Where are the missing gravitational waves?

A simulation of black holes merging. © Michael Koppitz

A simulation of black holes merging. © Michael Koppitz

Paul Lasky, Monash University and Ryan Shannon, CSIRO

Neutron stars – the dead stellar remnants of old, burned-out stars – are some of the most extreme objects in the universe. They weigh as much as the entire Sun, but are small enough to fit into Sydney’s CBD, and they rotate up to 700 times every second. Imagine that: a whole star rotating faster than the fastest kitchen blender.

Astronomers know of a few thousand neutron stars, but one in particular is a stand-out. As part of the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array, we have been observing pulsar J1909-3744 with the CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope for 11 years.

During this time, we have accounted for every single one of the neutron star’s 116 billion rotations (115,836,854,515, to be precise). We know the rotational period of this star to 15 decimal places, making it truly one of the most accurate clocks in the universe.

But, as we show in a paper published today in the journal Science, it was not supposed to be this way. Gravitational waves from all of the black holes in the universe were supposed to ruin the timing precision of this pulsar. But they have not.

We used the Parkes Telescope to closely monitor a pulsar for signs of passing gravitational waves. CSIRO, Author provided

Colossal collisions

Gravitational waves stretch and squeeze space, causing the distance between us and the neutron star to change. The gravitational waves we were looking for should have altered that distance by about ten metres, a tiny fraction given that this neutron star is about 3.6 x 1019 metres from Earth (that’s 3.6 with 19 zeros following)! But this should have been enough to show up in our measurements.

Yet the fact that our measurements are so accurate tells us that something is wrong with the theory. This doesn’t mean that gravitational waves don’t exist. There are other facets of our understanding of the universe that might be off track.

Whatever the resolution to this quandary, it is sure to change the way we understand the most massive black holes in the universe.

The centre of our galaxy harbours a black hole that weighs more than four million times the mass of our sun. But this is a lightweight; other galaxies contain black holes weighing more than 17 billion times the mass of our Sun.

And we have good reason to believe that most, if not all, galaxies contain supermassive black holes in their cores. We also know that galaxies throughout the universe grow by merging with one another.

Following the merger of any two galaxies, the two black holes from the parent galaxies sink to the centre of the daughter galaxy, forming a supermassive black hole binary pair. At some point, the subsequent evolution of the binary pair becomes dominated by the emission of gravitational waves.

Merging galaxies caught in the act by the Hubble Space Telescope. Wikimedia

Ripples in spacetime

Gravitational waves are tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime, and are a direct consequence of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. We celebrate its 100th birthday in November this year.

When any two black holes are spiralling around one another, they ought to emit gravitational waves. These carry energy away from the system, causing the two black holes to move closer together.

The sum of all the binary supermassive black holes in the universe should produce a background of gravitational waves (similar to the cosmic microwave background). It is this background that was expected to ruin our precision timing of PSR J1909-3744.

Astrophysicists have made a number of predictions about the strength of the background. These predictions incorporate state-of-the-art measurements of galaxy formation and evolution, and the most sophisticated theoretical models of how the universe evolves following the Big Bang.

Why no gravitational waves?

But we want to be very clear that our lack of a detection does not imply that Einstein’s theory of relativity is wrong, nor does it imply that gravitational waves don’t exist. While we don’t know the real solution, we have a number of ideas.

Perhaps not every galaxy in the universe contains a supermassive black hole. Reducing the fraction of galaxies that host supermassive black holes in the models reduces the predicted amplitude of the gravitational wave background, potentially making it undetectable by our observations.

Perhaps we do not understand the relationship between the mass of the host galaxy and the mass of the black hole. We use empirical relationships between galaxy and black hole masses to determine the latter. While we believe these are robust in the local universe, the black hole mergers we are most sensitive to occur billions of light years from us, where our understanding of these empirical relations is far from complete.

Perhaps one of our assumptions about the process that drives the mergers is too simplistic. For example, if the centres of galaxies contain significant amounts of gas, it can act like an extra friction force, causing black holes to merge with one another quicker than expected. This would also cause a smaller-than-expected amplitude of the gravitational wave background.

At the moment, each of these scenarios is equally plausible. Continued observations of pulsars, as well as observations of the distant universe with large optical telescopes, may soon allow us to distinguish between these ideas. And, one day, we may finally find the direct evidence for the existence of gravitational waves that we’re looking for.

