Tag Archives: astronomy

5 ways to get to Mars

Find the best 5 ways to get to Mars

Featured image above: Could this be your new home? We take a look at the best 5 ways to get to Mars if living on another world is an idea that entices you.

Looking for an escape from planet Earth? We look at the quickest and most likely 5 ways to get to Mars and start your new adventure.

1. Ask a genius

Serial entrepreneur extraordinaire Elon Musk announced earlier this year that Space X has a Mars mission in its sights. In an hour long video, the billionaire founder announced his aim to begin missions to Mars by 2018, and manned flights by 2024. The planned massive vehicles would be capable of carrying 100 passengers and cargo with a ambitious cost of US$200,000 per passenger. He’s joined by other ambitious privately funded projects including Amazon founder Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin, which describes a reusable rocket booster and separable capsule that parachutes to landing. Meanwhile American inventor and chemical engineer, Guido Fetta has pionered a concept long discussed by the scientific community, electromagnetic propulsion, or EM drive, which creates thrust by bouncing microwave photons back and forth inside a cone-shaped closed metal cavity. Rumours this week from José Rodal from MIT that NASA was ready to release a paper on the process, which would be game-changing for space travel as the concept doesn’t rely on a propellant fuel.

2. Hitch a ride

In November 2016, NASA and CSIRO’s Parkes telescope opened the second of two 34-m dishes that will send and receive data from planned Mars missions, while also listening out for possible alien communications as part of UC-Berkeley-led project called Breakthrough Listen, the largest global project to seek out evidence of alien life. The Southern Hemisphere dish joins others in the US in using signal-processing hardware to sift through radio noise from Proxima b, the closest planet to us outside of the solar system. Whether an alien race would be willing or able to offer humanity a ride off its home planet is another question.

3. Aim high

While they are focused on getting out of the solar system, a team led by Dr. Philip Lubin, Physics Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara think they could get the travel time to Mars down to just three days (as opposed to six to eight months). Their project, Directed Energy for Relativistic Interstellar Missions, or DEEP-IN, aims initially send “wafer sats”, wafer-scale systems weighing no more than a gram and embedded with optical communications, optical systems and sensors. It’s received funding of US$600,000 to date from NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, and theoretically could send wafer sats at one-quarter the speed of light – 160 million km an hour – using photonic propulsion. This relies on a laser beam to ‘push’ a incredibly small, thin-sail-like object through space. While it may seem a long shot for passenger travel, the system also has other applications in defence of the Earth from asteroids, comets and other near-earth objects, as well as the exploration of the nearby universe.

deep-laser-sail
Image: An artist’s conception of the laser-led space propulsion. Credit Q. Zhang

4. Volunteer

The Mars One project already has 100 hopeful astronauts selected for its planned one-way trip – out of 202,586 applicants. The project is still at ‘Phase A’ – early concept stage – in terms of actually getting there, but makes the list of the top 5 ways to get to Mars due to the large amount of interest: it has raised US$ 1 million towards developing a practical way to safely land some of these select few on the red Planet.

5. Ask the experts

In 2020, Australia will host the COSPAR scientific assembly, a gathering of 3000 of the world’s top space scientists. The massive conference will no doubt include some of the top minds focussed on this very problem, offering new hope in our long-term quest for planetary travel.

“We come to the table with a bold vision for our nation’s place in science – and through science, our place in space, said Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel.

radio telescope

Introducing the world’s largest radio telescope

Featured image: A computer generated image of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope dish antennas in South Africa. Credit: SKA Project Office.

What is dark matter? What did the universe look like when the first galaxies formed? Is there other life out there? These are just some of the mysteries that the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will aim to solve.

Covering an area equivalent to around one million square metres, or one square kilometre, SKA will comprise of hundreds of thousands of radio antennas in the Karoo desert, South Africa and the Murchison region, Western Australia.

The multi-billion dollar array will be 10 times more sensitive and significantly faster at surveying galaxies than any current radio telescope.

The massive flow of data from the telescope will be processed by supercomputing facilities that have one trillion times the computing power of those that landed men on the Moon.

