Just three kilometres in diameter, asteroid 1986DA is a fairly tiny affair by astronomical standards. Yet it contains astonishing wealth. Using radar, astronomers have discovered 1986DA is mainly made up of iron and nickel.
“Essentially, it is a ball of naturally occurring stainless steel,” says Serkan Saydam, a UNSW expert on the mining of off-Earth objects.
Asteroid 1986DA is also estimated to contain more than 10,000 tonnes of gold and 100,000 tonnes of platinum.
The prospect of such mineral riches excites some entrepreneurs. These visionaries picture a fleet of robot spaceships crossing the Solar System to mine its interplanetary resources. This would also open worlds like the Moon and Mars to human colonisation.
With its vast mining experience, Australia is keen to ensure it is in the vanguard of these operations. Hence the appointment of Saydam as an associate professor of mining at UNSW, where he is putting together a small team of off-Earth mining experts. The work of Saydam’s honours student Georgia Craig on asteroid 1986DA highlights the importance of the careful planning that will be needed in future – and the problems that lie ahead.
Named after the year in which it was discovered, asteroid 1986DA orbits the Sun 75 million kilometres from Earth and is rated by the International Astronomical Union as a Near Earth Object, or NEO. But calculations by Saydam show that 1986DA is still too remote to be mined economically. On the other hand, his research suggests that if the asteroid were half its current distance from Earth, it could be viable to exploit.
That is good news because there are about two million other near-Earth asteroids orbiting the Sun. If we can find a better-placed candidate, it could become a target for mining operations. Hence the activities of companies like Planetary Resources (see ‘Frontier horizon’, above) which is preparing to carry out detailed surveys of NEOs to find one best suited for mining operations.
Asteroids like 1986DA are not the only targets for future missions. Other types of asteroids contain far less mineral wealth, but much more water. That could be crucial, says Saydam. “Water will be our prime source of fuel in space, and finding sources will be a priority. Hydrolysis of water produces hydrogen and oxygen, which can be burned together as fuel, and used in space shuttles and/or satellites. To put it bluntly: water is going to be the currency of space.”
Worlds like Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has a vast ocean below its frozen surface, and Saturn’s tiny Enceladus, which vents water into space, would be good targets but are too remote.
“We will have to find water much nearer to home, and given that we have to start somewhere, Mars is the logical place to begin our hunt for water on another world,” says Sophia Casanova, a geologist and PhD candidate who is now studying off-Earth mining at UNSW. “Finding and extracting water will be crucial for setting up colonies there.”
The trouble is that, while the poles of Mars have ice, they are too cold and inhospitable to provide homes for early colonists. By contrast, Mars’s equatorial region is warmer and more amenable but lacks water – at least on the surface. “That means we will have to seek it underground,” says Casanova, whose research is now focused on finding ways to pinpoint rich deposits of clays and hydrate deposits at lower latitudes on Mars. “There could be some kind of artesian wells, but we have no evidence of their existence as yet. So we will probably have to use hydrate minerals.”
But how can we extract water from rocks? Casanova explains: “You could put your minerals in a chamber and heat them to extract the water. Alternatively, you could use microwave generators that heat the underground to break up the rocks and release the water that way.”
At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Saydam’s team has developed models to evaluate multiple off-Earth mining scenarios.
Another practical problem concerns the use of seismic detectors. On Earth, a charge is set off and seismic waves that bounce off subterranean deposits reveal their presence. But as a tool for exploring other worlds, the technique is poorly developed. “Some seismic measurements were taken of the Moon by Apollo astronauts, and that’s about it,” says Michael Dello-Iacovo, a former geophysicist and now a PhD candidate at UNSW. “An early Mars lander was designed to do that but crashed. Now the Mars InSight Mission is being prepared to carry out seismic studies but will not be launched until 2018.”
Seismic waves may behave very differently on asteroids or other planets, says Dello-Iacovo. “There will be no atmosphere, and virtually no gravity, and we have no idea how that will affect seismic wave behaviours. My research is aimed at tackling that problem,” adds Dello-Iacovo, who is spending a year at JPL working on methods for improving our understanding of asteroid interiors.