Paul Lasky, Postdoctoral Fellow in Gravitational Wave Astrophysics, Monash University and Ryan Shannon, Research Fellow, International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, Curtin University, CSIRO

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

Pedal to the metal: how we’re producing aerospace parts five times faster

Australian F-35A flying out of Luke Air Force Base, USA (credit Lockheed Martin)

Australian F-35A flying out of Luke Air Force Base, USA (credit Lockheed Martin)

By Emily Lehmann 

In a mission to bolster the nation’s air force fleet, the Australian Government has committed to bring home 72 stealthy, next-gen F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF). It’s Australia’s largest military acquisition and will be part of a more than 3000-strong global fleet of JSFs – and every one of these strike fighters will have Australian made components inside.

Increasing production rates to deliver these aerospace parts is critical. That’s why the Australian Government’s New Air Combat Capability program tasked us with developing a technology to drive greater efficiency for the local manufacturers who make and supply them.

The result? A metal machining (cutting) technology that is five times faster and which dramatically reduces machining costs by as much as 80 per cent.

Crucial titanium alloy parts make up about 15 per cent of an aircraft, and are ideal for their lightweight, yet super strong qualities. But from a machining point of view, titanium alloys are notoriously difficult and complicated to work with. The conventional methods out there are slow and tools tend to break prematurely.

Our technology, called thermally assisted machining (TAM) works by pointing a laser beam on the workpiece ahead of the cutting tool, heating up the metal so that it’s more pliable. This speeds up the process while preventing damage and wear to machining tools.

The new set up, showing the laser beam head on the right.

The new set up, showing the laser beam head on the right.

With metal aerospace components estimated to be worth a sizey $50 billion worldwide (and growing) this technology could see Australian manufacturers further tap into the global market for military and commercial aircraft.

TAM’s applications go beyond the titanium machining too, and could benefit other nickel and iron base super alloys which are difficult to machine.

We’re now partnering with local manufacturer H&H Tools to develop a prototype for a gantry type milling machine to demonstrate how the technology works. We expect this to be ready in 2016.

Find out more about our technologies for high performance metals.

A game of hives: Fatal fighting in native bees

“When you play the game of hives you win or you die.” True in Game of Thrones, true for bees. Image Paul de Barro

By Fiona McFarlane

Who would have guessed that our own backyards might be a battlefield for bees?

And that these deadly skirmishes involve aerial battles lasting days, with hundreds of fatalities from both attacking and defending sides, ousting the helpless from the hive and culminating in the eventual overthrow of the resident queen and installing their own in her place.

A cluster of dead native bees on the ground in a Brisbane backyard was enough to convince a group of scientists to dig deeper into this unusual behaviour of the Australian native bee species, Tetragonula carbonaria.

Their further investigations led to a surprising discovery, that the study colony was not only being attacked by its own species but also by a closely related species, T. hockingsi.

A fight to the death

Fatal fighting is rare in nature, but not with our native fighting bees.

Fatal fighting is rare in nature, but not with our native fighting bees. T. carbonaria squabble over a bouganvillea. Image: Paul de Barro

Prior to this study, only the one species of bee, T. carbonaria was known to engage in battles between neighbouring colonies involving mass fatalities but this study provides the first evidence of fatal fighting between different species.

Fighting to the death or ‘fatal fighting’ is relatively rare in nature. Evolutionary biologists propose that this is because species have evolved different ways to assess strength and fighting ability that doesn’t involve the loss of the individual.

In species where fighting does escalate to death, scientific theory predicts the risk of death is outweighed by the benefits being obtained, such as fighting for scarce food resources, mates or nest sites.

Fatal fighting has been well studied in ants with beneficial outcomes including slave-making, raiding of nest supplies and gaining access to new food sites.

In the case of the T. carbonaria, the researchers hypothesised that the fighting swarms were most likely attempts at taking over neighbouring hives.

To test their hypothesis, they made regular observations on the ‘study’ hive in the backyard and collected the dead bees after fights for analysis. Using modern molecular techniques they were able to track which group of bees were attacking and which were defending. It was this analysis that lead to the surprising discovery that the attacking bees were in fact a separate species.

Following a succession of attacks by the same T. hockingsi colony over a four-month period, the defending T. carbonaria colony was defeated and the hive usurped, with the winning colony installing a new queen.

Hijacking Hives

The Iron Comb? Australian native bee hives seem to be worth going to war over. This is a top view of a Tetragonula carbonaria hive. Image: Tim Heard.

To ensure that what had occurred at the study hive was not a one-off event, our researchers monitored the colonies of over 260 commercial T. carbonaria hives over a five-year period, recording any changes in species through changes in hive architecture (see note).