Phase 1 of SKA’s construction will commence in 2018. The construction will be a collaboration of 500 engineers from 20 different countries around the world.

– Gemma Conroy

Using Big Data to save tiny lives

Computer scientist Carolyn McGregor has developed a disruptive technology utilising big data, that is set to start a new era in personalised medicine. Her life-saving Artemis IT platform analyses patterns in data such as heartbeats and breathing in newborn babies and spots problems before they are apparent to medical staff. The approach has great potential to save lives and is now being applied beyond the neonatal intensive care ward to astronauts and tactical response units.

In 1999, computer scientist Carolyn McGregor found herself in a neonatal ward in Sydney’s Nepean Hospital, surrounded by newborn babies, each connected to a range of medical monitoring devices.

“I was watching all of these medical devices flash different numbers, alarms going off, and I was just looking at the sheer volume of the data and thinking there’s just such a rich source of data here and wondering what was happening with all the data that was on the screen,” she recalls.

McGregor, Canada Research Chair in Health Informatics based at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa, Canada discovered that measurements were being jotted down on paper charts every 30 or 60 minutes. “I thought, these numbers are changing every second or even faster. There’s so much we could potentially do with all of that,” she says.

That meeting was the spark for McGregor’s work in the use of big data in neonatal health and she is now a leading international researcher in critical-care health informatics. Before moving to Canada in 2007, McGregor established, grew and led Health Informatics Research at Western Sydney University, where her internationally recognised research was supported by over $1 million in grant funding from sources such as the Australian Research Council and the Telstra Broadband Fund. This was foundational research that led to her going on to establish her award winning Artemis Platform.

Typically a nurse in an intensive care ward watches a patient’s breathing and heartbeat, essentially to make sure they’re still alive and haven’t gone into cardiac arrest or another life threatening situation. But as McGregor suspected, the data can tell doctors and nurses so much more than that, when harnessed and analysed properly.

Subtle changes in the pattens of breathing, heart rate and other indicators can all show changes in the patient’s condition that might indicate something more serious, but are undetectable from traditional observation.

For instance, neonatal sepsis is the leading cause of death among new-born babies in both the developing and developed world.

“If you watch the behaviour of the heart, the heartbeat actually starts to become very regular or more regular if the body’s coming under stress, like it does when you have an infection. So because we watch every beat of the heart, we can tell if we’re starting to see a regular heart rate. Couple that with some other indicators and it gives doctors a better tool to help them to say this is probably infection,” says McGregor.

The Artemis platform which McGregor and her research team have developed records more than 1200 readings every second, helping doctors harness and manage all of the information that the medical devices produce, and providing a mechanism to analyse all that information in complex ways.  It allows them to choose which indicators and conditions they want to monitor, and track those important subtle changes.

It is a lifesaving technology  for the tiny patients where a few hours can make a major difference in recovery rates. “We can see these patterns sometimes 24 hours before the baby starts to really succumb and show signs of an aggressive infection,” McGregor says. Neonatal infections can cause lifelong health care issues for sufferers, such as with their lungs.

Along with improving outcomes for individual patients, the technology has the potential to help health care systems save money. For instance, if a baby acquires an infection in the neonatal unit then the length of their stay is typically doubled – a two-month stay becomes a four-month stay. Identifying and treating these infections earlier has the potential to slash these times.

So far the Artemis platform is being used in partnering hospitals in Canada, China and the USA. It has developed to the point where it is scalable and will be rolled out to more hospitals in the near future.

McGregor says neonatal babies are arguably the most complex patient population, so solving a problem for them first, means it will be easier to solve for other populations. Indeed, McGregor’s work has applications beyond neonatal critical care. Variations in the heartbeat, for instance, can indicate a viral or bacterial infection, the onset of depression, drowsiness, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

It also has application beyond the traditional healthcare sector. A conversation with former Canadian astronaut Dave Williams led to a joint project with the Canadian Space Agency and NASA on how the technology can be used to monitor the health of astronauts when they travel into space.