“We still don’t know if asteroids have solid cores or are just piles of rubble held together loosely,” Dello-Iacovo says. “If the latter, they might break apart if only a small force is applied to them during a mining operation.”
A host of ethical and legal issues also need to be overcome, says Saydam. “What treaties are we going to have to set up to exploit space? And what would happen if we suddenly turned a rare metal like platinum into a commonplace one by bringing huge chunks back to Earth? We could trigger a crash in international metal markets.
“On the other hand, off-Earth mining has the potential to trigger great expansion in the global economy and we must make sure that Australia can influence that through its research capabilities. We also need to make sure we have trained manpower to take advantage of this great adventure.”
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$600,000 to date from NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, and theoretically could send wafer sats at one-quarter the speed of light – 160 million km an hour – using photonic propulsion. This relies on a laser beam to ‘push’ a incredibly small, thin-sail-like object through space. While it may seem a long shot for passenger travel, the system also has other applications in defence of the Earth from asteroids, comets and other near-earth objects, as well as the exploration of the nearby universe.
The Mars One project already has 100 hopeful astronauts selected for its planned one-way trip – out of 202,586 applicants. The project is still at ‘Phase A’ – early concept stage – in terms of actually getting there, but makes the list of the top 5 ways to get to Mars due to the large amount of interest: it has raised US$ 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.
NASA’s Women in STEM featured image above: Anita Sengupta and Donn Liddle stand with a subscale test model of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and its parachute in the low-speed wind tunnel at Texas A&M University. The Orion spacecraft is being designed to take humans farther into space than ever before. Credit: NASA/James Blair
It’s not often that the lead characters in a blockbuster film have careers as particle physicists and nuclear engineers – and even less often that those roles are played by women. But the new “Ghostbusters” film, which features an all-female team of scientists and engineers, busts not just ghosts, but also some of the tropes about what it means to work in science, technology, engineering and maths. It’s an idea that has scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) excited about how it might inspire the next generation.
So if they don’t spend their days bustin’ ghosts, what do JPL’s “Ghostbusters” do? Here are the stories of three of NASA’s women in science and engineering at JPL whose jobs, much like their “Ghostbusters” counterparts’, are to explore new realms, battle invisible forces and explain the mysteries around us.
Meet NASA’s Women in STEM
The Leader: Anita Sengupta
Project Manager, Cold Atom Laboratory
What she does:
In a team of professional ghostbusters, Anita Sengupta would most certainly be the enthusiastic and multi-talented leader. She’s already taken on roles developing launch vehicles, the parachute that famously helped land the Mars rover Curiosity, and deep-space propulsion systems for missions to comets and asteroids.
NASA’s Women in STEM featured video above: Sengupta and other members of the entry, descent and landing team for NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity discuss the nail-biting details of the August 2012 landing.
Most recently, she’s carved out a niche as the project manager for an atomic physics mission, called the Cold Atom Laboratory, or CAL.
Since the mission was proposed in 2012, Sengupta has been leading a team of engineers and atomic physicists in developing an instrument that can see the unseen. Their mission is to create an ultra-cold quantum gas called a Bose-Einstein condensate, which is a state of matter that forms only at just above absolute zero. At such low temperatures, matter takes on unique properties that seemingly defy the laws of thermodynamics.
To achieve the feat, the team’s device will be installed on the International Space Station in July 2017, where the microgravity of space will keep the Bose-Einstein condensate suspended long enough for scientists to get a look at how it behaves. Observing this behaviour could lead to groundbreaking discoveries, not least of which is a better understanding of how complexity arises in the universe. The facility could also provide new insights into gravity, super fluidity and dark-matter detection.
“We are opening the doorway into a new quantum realm, so we actually don’t know what we’re going to see,” says Sengupta. “That’s what’s so exciting. It’s about discovery.”
Sengupta’s career has been defined by her unique ability to take on challenges in new realms of science and engineering. It’s a trait that closely mimics the fictional character who inspired her as a child: Doctor Who.
“I saw the character of the doctor, who was this very eccentric, but loving, kind and brilliant person,” says Sengupta.
“I decided I would like to be a person who travels in space, who understands and can apply all fields of science and engineering. That motivated me to be involved in space exploration and, of course, get my doctorate.”
