NASA serves up a new dish for our deep space complex

By Eamonn Bermingham

It’s wider than a blue whale is long, weighs as much as 25 Asian elephants and will soon be helping to unlock the secrets of the Universe. Say hello to our new dish: Deep Space Station 36.

Fresh from showing the world the first close encounter images with Pluto last month, our Deep Space Communication Complex in Canberra welcomed the newest member of its dish family to the facility earlier today.

The Canberra Complex is one of three Deep Space Network stations capable of providing two-way radio contact with robotic deep space missions. The complex’s sister stations are located in California and Spain.

The new dish is part of a $120 million NASA investment at the site, adding to our four other antennae – though it will take another 12 months to completely fit out.

The new dish being installed.

The new dish being installed.

“It’s a massive investment by NASA and shows the confidence they have in Australia and our ability to manage these operations,” Facility Director Dr Ed Kruzins said today.

Earlier this year our Deep Space Complex celebrated its 50th birthday. Ed says NASA’s latest investment shows that Australia is here to stay when it comes to space communications.

Why Australia?

So what’s so special about Australia when it comes to staring into space?

“Geographically, we’re uniquely placed to look at the southern part of the solar system, which is where many of the space missions are now headed. We’re now tracking 40 different space missions, mostly with NASA and some others with Japan and the European Space Agency, so we need this extra capacity to be able to monitor the skies 24/7, 365 days a year,” says Ed.

What can we expect to find?

That photo. (Image: NASA)

That photo. (Image: NASA)

As the first images from Pluto demonstrated, the Universe has a habit of surprising us.

“We didn’t expect to see some of the things that came back from Pluto and we’ll no doubt see more that we didn’t expect when signals start returning over the coming months. The Universe is full of things we don’t understand. Pluto is covered in ice and in very deep freeze so should be inert, but it isn’t. Why is that? We just don’t know yet.”

But the fascination doesn’t end with Pluto. From water on Mars to the possibility of life on the icy moons of Jupiter, you get a sense that we’re only beginning to understand our solar system – not to mention further afield.

“Our largest antenna, which is 70 metres in diameter, is the only one in the world that’s covering the Voyager 2 mission, which launched back in 1977. It’s recently gone interstellar, easily further than any manmade object has been before, *17.5 light hours away.”

Wow. Speaking of Interstellar, how about that movie?

“The first half of it was absolutely accurate, in that time does pass more slowly on a planet in higher gravity fields!”

If you’d like to find out more about our space research, gaze over here.

(*That’s very, very far away)


A hungrier, wealthier, choosier, smarter, riskier world: five challenges for Australian agriculture

Canola crop near Ardlethan, NSW.

Canola crop near Ardlethan, NSW.

Sandra Eady, CSIRO and Stefan Hajkowicz, CSIRO

You don’t need a crystal ball to know Australia’s rural industries will face significant change at global, national and local levels over the coming decades. This will create opportunities and challenges for small and large farms, and will affect rural lifestyles, agricultural landscapes and Australia’s society and economy.

In a new report, we describe this future through a series of interlinked “megatrends” set to hit Australia over the coming 20 years. As we describe below, each prompts some serious questions (or “conversation-starters”, as we have termed them) for Australian farmers. We don’t yet know the answers, but we do know they will be crucial for how the industry fares in the future.

Megatrends impacting Australian rural industries RIRDC/CSIRO

The world will get hungrier

We know that the world is going to require more food as populations grow – about 70% more by 2050, according to the United Nations. This will come primarily from increasing yields, along with some expansion of agricultural land.

The target is achievable but should not be taken for granted. There are competing uses of land for biofuels and urbanisation; in some places land is degrading; and we don’t have good predictions yet of the effect of climate change on agriculture. As a significant exporter of food, Australia has a vital role to play in supplying world food markets and buffering supply shocks.

We are well positioned — both in terms of geography and comparative advantage — to supply overseas markets. And while Australia can’t hope to feed Asia or the world, with astute R&D investment it can increase production and exports. How well we step up to that challenge depends largely on our ability to maintain a price competitive position and continue to improve yields. So the key questions are:

Will farms be able to scale up production and performance to meet this challenge?

