen. Helmut has since been working alongside the company to develop a new coating material that will make the biosensor test strips more sensitive.

This will allow the devices to be used for a range of new tests (immunoassays) not currently available in point-of-care testing and could lead to time and cost savings for already-stretched healthcare providers.

This exciting R&D project will enable Universal Biosensors to grow and export more high-end products internationally, while improving healthcare for patients around the globe.

Check out this video to learn more about the work we’re doing with this growing manufacturer:

Universal Biosensors was connected to our researchers through our SME Engagement Centre, which helps Aussie SMEs find the right science to overcome technical challenges and grow their business.

We’re continuing to work with the company to create superior products ready for the market, supported by Victorian State Government’s Technology Voucher Program.


To map and protect: how our 3D Zebedee technology is helping re-build New Zealand

By Emily Lehmann 

Situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, our Kiwi neighbours in New Zealand (NZ) are rattled by up to 20,000 earthquakes a year.

While most of these are minor, some can be catastrophic – like the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that shook Christchurch in 2011. This earthquake devastatingly claimed 185 lives and the country’s second largest city continues to rebuild from it three years on.

Unfortunately, there’s likelihood of another large magnitude quake – which fall above six on the Richter scale – rocking the country one day again in future.

To prepare for this, NZ has very stringent building regulations; and the 25,000 earthquake prone buildings that the country is estimated to have are the focus of maintenance and restoration efforts to ensure their stability.

In an effort to earthquake proof at-risk buildings, NZ-based building restoration company Solutions By Zeal is using our 3D laser mapping technology to survey buildings to highlight structural areas in need of strengthening or restoration.

Our technology is helping protect buildings in New Zealand from earthquake damage .

Our technology is helping protect buildings in New Zealand from earthquake damage.

ZEB1 – the commercial product of our Zebedee technology – is a handheld technology that allows users to create 3D maps of a desired location by simply walking through it.

The company found that by using ZEB1 to create accurate floor plans, elevations and wall widths, that they can save a massive 50 to 80 per cent on their measurement costs.

They have also found the technology particularly useful for measuring old buildings where there are no architectural plans.

Earthquake-strengthening and restoration work is just one of the many applications that the technology is being used for – from security and forestry, to mapping manufacturing production lines.

Zebedee has mapped some of the world’s most iconic landmarks, including the Leaning Tower of Pisa, as well as national treasures like the Jenolan Caves near the Blue Mountains and Fort Lytton in Brisbane.

ZEB1 is licensed to GeoSLAM, a spinout company of 3D Laser Mapping and CSIRO. Read more about our 3D mapping technology.


Putting over-crowded emergency rooms to bed

By Emily Lehmann 

Ever waited for a long time in a hospital emergency department and thought, there must be a better way?

It’s a common problem in the hospitals of Australia. While our nurses, doctors and medical staff are undeniable miracle workers, even they can only do so much. If there’s a sudden rush of sprained ankles, broken jaws and bruised elbows at your local hospital or medical centre needing urgent attention, then bed management can become crucial.

To help figure out how to manage this, we’ve come up with a handy tool to crunch the numbers and found that hospital demand is actually pretty predictable – particularly around major annual events (think Schoolies Week).

Austin Hospital, Melbourne.

Austin Hospital, Melbourne.

Today, the Victorian Government has announced that it will fund CSIRO to work with HealthIQ and Melbourne’s Austin Hospital for the first Victorian trial of our Demand Prediction Analysis Tool.

This tool is an adaptation of technology which is already being used by more than 30 Queensland hospitals to predict bed demand by the hour, day and week, helping to ease pressure on their emergency wards.

Using historical data to forecast bed demand, the tool has been shown to have a 90 per cent accuracy rate. It can predict how many patients will come through the doors, how serious cases will be and how many will likely be admitted to the hospital or discharged.

The tool anticipates the number of different injuries or illnesses likely to occur on any given day, so that hospitals can plan the staff, medical supplies and beds needed to care for patients.

The aim is to help hospitals manage waiting times so that patients arriving in emergency departments are seen and admitted or discharged within only a few hours.

The technology has the potential to save the Victorian public health sector around $9 million a year.

If the rest of the country was to adopt prediction tools like this, a huge $23 million in annual savings could be made across Australia.

The $230,000 trial is the first to be announced through the Victorian Government Technology Innovation Fund and will be completed by mid-2015.

Read more about our work to reduce hospital waiting times using new digital technologies.


Prize-winning scientist works with antimatter, to make substances that are bigger on the inside – and real

Dr Matthew Hill

Dr Matthew Hill

Matthew Hill’s work sounds as though it should be directed by George Lucas. The main difference is that it’s real. But a job where the tools of trade include the Australian Synchrotron AND antimatter still sounds like science fiction.

As do the results that come from it. Matthew has just been awarded the 2014 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year (presented as part of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science awards), for his work on Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs).

These are networks of metal atoms that are linked and separated by carbon-based compounds. They’re incredibly porous – about ten times more so than any material discovered previously. Their internal storage capacity can be as much as 6000 square metres for a gram of material. That’s a whole football field, stored in a tiny space.

It doesn’t end there. They form as crystals, so their structure can be worked out precisely. And, because they can be made using a broad range of metals and organic compounds, it’s possible to construct a huge number of different structures with different characteristics. This means they can be designed to suit specific applications.

MOFs aren’t just for storing things, although they’re very, very, good for that. About forty per cent of the energy consumed by industry is used to separate things, whether it’s in natural gas production, mineral processing, food production or pollution control.

The first of these is well under way. Matthew and his team have developed a membrane embedded with crystals that efficiently separates natural gas from contaminants, and lasts much longer than traditional membranes. He’s working with gas companies to develop the patented technology that could replace the multistorey processing plants found on gas fields with smaller truck-sized systems.

Patented applications for the food industry are also in the works. And further down the track are carbon dioxide scrubbers; safe compact storage systems for gas and hydrogen; and even crystals that could deliver drugs or fertilisers on demand.

One big aim is for carbon capture and storage. Matthew says, ‘The energy-expensive part of carbon capture is in its release. So we teamed up with Monash and Sydney Universities to make a MOF that soaks up the CO2 part, and changes shape when concentrated sunlight shines on it. It wrings itself out like a sponge, and releases 70 per cent of the CO 2 it has stored.’

So how sci-fi is that? Reducing the amount of energy needed to store things – and thus also reducing the carbon emissions, then finding a way to store the carbon at the other end.

But just to show once again that truth can be stranger than fiction, here’s one of those ‘you couldn’t make it up’ stories. The Malcolm McIntosh Prize is awarded in honour of a former CEO of CSIRO, who sadly died in 2000. Matthew is married to the niece of Dr McIntosh.


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