After considering majors in astrophysics, astronomy, biology and aerospace engineering, she settled on aerospace engineering because, she says, “I loved fixing things, and the idea of knowing how to build spacecraft just blew my mind.”
She doesn’t regret the decision. It seems she would have stretched the boundaries of whichever path she chose. Currently, she’s serving multiple leadership roles on the Cold Atom Laboratory team while also teaching astronautical engineering classes as an associate professor at the University of Southern California. And she still manages to carve out time for her other passions, which include driving sport motorcycles, snowboarding and flying planes.
On STEM in pop culture:
“It’s important for young people to understand that to be an intellectual or a scientist does not necessarily correspond to being socially awkward or geeky,” says Sengupta. “You have all varieties of people.”
“A lot of people at JPL are musicians or athletes or I’m a motorcyclist. There are people who have these hobbies and interests outside of doing something traditionally nerdy, so it’s a disservice to STEM to paint people in any particular light.”
The Engineer: Luz Maria Martinez Sierra
Technologist, Natural Space Environments
What she does:
As a nuclear engineer, Luz Maria Martinez Sierra has never built a ghost-bustin’ proton gun, but she does design defences against invisible forces. In her case, it’s protecting spacecraft from the intense radiation around planets like Jupiter.
“Space is a very hostile environment, and there are a lot of particles and radiation that can be very dangerous to the spacecraft,” says Martinez Sierra. “It’s very important to make sure everything is shielded accordingly, so we run all these simulations to determine, ‘Ok, you will need to protect this and you need to make sure this survives by putting it behind the solar panels.’”
NASA’s Women in STEM featured video above: Part of Martinez Sierra’s work is designing radiation defense systems for spacecraft like the one created for the Juno mission shown in the animation above. Juno arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016 and will fly closer to the planet – and its intense radiation – than ever before. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
In addition to shielding spacecraft against radiation, she designs devices that can analyse it to reveal hidden details about planets, moons and other bodies. By looking at the radiation signatures of these bodies, scientists can better understand what they’re made of and whether they might be home to, for example, the ingredients for life.
To the unacquainted, a career in nuclear engineering might seem oddly specific, but Martinez Sierra is quick to point out just how many applications it has, even just at NASA. Nuclear engineers might design systems to protect astronauts venturing to places like Mars, build instruments to study the sun and other stars, or work with spacecraft powered by radioactive materials.
For her part, the career path evolved through a love of physics that traces back to high school in her native Colombia.
“I always loved science, even at a young age,” says Martinez Sierra. “And when I took physics in high school, it just clicked. I loved how everything could be described by physics.”
She started attending local astronomy events and later earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering physics. In 2014, she was accepted into an internship with the laboratory’s Maximizing Student Potential in STEM program, which “taught me how to be part of a working environment, solving problems with a team and making sure that I belonged in this field,” she says.
“I see myself in them,” says Martinez Sierra of the students she mentored during the program.
“I was lost. I didn’t know what I wanted to study or what I wanted to do in my career or how you go from being in college to being a professional. You don’t see that connection easily. It’s important to help students realise it’s not just magic. You have to pursue it. You have to be proactive.”
That she is. On top of her full-time job and serving as an occasional mentor for students, Martinez Sierra is also earning her doctorate in nuclear engineering.
On STEM in pop culture:
“There are so many different types of engineers and scientists, even at JPL,” says Martinez Sierra. “But they’re always portrayed as the same person in movies and TV shows. I like how in the new ‘Ghostbusters’ movie, the characters are portrayed as these cool people. They’re not boring. They get to play with cool toys and make cool things.”
The Scientist: Jean Dickey
Scientist, Sea Level and Ice
What she does:
While the applications have evolved over her 36-year career at JPL, Jean Dickey’s specialty has always been explaining the mysteries that surround us. Her research focuses on the forces and processes that affect our home planet – everything from Earth’s gravity to changes in length-of-day to its evolving climate. She has published more than 70 papers, which include findings of a possible molten core on the moon and a method for predicting the variations in Earth’s rotation.