Astronauts share several similarities with neonatal babies, McGregor says. “Both have to do with adaption. There’s a physical body change when a baby is born, and when it’s born early the change happens before the body’s ready. The lungs have to start to functioning to provide oxygen to the body and the heart changes its function when you’re born. And when an astronaut goes into space, they have to deal with weightlessness, there is a risk from radiation and the impact of weightlessness on the body can cause problems. We need monitoring systems to help watch the body adapt,” she says.

There are plans to use the system on NASA’s planned journey to Mars in the next couple of decades, because there will be weeks at a time when the alignment of the moon and the planets cut the astronauts off from communication with Earth.

McGregor is also working with tactical response teams. When soldiers or police have to clear a building or rescue a hostage, their adrenalin can surge and their heart rate can accelerate to such an extent that they’re at risk of passing out. A platform called Athena gathers and monitors the soldiers’ physical indicators as they complete  virtual reality training and provides analytics of how their body is behaving during the training activity. In this way they can understand how they are behaving in those scenarios which  helps them learn how to control their physical reactions.


McGregor grew up in the Hills district of Sydney’s north-west and says she always had an affinity with maths and enjoyed logic puzzles, so her maths teacher suggested she study computing after finishing school.

She enrolled in computer science at the University of Technology Sydney and at the same time worked at St George bank as a computer science cadet. Following her studies, she joined and ultimately led a project at St George to set up what was then called an executive information system and would now be referred to as big data. “It was the first of the new type of computing systems to analyse the way the business ran as opposed to the computing systems that we originally had which were systems to help the company run,” she says.

After a stint at Woolworths using data to understand what customers were buying and how to group products in the store to induce them to spend more, McGregor enrolled at the University of Technology Sydney to do her PhD in computer science, and then began to teach part time at Western Sydney University.

It was then that Dr Mark Tracy, a neonatologist from the Nepean Hospital, approached Western Sydney University and said he’d like to work with the computing and maths departments because he had more data than he knew what to do with – a visit that set McGregor on her current path.

McGregor says the practical experience that many Australians gain during education by being required to spend time working in companies while they study, is invaluable and an opportunity that many other countries do not provide.

As McGregor completed her undergraduate degree, she was one of only five women in a class of around 100. Sometimes women in science and IT can have inferiority complexes she says.  But a well-functioning innovative environment needs different perspectives and people of different backgrounds, genders and cultures, she says.

“So for women I would say, acknowledge the skill set that you have and the abilities that you have. You have a fantastic potential to make a significant difference in the technology space.”

Australian workers are highly regarded overseas, she says. “I think the Australian culture is to just get in, contribute, make a difference, get it done. We have a very good reputation as a highly skilled workforce to come into companies, whether you’re bringing innovation or you’re just bringing commitment,” says McGregor.

While McGregor currently bases herself in Canada, she is is  an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong, south of Sydney which enables her to supervise students in Australia and also to bring her research to Australia.

McGregor says she is inspired by the possibilities for further innovations in the use of big data for medical research.

“I really think we’re just at that tip of the iceberg of a whole new wave of doing research in the medical space,” she says.

“This is the new face of health care. In partnership with genomics, for every individual using fitbits and other personalised devices, the way forward will be to manage your own health and wellness. We are building the platforms and tools to do this.”

– Christopher Niesche

This article was first published by Australia Unlimited on 29 October 2015. Read the original article here.

Read more about Carolyn McGregor here.

SkinSuit worn on Space Station

Australian-designed SkinSuit worn on Space Station

It’s a long way from Melbourne to outer space, but that’s how far a SkinSuit invented at RMIT for astronauts has travelled as it undergoes trials that are – quite simply – out of this world.

The brainchild of aerospace engineer, RMIT alumnus and senior research associate Dr James Waldie, the SkinSuit has been worn by an astronaut inside the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time.

Denmark’s first astronaut, Andreas Mogensen, spent 10 days in the ISS last month and pulled on the SkinSuit to test its effectiveness in the weightless conditions.