What is a sensible investment in innovation, and how should it be funded?

The world will get wealthier

Some 1.02 billion people will move out of poverty and into the middle classes in the developing Asia region alone by 2040. Along with wealth comes the ability to diversify food choices – wealthier households will consume more meat, dairy and vegetable oils.

This presents an opportunity for Australian rural industries to identify new food types and connect to new markets. A diversified rural export base is likely to be more resilient to supply-and-demand shocks in markets.

Is Australia better off focusing on commodity markets that have provided solid export earnings, or should it be working hard to respond to the demand for a more diverse range of boutique, luxury and niche food and fibre goods?

Does Australia have the infrastructure and the persistence to get a wider range of desirable agricultural products into Asian markets competitively?

The recent free trade deal with China has helped open up market access for some Australian rural industries to this very large population of increasingly wealthy consumers. CSIRO

Customers will get pickier

The consumer of the future will be increasingly able and motivated to choose food and fibre products with certain characteristics. This has impacts both within and beyond the farm gate. Information technology will increasingly enable the consumer to access, share and validate information about products along the whole supply chain from farm to fork.

Health is likely to become a particularly prominent driver of food choice and consumption patterns – be that from a desire for food safety or to help prevent chronic disease. Many people’s lives are being cut short by poor diets, and at current trajectories government budgets could become crippled by unsustainable growth in healthcare expenditure.

The issues of environment, provenance and ethics will also play a vital role. The consumer of the future will have greater expectations for these qualities in the food and fibre products they choose to buy. Consumers will be “information-empowered” and rural industries stand to gain or lose market share based on this increase in consumers’ knowledge.

In the face of soaring diet-related health costs, will governments increase control of the components of food and diets?

How does agriculture in Australia build and safeguard its clean, green reputation?

Technologies will transform farm life

Advances in digital technology, genetics and materials science will change the way food and fibre products are created and transported.

Many plant productivity breakthroughs will be from gene technology. Big data systems and digital technologies will bring better risk-management approaches to Australian agriculture; weather and yields will be much more predictable and farmers will have sophisticated tools to assist with decision making.

Knowledge about land use and framing practices will increasingly move into the public domain as remote monitoring, be it from drones or satellites, makes available new data in a highly interconnected world. Business and capital models will change with the introduction of “disruptive” technologies such as peer-to-peer lending.

Will market perceptions hold back Australian agriculture by restricting access to advanced technologies being used by our major competitors?

How will farmers manage a higher level of scrutiny of their operations?

The rollercoaster of risks will get bumpier

Risk is an ever-present characteristic of Australian agriculture. However, the coming decades will see changes in the global climate, environmental systems and the world economy which will create new and potentially deeper risks for farmers.

Australian agriculture has shown a strong capacity to adapt and respond to risks in the past. But as trade globalises and we rely more on imported inputs such as fertiliser and fuel, the risk of supply chain shocks increases.

More international trade and passenger travel brings greater biosecurity risks. Climate change impacts are not well understood, and the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions will set up competing land uses for both biofuels and carbon storage.

Do we understand the likely implications of a global price on carbon of US$50-100 per tonne?

Is the agriculture sector at risk of complacency and underinvestment when it comes to risk management?

Overall, there is a bright future for Australian agriculture, laden with deep and diverse opportunity. The future outlined above will be a challenge for some producers and industries but an opportunity for others. The effectiveness with which Australian agriculture captures these opportunities and avoids the risks will largely come down to innovation.

Through centuries past, repeated innovation has allowed Australian farmers to expand into new land areas, develop water resources and increase crop and pasture yields. As we look to the decades ahead, innovation becomes ever more important. In a world of exponential growth in both technology and global trade, it’s about working smarter, not just harder.

The Conversation

Sandra Eady is Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO Agriculture at CSIRO and Stefan Hajkowicz is Leader – CSIRO Futures at CSIRO

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


Pollies head back to school to show some science love

If you’re a parent, how important is it to you that your child have an inquisitive mind? One that is imaginative and curious and seeks out a different path. A mind that has a thirst for challenge.

