PULSE@Parkes in Kagoshima

Kagoshima, a city of 605,000 people on the southern part of the island of Kyushu sits opposite Sakurajima, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. This was our first destination for the 2014 PULSE@Parkes in Japan tour.

Sakurajima partially obscured by an ash cloud from an eruption that morning.

Sakurajima partially obscured by an ash cloud from an eruption that morning.

Our hosts were Professor Handa and his students at Kagoshima University. On the trip from the airport to the city Sakuralima beclhed out a cloud of  volcanic ash rising high into the air – quite a welcome! This was soon matched by dinner, shabu-shabu in the local style with thinly sliced sliced pork instead of beef. Absolutely tasty! Over dinner we met with several of the students and Handa-san encouraged them to practise their English in conversations with us.

The 20m Iriki telescope, one of the four VERA dishes in Japan.

The 20m Iriki telescope, one of the four VERA dishes in Japan.

On Saturday we some of the students drove us out to the 20m VERA radio telescope at Iriki. This facility is one of four antennas scattered across Japan and operated by NAOJ for VLBI observations. On last year’s tour we spent a few days at another of the telescopes at Mizusawa in northern Honshu. The facility is in a lovely setting high up on a ridge, adjacent to the university’s farm with cows grazing and across the road from a golf course. Luckily the telescope was not in use for a short period so we were able to go up on the antenna and inside to view the radio receivers. Students at Kagoshima use the telescope to study masers in the galaxy.

On the hill behind the VERA antenna is a 1m infrared/optical telescope operated by the university, primarily for the study of Mira variable stars.

After our telescope tours it was back into Kagoshima for a lovely sushi lunch by the waterfront. Sakurajima had erupted again that morning and ash had fallen over the city, coating cars and signs in a thin black film. We then headed inland and south to the Chiran Peace Museum. The nearby airfield, the southernmost on Kyushu was the place from which 1,035 pilots took off on tokkō operations, better known outside Japan as kamikaze missions. The sombre, reflective displays seek to record the relics and materials associated with the pilots and “disseminate the message of peace and ensure the tragedy of war is never repeated again.”

Our final stop of the day saw us buried in hot black sands by the sea at a local spa. Quite an unusual experience but one extremely popular with people coming far and wide for it. Dinner back in Kagoshima was a delicious tonkotsu ramen.

Ryan_group2Kagoshima_7479

Sunday was the key day for out time in Kagoshima – the first of our PULSE@Parkes observing sessions. Twenty students from Kagoshima University, Kumamoto University, Tsurumaru High School and Kohan High School took part. An introductory talk about radio astronomy, Parkes and pulsars given by Rob Hollow and translated by Handa-san prepared the students to take control of the 64m Parkes radio telescope, the Dish. Dr Ryan Shannon then guided them through a two and a half hour observing run where each pair of students observed a few pulsars. They were then able to determine the distance to their pulsars using the online analysis module.

Ryan Shannon assisting two students from Kagoshima University select pulsars for their observation.

Ryan Shannon assisting two students from Kagoshima University select pulsars for their observation.

After the successful session we celebrated with another dinner, this time local seafood. Discussions ranged from jobs in Astronomy, Australia and where in Japan each of the students was from. Two of the students will be visiting Australia next year to work with some of our astronomers so it provided a handy chance to discuss what they should do and see.

The happy group at the end of a successful PULSE@Parkes observing session at Kagoshima University.

The happy group at the end of a successful PULSE@Parkes observing session at Kagoshima University.

On Monday Ryan gave a science talk on Cosmology with Pulsars for the undergraduate and post-graduate students at the university which generated a lot of questions. The Masters and PhD students are required to attend talks by visiting academics as part of their studies and it also extends their opportunity to listen to talks in English.

Dr Ryan Shannon giving a talk on pulsar science at Kagoshima University.

Dr Ryan Shannon giving a talk on pulsar science at Kagoshima University.