Inspired by the striking bodysuit worn by Cathy Freeman at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Waldie and his collaborators have spent more than 15 years getting the suit into space.

“Seeing live video of Andreas wearing SkinSuit on board the ISS was thrilling – I felt an enormous sense of achievement that my concept was finally in orbit,” Waldie said.

Skin-tight and made of bi-directional elastics, SkinSuit has been designed to mimic the impact of gravity on the body to reduce the debilitating physical effects space flights have on astronauts’ bodies.

In the weightless conditions in space, astronauts can lose up to 2% bone mass per month.  Their spines can also stretch by up to 7cms, with most suffering mild to debilitating pain.  Following flight, astronauts have four times the risk of herniated discs as the general population.

It was while watching the Sydney Olympics, and seeing Freeman in her distinctive, skin-tight running suit that Waldie first wondered if such an outfit could help mimic the conditions on the ground for astronauts in orbit.

“Given the impact of atrophy on astronauts in space, I wondered if a suit like the one worn by Freeman could fool the body into thinking it was on the ground rather than in space, and therefore stay healthy,” he said.

The special design of the suit means it can impose a gradual increase in vertical load from the wearer’s shoulders to their feet, simulating the loading regime normally imposed by bodyweight standing on earth.

For the ISS flight, the European Space Agency wanted to explore if the suit could counteract the effects of spaceflight on the spine.

“We believe if we can reduce spinal elongation in space, we can reduce the stress on the intervertebral discs,” Waldie said.

“This should help with pain in-flight, and the chances of slipped discs post-flight.”

The suit has undergone rigorous ground and parabolic flight trials before being selected for the ISS mission.  It also had to pass a spaceflight qualification programme.

As the inventor and a Principal Investigator, Waldie flew to the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, for the first on-orbit trial and was elated to see SkinSuit had finally been tested in space.

“It was really exciting but also very humbling, as there are so many people that have dedicated so much effort to this success. To share their passion, and see it all come to fruition, has been amazing.”

SkinSuit has been developed in collaboration with scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kings College London and the European Space Agency.  The suit was manufactured by Italian firm Dainese, best known for producing motorbike leathers for racing.

Enjoying his first space flight, European Space Agency astronaut Mogensen tested SkinSuit over two days as part of an operational and technical evaluation.

He took frequent height measurements, comfort and mobility surveys, skin swabs for hygiene assessments, and also exercised with the suit on the station’s bicycle ergometer.

Mogensen has since returned to Earth but is yet to publicly report his findings as he undergoes extensive debriefing.

Waldie spent more time at ESA in Germany with his collaborators, workshopping further design, sizing and manufacturing refinements for SkinSuit with his RMIT colleagues Arun Vijayan and Associate Professor Lijing Wang from the School of Fashion and Textiles.

This article was first published by RMIT University. Read the original article here.

Featured photo by European Space Agency. European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen wearing the SkinSuit on board the International Space Station. 

Immense Vision

In any given week, Tingay might be discussing a galaxy census, monitoring solar flares for the US Air Force or investigating the beginning of the universe.

Tingay is the Director of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy at Curtin University, Deputy Director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research and Director of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA). Still less than two years old, the MWA has already entered uncharted territory, collecting data that will uncover the birth of stars and galaxies in the very early universe and produce an unprecedented galaxy catalogue of half a million objects in the sky. The MWA could also one day provide early warning of destructive solar flares that can knock out the satellite communications we rely on.

“To date, we’ve collected upwards of four petabytes of data and all the science results are starting to roll out in earnest now,” he says.

“It’s an amazing feeling for the team to have pulled together, delivered the instrument, and to do things that no one ever expected we could do when we did the planning.”

The project sees Curtin University lead a prestigious group of partners, including Harvard University and MIT, in four countries. And while the MWA is a powerful telescope in its own right, it paves the way for what is arguably the biggest science project on the planet – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The promise of this multi-billion dollar telescope, which will be built across Western Australia and South Africa, drove Tingay to move to Perth seven years ago. “I like to be close to the action, building and operating telescopes, and using them to do interesting experiments that no one else has done before – in close physical proximity.”