“Right now, I’m looking at changes in sea-level rise using data from the Jason and GRACE Earth satellites. There are pockets of warm ocean that explain why Earth’s sea-surface temperature was increasing at a lower rate,” says Dickey, referring to a previously unexplained hiatus in the otherwise strong uptick in surface air temperature. “It’s because the heat was going down deep in the ocean and was not accounted for.”
Data streams in from Earth satellites, airborne missions, and on-the-ground observations, and Dickey’s job is to make sense of it all. It’s a crucial part of understanding what’s happening on our home planet – and beyond.
Inspired early on by the success of the Sputnik satellite and the ensuing Space Race, and equipped with an affinity for maths and science, Dickey was the only one of six siblings to study science. When she graduated from Rutgers University in 1976 with a doctorate in physics, she was well accustomed to being the only woman in her classes and on research teams, but she never let that fact stop her.
She chose to specialise in high-energy particle physics, because as she describes it, “it was finding the essence, the basic building blocks of the universe. The quirks, colours and flavours.”
As a postdoc at Caltech, Dickey analysed data from particle experiments that were performed at Fermilab, a particle accelerator just outside of Chicago. She studied the dynamics of particle collisions and interpreted the findings, which meant using specialised software to analyse enormous data sets.
After three years at Caltech, she took on a new role at JPL analysing a much different set of data, but one that was no less intriguing. By studying the round-trip travel time of lasers shot between observatories on Earth and reflectors left on the moon by the Apollo astronauts, Dickey made new discoveries about how the moon oscillates and the Earth rotates, and how small variations can have big impacts on weather, sea level and even space exploration.
It was a big change from particle physics, but Dickey was hooked.
“I was fascinated by Earth rotation and the processes ongoing here on Earth.”
Ever since, her research has revolved around the undulations, variations and wobbles that influence Earth’s climate, processes and its place in the solar system.
On STEM in pop culture:
“I like to see women in STEM portrayed as smart, caring people,” says Dickey. “I really dislike roles that show women as ‘space cadets,’ so to speak. I think we should be well represented in movies and in the culture.”
Featured image above: Charles W. Wessner is a distinguished scholar and research professor in Global Innovation Policy at Georgetown University, and director of the Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at the National Academies.
Innovation is recognised as a key to growing and maintaining a country’s competitive position in the global economy. Australian scientists produce top-quality research and punch above their weight in terms of peer-reviewed publications; however, Australia is much less successful in creating innovative products and processes based on research investment. If we want more innovation, university and government policies need to change.
Part of this change requires learning from the successes of other nations. Successful policy changes include increased support for universities and research centres, growing funding for competitively awarded applied research, sustained support for small businesses, and a focus on partnerships among government, industry and universities in bringing research ideas to market.
The USA is the land of free-market capitalism, but it is also an active entrepreneurial state. A highly effective US government initiative, for example, is the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which has been in existence for 25 years and was recently renewed by Congress.
Instrumental in this renewal was an assessment by the National Academy of Sciences, which found the SBIR program “sound in concept and effective in operation”.
The program provides highly competitive, phased innovation awards to small businesses and start-ups to develop products that meet agency mission objectives or provide social value. The awards range from US$150,000 to more than US$1 million. The grants are often linked to the procurement process, for example in the case of military acquisition and support. In other fields, such as health and energy, grants provide a means to push good ideas to market.
SBIR has a strong track record. In recent years, it garnered 20–25% of the top 100 R&D awards for the US economy as a whole, and helped agencies like NASA address specific needs such as instruments for exploring Mars. SBIR doesn’t replace venture capital, but rather augments it by de-risking ideas to the point where private investors can step forward. Reflecting its success in the USA, SBIR has been adopted by a number of other countries.
While SBIR is a success, it is not a panacea. Effective innovation policy is multidimensional, and a supportive policy framework that encourages universities to commercialise new products and processes is required. Policies that facilitate start-ups and encourage small to medium-sized businesses are also needed.
Governments need to invest in places where researchers and companies can meet, learn, cooperate and grow. For example, science and technology parks near universities, incubators, accelerator programs, and innovation awards that facilitate collaboration.
Adopting pro-innovation policies does not guarantee instant success – but not adopting them guarantees long-term stagnation.