After a final farewell dinner, this time at a beef barbecue restaurant with another group of students we flew out the following day to Tokyo for more observing at NAOJ Mitaka on Wednesday. We loved out time in Kagoshima. Our hosts lavished us with hospitality and had a genuine enthusiasm for their region and astronomy. Hopefully we’ll be back soon!

PULSE@Parkes in Japan has been supported by the Australian Government through the Australia-Japan Foundation.

Australia-Japan Foundation

Australia-Japan Foundation


The Adventures of Rosetta and Philae

Artist's impression of the Philae lander on the surface of the comet. Image: ESA

Artist’s impression of the Philae lander on the surface of the comet. Image: ESA

The European Space Agency is set to make a daring attempt to land the Philae probe on the surface of an icy comet.

The giant antenna dishes of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex are supporting the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, relaying data that the refrigerator-sized Philae probe has commenced its descent to the unknown surface of Comet 67-P Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Nearly 450 million kilometres from Earth and travelling at 18 kilometres per second, the bizarre ice, dust and rock strewn surface of the 5 kilometre long, 10 billion tonne comet called Churyumov-Gerasimenko will be stage for one of the most daring landing attempts in the history of space exploration.

The Rosetta spacecraft drops off the Philae lander for a 7 hour descent towards the comet's surface. Image: ESA

The Rosetta spacecraft drops off the Philae lander for a 7 hour descent towards the comet’s surface. Image: ESA

After a 10-year journey, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft arrived at the comet (also known as Comet 67P) in August 2014. For the past several months Rosetta scientists have been using the spacecraft’s instruments to analyse and photograph the comet’s surface looking for a potential landing site. Several candidate locations were chosen but one, ‘Site J’ seemed to present the best chance for a successful touchdown of Rosetta’s ‘Philae’ probe on the comet’s unexplored surface.

Comet 67P Churyumov Gerasimenko is a relative newcomer to the inner solar system, possibly originating from the Oort Cloud. Image: ESA

Comet 67P Churyumov Gerasimenko is a relative newcomer to the inner solar system, possibly originating from the Oort Cloud. Image: ESA

Site J, now called Agilkia (after an island in the Nile River), however, only offers the instrument-laden Philae lander a 75% chance of a safe touchdown at 3.02am (AEDST) on Thursday 13th November. Low gravity, car-sized boulders, 30 metre cliffs, deep holes and an unknown surface composition are just some hazards that the unaided robotic probe will have to face.

Keeping an eye on events as they unfold will be the giant antenna dishes of NASA’s Deep Space Network and those of the European Space Agency, which have tracked the spacecraft throughout its 10 year adventure.

Deep Space Station 34 in Canberra is supporting the European Space Agency's daring comet mission. Image: NASA/JPL

Deep Space Station 34 in Canberra is supporting the European Space Agency’s daring comet mission. Image: NASA/JPL

At the CSIRO-managed, Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), Deep Space Station 34 (DSS34) will listen in on relayed signals from the Rosetta mothercraft as it releases the Philae probe on a 7 hour descent towards the comet’s surface. Along with ESA’s New Norcia antenna near Perth, separation of the two craft will be confirmed late Wednesday evening (12th November). DSS34 will provide ongoing back-up communication coverage between the Rosetta/Philae spacecraft and the anxious science team located at ESA’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

The path Philae will take to the comet's surface. Image: ESA

The path Philae will take to the comet’s surface. Image: ESA

As the Earth continues to turn and the spacecraft fall out of Australia’s view, the Canberra and New Norcia antennas will hand over to sister stations in Spain and Argentina for the last leg of the journey and the historic touchdown signal on Thursday morning (13th November).