His team of 55 researchers at Curtin University are working on the astrophysics, engineering and ICT challenges of the SKA.

“Curtin is an amazing place to work,” he says. “It’s focused on a few very high-impact developments and making sure that they’re properly funded and resourced.

“Periodically, I sit down and think: ‘Where else in the world would I rather be?’ and every time I conclude that for radio astronomy Curtin University in Perth is the best place to be.”

Michelle Wheeler

Across the skies

Today NASA announced the paradigm shifting discovery of flowing water on Mars. This extraterrestrial salty water bodes well for a water cycle on Mars, and potential hosting of Martian life. What mysteries lie on Mars, we may find out soon – but for the infinite mysteries that lie beyond – we have the Earth’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), manned by the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy.

The engineering challenges behind building the world’s biggest radio telescope are vast, but bring rewards beyond a better understanding of the universe.

Since its inception, the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy has established itself as an essential hub for astronomy research in Australia. Known as CIRA, the organisation brings together engineering and science expertise in one of Australia’s core research strengths: radio astronomy.

Through CIRA’s research node, Curtin is an equal partner in the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) with the University of Western Australia. Curtin also contributes staff to the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics. One of the core strengths of CIRA is the construction of next generation telescopes. These include work on one of the world’s biggest scientific endeavours and the SKA.

CIRA’s Co-Directors, Professors Steven Tingay and Peter Hall, were on the team who pitched Australia’s successful bid to host part of the SKA – a radio telescope that will stretch across Australia and Africa. The SKA’s two hosting nations were announced in May 2012 and the project forms the main focus of research at CIRA. And for good reason: the SKA-low – a low-frequency aperture array consisting of a quarter of a million individual antennas in its first phase – will be built in Western Australia at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO), about 800 km north of Perth.

The near-flat terrain and lack of radio noise from electronics and broadcast media in this remote region allow for great sky access and ease of construction. At Phase 1, SKA-low will cover the project’s lowest-frequency band, from 50 MHz up to 350 MHz – with antennas covering approximately 2 km at the core, stretching out to 50 km along three spiral arms.

“Out of 10 organisations in a similar number of countries, CIRA is the largest single contributor to the low frequency array consortium,” says Hall, the Director responsible for engineering at CIRA.

Far from a traditional white dish radio telescope, which mechanically focuses beams, the SKA-low will be a huge array of electronic antennas with no moving parts. Its programmable signal processors will be able to focus on multiple fields of view and perform several different processes simultaneously. “You can point at as many directions as you want with full sensitivity – that’s the beauty of the electronic approach,” says Senior Research Fellow Dr Randall Wayth, an astronomer and signal processing specialist at CIRA.


One of the major scientific goals of SKA-low is to help illuminate the events of the early universe, particularly the stage of its formation known as the ‘epoch of reionisation’. Around 13 billion years ago, all matter in the early universe was ionised by radiation emitted from the earliest stars. The record of this reionisation carries with it telltale radio signatures that reveal how those early stars formed and turned into galaxies. Observing this directly for the first time will allow astronomers to unlock fundamental new physics.

“To see what’s going on there at the limits of where we can see in time and space, you have to have telescopes that are sensitive to wide-field, diffuse structures, and that are exquisitely calibrated. You have to be able to reject the foreground universe and local radio frequency interference,” says Hall. This sensitivity to diffuse structures will make SKA-low and its precursor, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), essential instruments in studying the epoch of reionisation.

The SKA-low will also be important in studying time domain astronomy, which consists of phenomena occurring over a vast range of timescales. One example is the field of pulsar study. Pulsars are incredibly dense rotating stars that, much like a lantern in a lighthouse, emit a beam of radiation at extremely regular intervals. This regularity makes pulsars useful tools for a variety of scientific applications, including accurate timekeeping.

By the time the radio signal from a distant pulsar travels across space and reaches Earth, it is dispersed. But with the right telescope, you can calibrate against this dispersion, and trace back the original regular signal.