At work, it’s the colleague you seek when all else has failed. As a manager, it’s the person you hope will walk in the door when you sit on an interview panel.

It’s the kind of thinking you nurture through science, engineering, maths and technology (STEM). And it’s the kind of thinking that leads you to CSIRO.

Today, we’re playing host to over 100 events around Australia to drum up support for these subjects at school.

We’re doing this through our Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools (SMiS) program. SMiS is a national volunteer program bringing real science, maths and ICT into primary and high school classes through partnerships between teachers and STEM professionals.

To kick-start National Science Week, we’ve invited a raft of pollies to join us in a science activity at their local school. We’ll be using this blog to host a live photo gallery of today’s events so check back in when you can.

Follow the conversation using #STEMinschools.

If you’d like to learn more about SMiS and how you can get involved, head to our website.


Stop the junk: why Australia scored a ‘C’ for diet

A well balanced diet is essential to good health.

A well-balanced diet is essential to good health.

The results are in: Australia, you’re just not cutting it.

So say the findings of our Healthy Diet Score Survey, a scientifically validated survey that assessed people’s diet quality against the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

Over 40,000 people participated in the survey, which evaluated a person’s diet based on variety, frequency and quantity of the essential food groups, as well as individual attributes such as age and gender.

The average score? Only 61/100.

Our consumption of the dreaded ‘discretionary snacks’ – aka junk food – was most to blame, with Aussies on average consuming three times the recommended amount.

According to Professor Manny Noakes, our Research Director for Nutrition and Health and the co-author of the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet Online, the results were concerning.

“The scores were fairly unflattering across all respondents. If we were handing out report cards for diet quality, then Australia would only get a C.”

“While many people scored highly in categories such as water intake and the variety of foods consumed, there is certainly lots of room for improvement in other areas,” said Manny.

There were other positives, including the Coffs Harbour and Grafton region being named as home to Australia’s healthiest eaters (it must be all of those big bananas?).

Overall it was a disappointing outcome – and we can confirm our media team are no dietary angels – but we’re not here to lecture you in words.

We have an infographic for that instead:

dietscore_CSIRO

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re all moving to Coffs.

Haven’t taken the survey yet? Put that Freddo Frog down and give it a whirl.


Healthcare’s technology revolution means a boost for jobs in IT

Eye testing in remote areas of Australia with the images stored and set via satellite to city-based specialists. CSIRO, CC BY-NC

Eye testing in remote areas of Australia with the images stored and set via satellite to city-based specialists. CSIRO, CC BY-NC

David Hansen, CSIRO

We tend to think about our healthcare sector as a leader in the development and use of advanced medical technology and biotechnology, such as expensive imaging machines or devices that we implant into patients.

But in many aspects of conducting the business of healthcare, our healthcare system is still in a pre-digital era. For example, healthcare may be the last sector where significant amounts of communication are still done via fax and regular post.

This is not to say that significant changes are not happening. Radiology is increasingly using digital technology but the interpretation of these images is still manual. Electronic health and medical records are also being introduced widely but there is little communication between collectors.

The digital revolution in healthcare that is currently slowly unfolding will use data and technology to improve the healthcare of patients. It will also increase safety and quality, and improve efficiency in the healthcare system.

The eyes have it… remotely

One example of how technology can be used to deliver better healthcare is a recent trial by CSIRO and our partners that provided screening for eye diseases among people in remote parts of Western Australia and Queensland.

Using the NBN’s satellite broadband service, we screened more than 1,200 people in their communities for diseases such as diabetic retinopathy. This disease often causes irreversible blindness, and it affects the Indigenous population at nearly four times the rate of the non-Indigenous population.

Captured: a typical high-resolution image of a patient’s retina. CSIRO, CC BY-NC

Local health workers were trained at capturing high-resolution images of a patient’s retina with a low-cost retinal camera. These images were stored then uploaded over the NBN satellite to ophthalmologists in Brisbane and Perth.

The screening program identified 68 patients who were at high risk of going blind, including those with macular edema. In the most case these patients received treatment locally. However, some patients needed transfer to major hospitals for immediate treatment.