Follow the adventures of Rosetta and Philae. Image: ESA

Follow the adventures of Rosetta and Philae. Image: ESA

The European Space Agency has been doing a remarkable job engaging the public in this great adventure. You can following along with the events of Rosetta and Philae’s great adventure on their mission blog. ESA is also broadcasting live coverage of the descent and landing. Updates also via Twitter – Rosetta | Philae


PULSE@Parkes in Japan 2014 Tour

Following the success of the 2013 tour our PULSE@Parkes team is heading back to Japan for another series of PULSE@Parkes sessions.

Dr Ryan Shannon with local students at Koriyama Space Park observing pulsars with the Parkes radio telescope.

Dr Ryan Shannon with local students at Koriyama Space Park observing pulsars with the Parkes radio telescope.

Thanks to a grant from the Australia-Japan Foundation PULSE@Parkes team members Rob Hollow and Dr Ryan Shannon be visiting four locations in Japan, 7 – 17 November, to run observing sessions with Japanese high school students. Ryan will also be presenting science talks about his work on pulsar astronomy whilst Rob will discuss CASS education and outreach programs. We’ll also be working closely with the graduate students at the universities we visit.

Ryan Shannon with post-graduate astronomy students at Yamagata University.

Ryan Shannon with post-graduate astronomy students at Yamagata University.

Our tour kicks off at Kagoshima University on the island of Kyushu. We then head to Tokyo to NAOJ Mitaka for another session. The second half of the tour sees us revisit Yamagata University for school sessions and a graduate masterclass. Our final session will be at Sendai Observatory, part of Tohoku University.

Students at NAOJ Mizusawa  in the 2013 tour.

Students at NAOJ Mizusawa in the 2013 tour.

You can follow our progress by checking back here for blog post updates. We will also be tweeting via our @PULSEatParkes account with the hashtag #PULSEJapan.

PULSE@Parkes in Japan has been supported by the Australian Government through the Australia-Japan Foundation.

Australia-Japan Foundation

Australia-Japan Foundation


“Our World Needs Space”

This week is World Space Week, celebrating “at the international level the contributions of space science and technology to the betterment of the human condition”. Ahead of this, last week saw over 3,400 members of the international space community gather in Toronto for the 65th International Astronautical Congress under the theme Our World Needs Space.

Toronto, host city for IAC 2014.

Toronto, host city for IAC 2014.

The large meeting drew together a diverse range of professionals, academics, students, industry and government officials. Numerous parallel sessions of talks and discussions covered topics ranging from commercialisation of space travel, space law, propulsion systems, navigation, education and much more. The impressive opening ceremony on the Monday morning included performances by Cirque du Soleil and a variety of Canadian musicians. Canadian astronaut and well-known twitter user Cmdr Chris Hadfield received a rock-star welcome when he arrived on the stage at the highlight of the ceremony.

Lockheed Martin's Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

Lockheed Martin’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

A large exhibition floor had displays from a diverse range of organisations and space industries from many different countries. Exhibits included a full-size inflatable model of Lockheed Martin’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and a mockup of the interior of Space-X’s Dragon Version 2 spacecraft complete with two of the stylish seats to try out.

Mockup of the Space X Dragon Version 2 Spacecraft interior

Mockup of the Space X Dragon Version 2 Spacecraft interior.

Australia was well represented with over 50 participants from many different organisations and a strong contingent of students. We were bidding for the right to host the 2017 IAC, with Adelaide as the venue. After a tense session of the International Astronautical Federation on the final day Adelaide was recommended as the host city for this event, ahead of contenders Bremen, Istanbul and Orlando.

Happy Australians celebrating Adelaide's selection as host city for the 107 IAC.

Happy Australians celebrating Adelaide’s selection as host city for the 107 IAC.

CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science staff Dr George Hobbs and Rob Hollow attended both the Congress and the International Space Education Board teacher forum held on the Saturday preceding the congress. They ran a successful hands-on PULSE@Parkes observing session for Canadian teachers in which the teachers directly controlled the famous 64m Parkes radio telescope to observe pulsars then analyse their data. Their presence at the forum was due the invitation and support of our friends at the Victorian Space Science Education Centre (VSSEC) who organised the entire teacher day.