Australia’s mining industry stands at a crossroads. This presents new opportunities for the industry, says one of the experts in the field: Dan Sullivan, CEO of METS Ignited, the new government-backed body charged with building the fortunes of one of the nation’s most important revenue earners – the mining equipment, technology and services industry (METS).
“Mining has to improve its productivity. The industry’s boom years are over,” says Sullivan. “But we have to make a choice about how we are going to do that. Either we find new reserves of high-grade ore or we invest in innovations that will make existing mines more productive.”
Sullivan says that if the first course of action is chosen, it will inevitably take the industry overseas. “In Australia, the easy-to-find resources have largely been discovered. If we want high-grade ores, we’ll have to go deep underground or to other mineral rich countries in Asia like Laos.” However, when mining companies go overseas they have to deal with issues of sovereignty and politics over which they have little control.
The alternative is to become much more efficient at locating, extracting and processing ores in Australia – but to do that the industry must innovate. Hence the creation of METS Ignited, one of six Industry Growth Centres set up by the Australian Government to improve the nation’s industrial competitiveness.
These Growth Centres are charged with facilitating better links between scientists and researchers; to harmonise regulations that control industry; to make better use of human capital – the workforce and management of companies; and to get better access to global supply chains. “These centres are led by industry, but are government-funded,” adds Sullivan, who served as Australia’s Consul-General in Lima and who worked for the Australian Trade Commission in Chile where he led a team that worked on developing business opportunities for Australia.
Launched in October 2015, METS Ignited is preparing a 10-year strategic plan to promote Australian mining innovation and support stronger collaboration between companies and research organisations. The plan should also ensure that Australian mining technology companies – the firms that build the sensors, drill heads, pipes, trucks and other machines that make mining possible – hold a strong position in global supply chains.
“The mining industry is on the cusp of a transformation, and where there is change there is opportunity,” says Sullivan.
During the early years of the 21st century, the Australian mining industry – fuelled by demands from China for our ore and minerals – went through an extraordinary boom.
Average incomes across the country rose substantially, while the boom triggered a large appreciation of the Australian dollar.
More importantly, Australia’s deposits of iron, gold and copper were aggressively mined.
The output of these mines has declined significantly since the boom, and operators now have to use 70% more energy because they have to dig deeper to access deposits.
Despite the extra effort, mine output has continued to decline. In 2000, goldmines produced 3 g of gold for each tonne of basic ore. By 2010, they produced under 2 g. “Productivity was already declining at the turn of the century,” says Sullivan. “The boom just masked it.”
Today Australia, which depends heavily on its mineral wealth, is expending more and more energy to dig up less and less iron, gold and other ores and minerals. Given the massive importance of mining to the Australian economy, this is cause for concern. The problem is that more than 80% of Australia’s mineral production comes from mines that are more than 30 years old, says Professor Richard Hillis, CEO of the Deep Exploration Technologies CRC (DET CRC). “We haven’t found new mines to develop – which is why we’re mining our old ones so severely.”
The situation is summed up by Elizabeth Lewis-Gray, Chair of METS Ignited: “The mining industry is facing challenges – deeper mines, lower grades, community opposition and more remote operations.” At the same time, there has been a relentless drive to cut costs.
“These challenges require solutions,” adds Lewis-Gray, who is also co-founder and chair of Gekko Systems, which specialises in designing and manufacturing mineral processing equipment.
One approach is to focus on exports of Australian mining technology, says Lewis-Gray. At present, this market is worth about $15 billion. The aim of the METS Growth Centre is to double the exports so they reach about $30 billion by 2030. “This is one of the reasons for branding the centre with a new METS Ignited Australia,” says Lewis-Gray.
What is needed, says Sullivan, are more sensors in mines, and more data, robotics and analysis of the total operation of finding, extracting, transporting and processing of minerals.
But this will require considerable investment. “The good news,” says Sullivan, “is that much technology already exists in other industries. If you look at the manufacturing or aerospace industries, materials and activities are sensed and analysed to maximise activity. The mining industry is just beginning to implement this sort of technology.”
Australia is ranked highly for its research in mining technology. Consider the example of the work of Hillis with DET CRC. It devised a system to simplify the lengthy process involved in cutting a rock core and sending it for analysis to an assay laboratory.