Once patients were identified as being at risk of significant eye disease, they were provided with care plans that involved local follow up consultations and regular screening the tele-eye care screening program.

For diabetic patients this included advice on controlling their diabetes, which improves their overall health as well as reducing the risk of blindness.

We have the technology

Overall, the trial showed the effectiveness of providing a “store and forward” tele-ophthalmology service using satellite broadband. These types of services have previously been held back by unreliable broadband services and the lack of digital systems in our health services to interact with them.

Reliable broadband connectivity together with increased use of digital systems by health services means that these methods of health service delivery can now become the normal way healthcare is provided.

But for these tele-enabled models of care to really take off, patient data must be shared between providers. At the moment, different healthcare providers – GPs, specialist doctors and emergency departments at local hospitals – all separately collect information about the same patients.

This means that the services that a patient receives are generally uncoordinated. With the increase in chronic diseases, such as diabetes and eye-disease, coordinated care will lead to better health outcomes.

For providers to share data requires their computer systems to be able to send and receive data, and make sure that the data is added to the correct patient’s electronic record.

This is where the type of algorithms that power search engines such as Google – semantic web and information retrieval technologies – can be tailored for healthcare systems. Shared properly, the data can be used to make sure that patients receive appropriate services.

Sharing this data will also mean that there is a bigger volume of data about a patient with each healthcare provider. This will require computers to do more to analyse the data and alert patients, clinicians and health care providers when there should be follow up action.

More IT jobs needed in healthcare

The increase in the use of digital technologies will not only boost healthcare. This is a sector where there will be a significant boost in the number of IT professionals, including data scientists, needed to work.

Big data analytics will be required to analyse the large volumes of different types of data that are being collected at an increasing rate.

But it is not just about applying these new technologies in healthcare. There is also a need to work with clinicians and health service executives to understand what data is – or could be – collected. This may lead to a new way of providing clinical care, a new health service, or even make existing processes more efficient.

For data analysts and IT professionals working in healthcare, the opportunities to make a difference to patients are almost boundless.

The Conversation

David Hansen is CEO, Australian e-Health Research Centre at CSIRO.

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


David Thodey: sitting down with our new Chair

The Hon Ian Macfarlane MP and David Thodey.

The Hon Ian Macfarlane MP and David Thodey.

Did you hear the news? We’ve just had a new Chair appointed to head our Board! Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Mr David Thodey. You may have heard the name before – David is no stranger to high profile roles here in Australia. Most recently he was CEO of Telstra – where he has been credited with significantly increasing Telstra’s share price and doubling the value of the company – and before that he was CEO of IBM Australia/New Zealand.

It’s an exciting time for David to be joining us. The next five years are going to be important for us as we become a global collaboration hub, and help boost the country’s innovation performance.

With David’s proven business acumen and experience running large, innovative organisations, our CE Larry Marshall’s passionate support of innovation and Australian entrepreneurs, and more than 5,000 of Australia’s greatest scientific minds dedicated to the cause, rest assured we’ll be giving it a red hot go.

David sat down with us this week to talk about why he took up the role, and how he’ll be both embracing and driving the massive technological change taking place around the world right now.

Using David’s business expertise, we’re looking to build on our already strong business and industry partnerships. If you’re interested in doing business with us, now’s the time.

We’d also like to thank outgoing Chair Simon McKeon for his years of excellent service to our organisation.


Reducing emissions alone won’t stop climate change: new research

Replanting forests

Replanting forests is one way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is a site in China. CIFOR/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Richard Matear, CSIRO and Andrew Lenton, CSIRO

Based on current greenhouse gas emissions, the world is on track for 4C warming by 2100 – well beyond the internationally agreed guardrail of 2C. To keep warming below 2C, we need to either reduce our emissions, or take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Two papers published today investigate our ability to limit global warming and reverse the impacts of climate change. The first, published in Nature Communications, shows that to limit warming below 2C we will have to remove some carbon from the atmosphere, no matter how strongly we reduce emissions.