Dr George Hobbs discussing pulsars with Canadian teachers at the PULSE@Parkes session.

Dr George Hobbs discussing pulsars with Canadian teachers at the PULSE@Parkes session.


Great night for a red Moon

Next Wednesday, 8 October, there’ll be a fabulous reason to stop what you’re doing, grab your camera and look up. In the early evening – in Australia – a total lunar eclipse will mean that the full Moon will appear to turn red.

This ‘blood moon’ will be the second total lunar eclipse for 2014 and it promises to be even better than the first. For most of us the Moon will be higher in the sky and so easier to see. And the whole eclipse will be visible (weather permitting) from eastern and central Australia; people in Western Australia will get to see most of it as well.

The full Moon, rusty red in colour, and dark sky

This great photo of the Moon in eclipse was taken from Sydney Observatory in 2007. Photo: Geoff Wyatt.

Why will the Moon appear red?
A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Sun, Earth and the Moon are in alignment, so that the Moon is in Earth’s shadow. But the Moon doesn’t fall into complete darkness.

“Due to the refraction of sunlight through the Earth’s atmosphere the Moon doesn’t appear totally dark, instead it looks red or orange – like the glow of a sunset,” says Rob Hollow, Education Officer with CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science.

When should I look up?
The whole eclipse will happen quite slowly, over a period of about 3 hours.

In eastern Australia the eclipse will start after sunset at 7:15pm AEST (8:15pm AEDT); in central Australia it will start at 6:45pm ACST (7:45pm ACDT).

It will take 1 hour and 10 minutes for the Earth’s shadow to completely cover the Moon. Once reached, this period of ‘totality’ will last for about an hour before the shadow starts to recede.

In Western Australia the Moon will rise partly in eclipse and totality will start just after sunset (6:25pm AWST).

While the best view of the eclipse will be from the Pacific Ocean and surrounding regions other parts of the world will also get to see it (take a look at timeanddate.com for locations and times).

“Lunar eclipses are safe to view and you don’t need any filters or safety equipment,” says Rob.

When will the next total lunar eclipse happen?
According to Sydney Observatory a total eclipse of the Moon is visible from Australia on average every 2.8 years, although the number of lunar eclipses in a year can range from none up to a maximum of three.

After 8 October, the next total lunar eclipse will take place on 4 April 2015.

So grab a seat, relax and enjoy the show.

In Australia, daylight saving time starts at 2am on Sunday 5 October 2014 in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.

UPDATE 9 October 2014: It was all clear skies for some and cloud for others. For those who did get to see the total eclipse it was an impressive sight indeed. Take a look at some of the lunar eclipse photos from across Australia and Asia on our News@CSIRO blog.

And if all the excitement surrounding this eclipse has left you wanting to know more, then take a look at this great lunar eclipse ‘explainer’ by Tanya Hill at The Conversation.


Mars Served Two New Spacecraft with Help from Aussie Dishes

UPDATE: 25 Sept.14 – NASA’s MAVEN and ISRO’s MOM spacecraft arrived successfully in orbit and have already been returning science from Mars. The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, as part of NASA’s Deep Space Network provided excellent command and telemetry services for both missions. Further updates on the missions can be found on their werbsites and Twitter feeds: MAVEN @MAVEN2Mars | MOM @MarsOrbiter

LISTENING: The deep space dishes of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. Image: Astro0

LISTENING: The deep space dishes of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. Image: Astro0

The giant antenna dishes of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex are set to receive the radio signals from two new spacecraft signalling their arrival in orbit above the red planet Mars. NASA’s MAVEN (Martian Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) spacecraft and the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) are due to arrive at Mars on Monday 22nd and Wednesday 24th September respectively. These two robotic explorers are set to turn their instruments on the Martian atmosphere to understand its composition and how it has changed over time. Getting spacecraft into orbit around Mars is never easy. Over the past 40 years, nearly two-thirds of the spacecraft that have attempted to get there have failed and few have succeeded on their first try. At the moment, NASA has the best track record and right now are operating four spacecraft either in orbit (Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) or on the surface with rovers (Opportunity and Curiosity). The European Space Agency has its own orbiter (Mars Express) currently collecting high resolution images and ground penetrating radar data. Each of these spacecraft have their unique science assignments: mapping, looking at the surface and subsurface environments, analysing rock and soil or studying the lower layers of the Martian atmosphere.