They found evidence of 46 interspecies hive changes (via the change in hive architecture) during the five year period, which were most likely to be usurpation events.

There is still much to be learnt about these small creatures, such as what instigates the attacks how and when the invading queen enters the nest, and whether the young in the usurped hive are spared and reared as slaves, or killed outright.

In the case of our native bees, it is thought that the capture of a fully provisioned nest (including ‘propolis’, pollen and honey stores) is a sufficiently large benefit that it outweighs the loss of so many lives.

Let’s ‘bee’ clear, we still need further research

The researchers are quick to point out that this is an excellent example of how little we actually know about small stingless bees, which can be an excellent and resilient alternative pollinators to declining honey bee populations.

NOTE: T. carbonaria has a brood chamber, in which cells are even and connected by their walls to adjacent cells at the same height, whereas T. hockingsi brood chamber takes on a less organised appearance, being an irregular lattice comprised of clumps of around ten cells connected by vertical pillars.

Find out more about our work leading the Global Initiative for Honey bee Health and the research we are conducting with bees.

Cancer patient receives 3D printed ribs in world-first surgery

The sternum (the central piece) and the rib cages emanating from it, have been designed using precise scans to perfectly fit in the patient's chest after he had sections removed.

3D printed sternum: The ‘chest’ story you’ll hear all week. Image credit: Anatomics

A Spanish cancer patient has received a 3D printed titanium sternum and rib cage designed and manufactured right here in Australia, at our Melbourne-based 3D printing facility in Melbourne.

Suffering from a chest wall sarcoma (a type of cancerous tumour that grows, in this instance, around the rib cage), the 54 year old man needed his sternum and a portion of his rib cage replaced. This part of the chest is notoriously tricky to recreate with prosthetics, due to the complex geometry and design required for each patient. So the patient’s surgical team determined that a fully customisable 3D printed sternum and rib cage was the best option.

Here's how the 3D printed sternum and rib cage fit inside the patient's body.

Here’s how the 3D printed sternum and rib cage fit inside the patient’s body. Image: Anatomics

That’s when they turned to Melbourne-based medical device company Anatomics, who designed and manufactured the implant utilising our 3D printing facility, Lab 22.

The news was announced by Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane today. And the news is good, 12 days after the surgery the patient was discharged and has recovered well.

This isn’t the first time surgeons have turned the human body into a titanium masterpiece. Thoracic surgeons typically use flat and plate implants for the chest. However, these can come loose over time and increase the risk of complications. The patient’s surgical team at the Salamanca University Hospital thought a fully customised 3D printed implant could replicate the intricate structures of the sternum and ribs, providing a safer option for the patient.

Using high resolution CT data, the Anatomics team was able to create a 3D reconstruction of the chest wall and tumour, allowing the surgeons to plan and accurately define resection margins. We were then called on to print the sternum and rib cage at Lab 22.

The sternum (the central piece) and the rib cages emanating from it, have been designed using precise scans to perfectly fit in the patient's chest after he had sections removed.

The sternum (the central piece) and the rib cages emanating from it, have been designed using precise scans to perfectly fit in the patient’s chest after he had sections removed. Image credit: Anatomics

As you could imagine, the 3D printer at Officeworks wasn’t quite up to this challenge. Instead, we relied on our $1.3 million Arcam printer to build up the implant layer-by-layer with its electron beam, resulting in a brand new implant which was promptly couriered to Spain.

This video explains how it all works.

The advantage of 3D printing is its rapid prototyping.  When you’re waiting for life-saving surgery this is the definitely the order of the day.

We are no strangers to biomedical applications of 3D printing: in the past we have used our know-how to create devices like the 3D printed heel-bone, or the 3D printed mouth-guard for sleep apnoea suffers.

When it comes to using 3D printing for biomedical applications, it seems that we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible. So, we’re keen to partner with biomedical manufacturers to see how we can help solve more unique medical challenges.

Media contact: Crystal Ladiges, Phone: +61 3 9545 2982, Mobile: +61 477 336 854 or Email: Crystal.Ladiges@csiro.au

A star is formed: Shari Breen named L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science 2015 Fellow

Twitter Shari Breen

Dr Shari Breen.

How are stars made?

It’s a heady question pondered by humans for as long as history has been recorded – each civilization has had their own creation myths explaining how the stars and the night sky came to be.

But for our astronomer, Shari Breen, it’s a question she takes a lot more literally: just how did stars form from nothing more than clouds of gas into their current state?