DET CRC’s researchers developed sensors that lie behind the drill bit and can analyse, in real time, the material that is being dug up, and assess if it contains worthwhile amounts of gold or copper. “It means you can stop drilling immediately if you find a deposit is worthless, without having to wait months for the assay report,” says Hillis. This is impressive, and gives an indication of the innovative quality of Australian R&D in mining technology.
Less auspicious, however, is Australia’s reputation for commercialisation. This a key factor to improve the industry focus and commercial rate of Australian mining innovation.
Sullivan points to the example of the Anglo-American mining corporation, which is holding open forums with NASA experts and advisers in advanced manufacturing and other industries to stimulate ideas. “A mine operating in a remote desert has a lot to learn from a NASA program placing robot vehicles on Mars,” he says.
Many mining innovations have already made it, of course. Caterpillar trucks are fitted with sensors that can tell when a driver is fatigued. Other devices can monitor tyre pressure, and can tell when a bucket is unbalanced because it has a huge rock inside it.
But not enough care is taken to study the data to create patterns revealing routes to further innovations. “The data is not being pooled and so cannot be optimised,” says Sullivan.
“It’s not rocket science. It’s really just a matter of getting the mining industry to aggregate the data it acquires so it can learn and go on to develop new products that will improve efficiency and cut costs.”
METS Ignited’s main challenge is finding a way to change the mining industry’s perception of itself as ‘a fast follower’; an industry that lets others experiment and take the risks before it then adopts the successful outcomes.
Such an approach means that, at its heart, the industry is reluctant to innovate. The function of METS Ignited is therefore going to involve helping the Australian mining sector make choices that will put it on the road to success.
“It’s a challenge, but it is certainly an achievable one,” says Sullivan.
When operational in 2024, the SKA will generate data rates in excess of the entire world’s internet traffic.
ICRAR used an international consortium of astronomers to conduct a survey with the Janksy-VLA telescope, employing AWS to process the data, and they are now trying to determine how the services will work with a larger system.
“Things are changing quickly – if you do something today, it might be different next week.”
Quinn says cloud systems assist international collaboration by providing all researchers with access to the same data and software. They’re also cost-effective, offering on-demand computing resources where researchers pay for what they use.
Dr Abigail Allwood is an earth science alumnus from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) who took her research to NASA – where she now works in planetary chemistry and astrobiology as the first woman and the first Australian to lead a project team for life on Mars.
This inspiring video explores Allwood’s return home, and her six-day tour travelling around Queensland sharing her Mars research to students and the public.
During her tour, Allwood participated in ten educational events, mostly based at QUT, including a panel discussion with esteemed journalist Robyn Williams from Radio National in Sydney.
“Space exploration is one of the greatest sources of inspiration for young minds.”
The themes of Allwood’s presentations cover how space can be a gateway fascination for young people, encouraging them into scientific enquiry. Her presentations also describe how doing an earth science degree led to her becoming an astrobiologist at NASA. And of course, her talks cover the possibility of finding life on Mars…
Allwood gave presentations to high school and research students, describing her atypical journey from studying geology in Australia to working on the Mars mission with NASA.
NASA has a plan. Not one, in this case, about spaceships and astronauts, but something far more ‘down to earth’: open data. The organisation’s Plan for Increasing Access to the Results of Scientific Research was first published in late 2014, laying out NASA’s commitment to open up its datasets for international reuse. Full implementation of the plan is set to be in place from October 2015.
The plan aims, in NASA’s words, to “ensure public access to publications and digital data sets arising from NASA research, development, and technology programs”.
Done properly, opening up complex data sets for public analysis and reuse can lead to new and exciting discoveries, sometimes by those with nothing more than a keen amateur interest (or perhaps obsession) with the topic.
NASA is fully aware of this potential. It says it wants to support researchers to make new findings based on its data, not just in the US but around the globe. As if to prove the point, NASA’s Data Stories website highlights a number of case studies of people reusing its datasets in original applications, such as a ‘Solar System Simulator’ created by Canadian website developer Martin Vezina.