“One of the great things you can do with a low frequency telescope such as the SKA-low is get a very good look at the pulsar signal,” says Hall. “As well as stand-alone SKA-low pulsar studies, the measurement of hour-to-hour dispersion changes can be fed to telescopes at higher frequencies, vastly improving their ability to do precision pulsar timing.”

“It’s a big advantage having the critical mass of people in this building to make things happen.”


It’s not just astronomy research that is benefiting from the construction of the SKA-low and its precursors (two precursor telescopes are in place at the MRO: the MWA and the Australian Square Kilometre Array Precursor telescope, ASKAP). In order to make the most out of the aperture array telescopes, some fundamental engineering challenges need to be solved. Challenges such as how to characterise the antennas to ensure that they meet design specifications, or how to design a photovoltaic system to power the SKA without producing too many unwanted emissions. Solving these problems requires both a deep understanding of the fundamental physics involved as well as knowledge of how to engineer solutions around those physics.

The projected construction timeframe for SKA-low is 2018–2023, but there is already infrastructure in place to begin testing its design and operation. Consisting of 2048 fixed dual-polarisation dipole antennas arranged in 128 ‘tiles’, the MWA boasts a wide field of view of several hundred square degrees at a resolution of arcminutes. It has provided insight into the challenges that will arise during the full deployment of SKA-low, not the least of which is managing the volume of data resulting from the measurements.

“The MWA already has a formidable data rate. We transmit 400 megabits per second down to Perth, and processing that is a substantial challenge,” says Wayth. The challenge is a necessary one, as the stream of data that comes from a fully operational SKA-low will be orders of magnitude larger.

“While doing groundbreaking science, the MWA is just manageable for us at the moment in terms of data rate. It teaches us what we have to do to handle the data.”

Continued CIRA developments at the MRO have included the construction of an independently commissioned prototype system, the Aperture Array Verification System 0.5 (AAVS0.5). The results from testing it in conjunction with the MWA surprised the engineers and scientists. “Engineers know that building even a tiny prototype teaches you a lot,” says Hall.

In their case, some carefully-matched cables turned out to be mismatched in their electrical delay lengths. Using the AAVS0.5, they have already been able to improve the MWA calibration. “We were able to feedback that engineering science into the MWA astronomy calibration model, and we now have a better model to calibrate and clean the images from the MWA,” says Hall.

Following the success of AAVS0.5, over the next two years CIRA will be leading the construction of the much larger AAVS1, designed to mimic a full SKA-low station.


Developing the SKA-low and its precursors is an huge effort, demanding the best in astrophysics, engineering and data processing. CIRA is uniquely positioned to accomplish this feat, with a large research staff, fully equipped engineering laboratory and access to the nearby Pawsey Supercomputing Centre for data processing. “CIRA has astronomers and engineers, as well as people who do both. We have all the skills to do these things in-house,” says Hall.

“It’s a big advantage having the critical mass of people in this building to make things happen,” says Wayth. “It’s a rare case where the sum of the parts really is greater than the whole.”

Opportunities for students and early-career researchers to engage in the project are already underway. Dozens of postgraduate research projects commencing in 2015 will involve the MWA, AAVS and ASKAP directly. Topics range from detecting the radio signature of fireballs to investigating the molecular chemistry of star formation. As well as producing novel scientific outcomes, these projects will feed valuable test data into the major scientific investigations slated for the SKA as it becomes operational.

 

The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre will manage the enormous volume of data collected by SKA-low.
The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre will manage the enormous volume of data collected by SKA-low.

A Supercomputer in the backyard

The scale of SKA, and the resultant flood of data, requires the rapid development of methods to process data. The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre – a purpose-built powerhouse named after pioneering Australian radio astronomer Dr Joe Pawsey and run by the Interactive Virtual Environments Centre (iVEC) – includes a supercomputer called Galaxy, dedicated to radio astronomy research. A key data challenge is finding ways in which the signal processing method can be split up and processed simultaneously, or ‘parallelised’, so that the full force of the supercomputing power can be used. The proximity of the signal processing experts at CIRA to iVEC means that researchers can continually prototype new ways of parallelising the data, with the goal being to achieve real-time analysis of data streaming in from the SKA.