Shari’s been working on this question for eight years now, and her current area of focus is showing a lot of promise in helping to answer this universal question. What’s more, her star-studded studies are attracting some highly-esteemed recognition: Shari has just been named as a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow.

Along with three other outstanding female scientists, Shari was selected from a field of over 240 applicants and awarded a prize of $25,000.

Shari (third from left) with her award last night.

Shari (third from left) with her award last night.

Shari’s own star is undeniably on the rise, and we congratulate her on this amazing recognition of her work. But let’s return to that universal question: just how is a (celestial) star created?

According to Shari, one of the difficulties in understanding the process through which stars form (particularly high-mass stars) is the lack of ‘signposts’ in identifying different evolutionary stages. We know the ingredients that make up a star, but when were each of them added?

“My research focusses on providing an evolutionary timeline for high-mass star formation. The central idea is fairly simple – we know of many observable characteristics of young stars, and if we had a reliable evolutionary timeline for their formation, we can work out the sequence in which each characteristic was arising.”

The wonder of her work isn’t lost on Shari. “I always find it quite astounding that we don’t understand something as basic as how stars are forming. I really love the mystery aspect of it: I love that you can make a contribution to such a fundamental issue.”

We can’t wait to see what contributions Shari will make next.

To find out more about our astronomy research, check out our website.

Innovation Challenge: teamwork drives realisation of great ideas

Larry Marshall is chief executive of CSIRO and a member of the judging panel of The Australian Innovation Challenge. Source: News Corp Australia

Larry Marshall is chief executive of CSIRO and a member of the judging panel of The Australian Innovation Challenge. Source: News Corp Australia

This article originally appeared in The Australian.

Australians are great inventors: as a nation, we’re responsible for more than 100 great inventions, such as fast WiFi, ultrasound for medical imaging and the Cochlear implant. But of those, only one has built a great domestic tech ­company. This is our innovation dilemma.

It is easy to confuse invention and innovation. Invention can often be an individual achievement but innovation is always a team sport. Innovation is about taking an idea and realising the value — along with all of the sweat, tears and pain it takes to get there. And innovation happens best at the intersection of different disciplines and different ways of thinking. Collaboration is the fuel that drives it.

Herein lies part of our dilemma: Australia has the lowest level of research collaboration in the OECD. This is for two reasons: we don’t collaborate enough with business, and we actively compete against each other in science.

Thankfully, there is some good news. For one, we are so inventive, and invention is the wellspring of innovation. Even more important, we have the fourth largest funds management industry in the world, with $2 trillion looking for things to fund. But overall, our innovation dilemma — fed by our lack of collaboration — is a critical national challenge. (I applaud The Australian for allowing a platform to talk about it.) We must do better. Lucky then that CSIRO’s sole purpose is to solve national challenges.

After spending a quarter of a century in Silicon Valley, I learnt to share my ideas early and get feedback. Other entrepreneurs didn’t steal those ideas. They made them better. The value wasn’t in the idea, it was on the delivery. I started six tech companies, and the ecosystem I operated in supported me: from universities such as Stanford and MIT to venture capital funds such as Sequoia and Accel. When I stumbled, that ecosystem picked me up and encouraged me to go again. When I got lucky, that ecosystem made sure I paid it forward.

The most resounding reward in my first initial public offering was seeing how many millionaires our employee stock ownership plan created in our team. Those millionaires went on to found new companies and create more value. This is the virtuous cycle of innovation. It’s why start-ups created 100 per cent of the jobs growth in the US over the past 35 years.

This is the nature of an ecosystem of support and collaboration, where value is created by pure entrepreneurial alchemy out of a blue ocean. We can create a similar ecosystem in Australia, but first we have to stop clawing at each other for scraps and work together to create enduring value.

CSIRO must help the 41 universities of our nation to deliver impact from their great science and inventions. We must meet industry halfway, providing solutions, not just science.

This is critical because universities should not be forced to divert from fundamental research. We know from history the greatest inventions come from out of left field — ultrasound for medical imaging, the silicon chip, optical fibre comms, the router, WiFi and the internet itself all came from fundamental deep tech breakthroughs in areas far from the markets they created — markets that didn’t exist when they started.

Graphic showing 90years of CSIRO innovation

While we at CSIRO are always looking how to solve problems, that capability will not always lie with us. When we collaborate great things happen: we helped professors at Macquarie University, in Sydney, create Radiata, Australia’s first WiFi company, and we helped Curtin University and the University of Western Australia create a global hub for metre-to-atomic-scale analyses of rock cores.