NASA also knows it needs to show commitment to scientific integrity and the accuracy of its research data and wants to encourage others to do the same. So by publishing its own datasets, NASA’s team are setting a benchmark for researchers hoping to grab a slice of the organisation’s annual research investment – a whopping US$3 billion. A condition of funding those research contracts, outlined in the 2014 document, is that researchers must develop their own data management plans describing how they will provide access to their scientific data in digital format. One small step for open data, one giant leap for new scientific discovery?
“This plan will ‘ensure public access to publications and digital data sets arising from NASA research, development, and technology programs’.”
How public data is being reused: The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes
It measures how those attitudes change over time as well as how they compare with other societies, which helps researchers better understand how Australians think and feel about their lives. Similar surveys are run in other countries, meaning data from AuSSA also allows us to compare Australia with countries all over the world.
Access to the AuSSA data has allowed independent researchers to explore changes in social attitudes in Australia over time. For example, Andrew Norton (now at the Grattan Institute in Melbourne) has analysed AuSSA to examine changes in attitudes towards same sex relationships between 1984 and 2009, noting the major shifts in favour of same sex relationships during that period.
AuSSA is often used as a reference point for public policy debate. A number of media articles have been based on its findings, discussing topics as diverse as climate change, the welfare state and the kindness of Australians.
Similarly Australian Policy Online includes 18 different papers making use of AuSSA, including papers on perceptions of democracy, population growth, cultural identity and tax policy.
Greg Schmidt, Deputy Director of SSERVI and Director of international partnerships (left) and Yvonne Pendleton, Director of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) (middle), join Professor Phil Bland, Principal Investigator at Curtin University in Perth, Australia (right), in signing an international agreement to share scientific and technological expertise in exploration science. Photo Credit: D. Morrison/NASA
“Australia’s impressive proposal to SSERVI offers scientific and technological expertise in understanding Solar System origins and evolution, lunar science, meteoritics and small bodies, asteroid differentiation, planetary mission science and technology, regolith processes on asteroids and the Moon, advanced analytical techniques, fireball observations and orbital dynamics, and links with the exoplanet and stellar evolution astrophysical communities. We are eager to see the collaborative scientific discoveries that result from this partnership,” says Yvonne Pendleton, Director of SSERVI.
The proposal submitted by Principal InvestigatorProfessor Phil Bland (Curtin University in Perth) and Deputy Director Dr Marc Norman (Australian National University in Canberra) included colleagues from a number of institutions across the country and represented a wide breadth of expertise from Australia’s planetary science community. The proposal was selected for Affiliate Membership after it was determined that complementary research activities will help NASA achieve its goals for human exploration of the solar system.
“This is a special moment for Australia,” says Bland, from the Department of Applied Geology at the Curtin WA School of Mines.
“We are confident that this partnership will result in more great scientific discoveries in planetary science for both our our nations, as well as furthering the SSERVI goal of advancing basic and applied lunar and planetary science research and advancing human exploration of the solar system through scientific discovery.”
Curtin University Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Terry says the link with NASA was a fantastic opportunity for Curtin’s staff and students to engage with the global leader for space exploration.
“Given Curtin’s existing expertise in radio astronomy and involvement in the ground-breaking international Square Kilometre Array project, the partnership with NASA is a covetable attachment with many benefits,” says Terry.
“Our Australian partners have put together a compelling proposal that outlines multiple topics for potential collaborative research. We look forward to fruitful scientific collaborations, which will include the study of future potential mission concepts. This partnership will be important to NASA and its international partners successfully conducting the ambitious activities of exploring the solar system with robots and humans, and we look forward to a long and close partnership between our respective countries,” says Greg Schmidt, Deputy Director of SSERVI, who also directs international partnerships for the Institute.
“We look forward to fruitful scientific collaborations, which will include the study of future potential mission concepts. This partnership will be important to NASA and its international partners successfully conducting the ambitious activities of exploring the solar system with robots and humans, and we look forward to a long and close partnership between our respective countries.”
This article was first published by Curtin University on 30 July 2015. Read the article here.
Based and managed at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, SSERVI is a virtual institute that, together with international partnerships, brings researchers together in a collaborative virtual setting. The virtual institute model enables cross-team and interdisciplinary research that pushes forward the boundaries of science and exploration. SSERVI is funded by the Science Mission Directorate and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Find more information about SSERVI and selected member teams here.