Phillip English

Southern stars: the decade ahead for Australian astronomy

Extremely large optical telescopes, including the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which is due to be built in Chile in 2021, will allow studies of stars and galaxies at the dawn of the universe, and will peer at planets similar to ours around distant stars.

The Square Kilometer Array (SKA), which will be constructed in Australia and South Africa over the next several years, will observe the transformation in the young universe that followed the formation of the first generation of stars and test Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Large-scale surveys of stars and galaxies will help us discover how elements are produced and recycled through galaxies to enrich the universe. The revolutionary sensitivity of the GMT will also be used to understand the properties of ancient stars born at the dawn of the universe.

In the coming decade, astronomers will also learn how galaxies evolve across cosmic time through new coordinated Australian-led surveys using the Australian SKA Pathfinder, the Australian Astronomical Observatory and next-generation optical telescopes.

On the largest scales, dark matter and dark energy comprise more than 95% of the universe, and yet their nature is still unknown. Australian astronomers will use next-generation optical telescopes to measure the growth of the universe and probe the unknown nature of dark matter and dark energy.

The long-anticipated detection of gravitational waves will also open a window into the most extreme environments in the universe. The hope is that gravitational waves generated by the collision of black holes will help us better understand the behavior of matter and gravity at extreme densities.

Closer to home, the processes by which interstellar gas is turned into stars and solar systems are core to understanding our very existence. By combining theoretical simulations with observations from the Australia Telescope Compact Array and the GMT, Australian astronomers will discover how stars and planets form.

And this far-reaching knowledge will inform new theoretical models to achieve an unprecedented understanding of the universe around us.


Australia’s role

These are some of the exciting projects highlighted in the latest decadal plan for Australian astronomy, which was launched at Parliament House on Wednesday August 12.

Over the past decade, Australian astronomers have achieved a range of major breakthroughs in optical and radio astronomy and in theoretical astrophysics.

Star trails above one of Australia’s great telescopes at Siding Spring Observatory. Australian Astronomical Observatory/David Malin
Star trails above one of Australia’s great telescopes at Siding Spring Observatory. Australian Astronomical Observatory/David Malin

Australian astronomers have precisely measured the properties of stars, galaxies and of the universe, significantly advancing our understanding of the cosmos. The mass, geometry, and expansion of the universe have been measured to exquisite accuracy using giant surveys of galaxies and exploding stars. Planetary astronomy has undergone a revolution, with the number of planets discovered around other stars now counted in the thousands.

In forming a strategy for the future, Australia in the Era of Global Astronomy assesses these and other scientific successes, as well as the evolution of Australian astronomy including it’s broader societal roles.

Astronomy is traditionally a vehicle for attracting students into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The report also highlights expanding the use of astronomy to help improve the standard of science education in schools through teacher-training programs.

Training aimed at improving the “transferrable” skills of graduate and postgraduate astronomy students will also help Australia improve its capacity for innovation.


Look far

The Australian astronomy community has greatly increased its capacity in training of higher-degree students and early-career researchers. However, Australian astronomy must address the low level of female participation among its workforce, which has remained at 20% over the past decade.

The past decade has seen a large rise in Australian scientific impact from international facilities. This move represents a watershed in Australian astronomical history and must be strategically managed to maintain Australia’s pre-eminent role as an astronomical nation.

The engagement of industry will become increasingly important in the coming decade as the focus of the scientific community moves from Australian-based facilities, which have often been designed and built domestically, towards new global mega-projects such as the SKA.

While a decade is an appropriate timescale on which to revisit strategic planning across the community, the vision outlined in the plan looked beyond the past decade, recommending far-reaching investments in multi-decade global projects such as the GMT and the SKA.

These recent long-term investments will come to fruition in the coming decade, positioning Australia to continue as a global astronomy leader in the future.

This article was first published by The Conversation on 24 August 2015. Read the original article here.