The second, in Nature Climate Change, shows that even if we can remove enough CO2 to keep warming below 2C, it would not restore the oceans to the state they were in before we began altering the atmosphere.

How we’re tracking

Currently, we’re at 400 parts per million – rising from 280 ppm before the industrial revolution.

To project future climate change the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses a range of emissions scenarios called Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), based on different economic and energy use assumptions.

In the high scenario, RCP8.5, emissions continue to grow from our present rate of 37 billion tonnes of CO2 per year to about 100 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2100, when atmospheric CO2 levels are projected to be 950 ppm. This scenario assumes little mitigation of our carbon emissions.

In the low scenario, RCP2.6, emissions rise slowly till the end of this decade to about 40 billion tonnes CO2 each year and then start to decline. Amongst the IPCC emission scenarios, only the RCP 2.6 appears capable of limiting warming to below 2C. With RCP 2.6 at the end of the century atmospheric concentrations is about 420 ppm, and only 20 ppm above the present value.

Present emissions are tracking close to the highest scenario (RCP8.5). If we want to keep warming below 2C it requires a substantial reduction in the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

What we have to do

We have two options by which to reduce emissions, the first through reducing the use of fossil fuel energy, and the second through Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR).

CDR refers to technologies that remove CO2, the primary greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. Examples include Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), afforestation (planting trees), adding iron to the ocean, and directly capturing CO2 from the air.

For many CDR technologies the boundary between “climate intervention” (or “geoengineering”) and greenhouse gas mitigation is unclear. However, the goal is the same, enhancing the CO2 current taken up and sequestered by the land and ocean.

Can we just remove carbon?

The first study, led by Thomas Gasser, used results from 11 Earth System Models, in conjunction with a simple carbon-cycle models to simulate different emissions reductions scenarios associated with the low emissions pathway, RCP2.6.

They showed that under all emissions reductions scenarios, even slashing emissions to less than 4 billion tonnes CO2 each year, (greater than a 90% cut in current emissions) is insufficient to limit warming to 2C.

This means that some form of CDR will be required to keep warming at less than 2C. The exact level of CDR required depends very much on the emissions reduction achieved, from 2 billion to 10 billion tonnes of CO2 each year in the most optimistic scenario, to between 25-40 billion tonnes CO2 each year in the lowest emission reduction case. This is equivalent to current total global emissions.

The study also suggests that the requirements for CDR may indeed be even higher if unanticipated natural carbon cycle (positive) feedbacks were to occur. We may desire the ability to remove more carbon from the atmosphere to compensate for these.

The other study, led by Sabine Mathesius, explores whether CDR under high CO2 emissions can achieve a similar environmental outcome to a rapid transition to a low carbon energy use (RCP2.6).

It shows that aggressive CDR can only undo the effect of high emissions (RCP8.5) and return the marine environment to either pre-industrial values or the low emission scenario over thousands of years. The ability to undo the damage caused by high emissions reflects timescale of the ocean carbon cycle. While the upper ocean quickly reaches equilibrium with the atmosphere, the deeper ocean takes millennia to restabilise.

Such irreversibility of the system is an important consequence and the study provides valuable information to consider as we tackle rising CO2 levels. Both studies are theoretical but they provide an important perspective on the ability of mankind to engineer the climate system and undo the effects of high CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

No CDR or suite of CDR technologies exists capable of removing the levels of CO2 at the upper range of what maybe required. This means that, while CDR could aid in limiting global temperatures below 2C, in practice this is not even yet possible, and would not be without risks. This continues to be a very active area of research.

While the focus of both studies explore reversing the environmental changes of rising CO2, the climate system is complex and the possibility that mitigation options like CDR could produce unforeseen impacts is high. While reducing carbon emissions is the safest and preferred path for avoiding dangerous climate change and ocean acidification, it is likely that some CDR will be required to achieve this.


The authors will be one hand for an Author Q&A on Tuesday, August 4 – Andrew between 3 and 4pm AEST and Richard between 5 and 6pm AEST. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Richard Matear is Senior Research Scientist, Marine and Atmospheric Research at CSIRO.
Andrew Lenton is Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship at CSIRO.

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


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