We helped the Queensland government, the University of Queensland and Griffith University create the urban water security research alliance to help address southeast Queensland’s urban water issues, and we helped Victoria’s Monash and Deakin universities 3D-print a jet engine.

People say CSIRO can be slow and cumbersome yet in 1942, isolated from the rest of the world by war and with no access to ­advanced technology or components, we created, in a matter of months, Australia’s first air-­defence radar and defended Darwin. Innovation is hard; it’s meant to be that way. It’s what birthed the start-up nation, Israel. It’s what will transform Australia into a knowledge economy.

Most important, we provide a national platform to support science, technology, engineering and mathematics in schools through a unique volunteer network across publicly funded research organisations like CSIRO and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, universities and companies like Cisco, BHP and Boeing.

We co-ordinate thousands of school visits to help our nation’s children better understand technology, maybe to pursue a career in STEM, to inspire them the way we were inspired by our teachers. Above all, to teach them that they can create our future.

Work with us to help solve Australia’s innovation dilemma. We partner with small and large companies, government and industry in Australia and around the world.


Data, data everywhere so let’s have a think

Parliament House, Canberra rendered in Minecraft

A team of GovHackers turned our topographic data into an accurate, playable Minecraft map of Canberra. Image: YouTube – Matthew Purcell

Data is everywhere. It’s being collected every second of every day, across billions of devices all around the world. And you will often hear that collecting all that data will make us more efficient, that data will change our lives, that it will tuck us in at night and do all our chores.

Well, we wish collecting data meant no more dishes, but at the moment we’re dealing with a far larger problem: we have too much useful data and not all of it is going to good use.

That’s why the annual GovHack competition is such a terrific concept. Organisations (like us) from across Australia and New Zealand provide large swathes of information for the assembled hackers, who dutifully put on their thinking caps and create something fun, interesting, and worthwhile.

Back in early July, teams battled it out over three days to create and develop more than 400 projects for GovHack 2015 across 40+ categories. We ran two categories ourselves – Best Science Hack (co-sponsored with Geoscience Australia) and the CSIRO Bounty Prize, which attracted 70 impressive entries.

After weeks of careful deliberation the GovHack winners were announced at a ceremony in Sydney on Saturday night. Amongst the impressive hacks were an array of mind-boggling entries which wowed the crowds: a video game that lets you explore a topographically accurate Canberra, an app that helps you discover the mood of trees, and a mobile app to help people identify Australian wildlife.

There were too many to mention, but here’s three of our favourites.

Minecraft Your City

Minecraft is the darling of the educational video game movement. The game combines resourcing, geometry, resource and project management into an incredibly enjoyable educational game, an educational game that kids actually want to play.

Canberra-based developers, Mind the App, thought they could use this mega successful game to create a fully explorable and accurate topological map of Canberra within Minecraft. The result – pulled together using our data alongside some of Geoscience Australia’s – is very impressive.

Keep an eye out for the incredibly realistic representation of pollies strolling through the halls of power.

By importing this information into the Minecraft video game, the “hackers” have made geospatial data more approachable and more enjoyable to explore. If you have Minecraft and you want to have a go, you can download the map and soar across the nation’s capital in all of its blocky glory.

Twitter Field Guide

Have you ever stopped to think about the amazing amount of biodiversity around you? Wouldn’t it be great if we could just ask someone: “What plants and animals are in my area right now”?

Well the winner of the CSIRO Bounty award, FieldGuideAU, may have the perfect solution. They set up a system which lets you query a range of sources to find the answer, using one simple tweet.

Send a tweet with your location to @FieldGuideAU and a list of common plants and animals nearby will be tweeted back to you faster than you can say ‘Common Eastern Froglet’.

Ecovalia Game

The Torange Juice team have made looking after National Park's fun again.

It’s in the cards: The Torange Juice team have made looking after National Park’s fun again – with Ecovalia. Image: YouTube – InspirationalSpring

So far we have focused on projects that reimagine data as a useful app or a video game. But the Torange Juice team take a different approach with their hack ‘Ecovalia’.

They’ve turned information from the South Australian Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, and our ever popular Atlas of Living Australia, and created a physical print-and-play, table-top card game.

This isn’t Snap, Solitaire or Magic: The Gathering. The game casts the player in the role of park custodian, encouraging participants to manage the development and conservation of South Australia’s reserves and national parks.

Our GovHack winners

We encourage you to take a look at the other winning projects over on the GovHack website, but now we would like to congratulate the winners of our categories:


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