MAVEN: Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission. Image: NASA

MAVEN: Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission. Image: NASA

With MAVEN, NASA scientists want to understand changes that have happened to Mars as the sun stripped away most of its atmosphere, turning a planet once possibly habitable to microbial life into a cold and barren desert world. Previous missions to Mars have shown that the atmosphere and climate have changed over billions of years and found evidence of abundant liquid water on the surface in ancient times. Scientists want to know what happened to the water and where the planet’s thick atmosphere went. The MAVEN mission will study the nature of the red planet’s upper atmosphere, how solar activity contributes to atmospheric loss, and the role that escape of gas from the atmosphere to space has played through time. For the MOM spacecraft, ISRO’s goal is to demonstrate its launch systems, spacecraft-building and operations capabilities. As much a technology demonstrator as a science mission, MOM will showcase the technologies required for design, planning, management and operations of an interplanetary mission.

MARS NEEDS MOM: India's first spacecraft to visit the red planet. Image: ISRO

MARS NEEDS MOM: India’s first spacecraft to visit the red planet. Image: ISRO

MOM’s science goals are equally ambitious for a first time mission. Once in orbit it will explore Mars’ surface features, morphology, mineralogy and atmosphere using indigenous scientific instruments. One instrument, the Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM) will “sniff” the Martian atmosphere looking for signs of and concentrations of methane gas which can have both geological and biological origins. While studies by previous missions and Earth-based detectors have yielded ambiguous results, the detection of methane could suggest the presence of Martian microbes. For both of these missions to succeed, they first need to get into orbit around Mars. This is no easy task. One of the complexities for any mission is reliable communications to enable science teams to troubleshoot issues, relay commands and get their valuable science data back to Earth. This is the unique and high pressure role of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) – three tracking stations around the world which provide two-way radio contact for the dozens of robotic spacecraft exploring the Solar System and beyond. With a third DSN station in Spain, it will be the two tracking stations in Goldstone, California and the CSIRO-managed Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex that will provide the vital link to both MAVEN and MOM during their critical Mars orbit insertion (MOI) manoeuvres. Approaching Mars at over 11,000 kilometres per hour, each spacecraft will fire their engines for approximately 30 minutes, slowing down just enough to allow Mars’ gravity to capture them into orbit.

TRACKING: Deep Space Station 43 - 70 metres wide and 22-storeys high at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex Image: K.McDonnell

TRACKING: Deep Space Station 43 – 70 metres wide and 22-storeys high at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex Image: K.McDonnell

Canberra will be the Prime station for both MOIs relaying data back to the anxious scientists waiting at the mission control centres at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and at ISRO’s Telemetry Tracking and Command Network in Bangalore. Capturing these tiny signals and confirming that the spacecraft have successfully entered orbit will fall to the largest antenna dish in the southern hemisphere, Deep Space Station 43, which has been a workhorse for the DSN for over 40 years. It is a dish that has supported many great missions and the arrival of two new spacecraft at Mars this month just adds to its rich history. Along with her dedicated team of CSIRO engineers and technicians, and in hand with colleagues at the DSN station in the United States, MAVEN and MOM will be given the smoothest ride possible as they enter orbit above the dusty plains of Mars.

The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is managed on NASA’s behalf in Australia by CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science.


Alcohol points to something fundamental

A dark background with a bright, swirling galaxy in the centre of the image.

The Sculptor galaxy, imaged by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Australian astronomers Simon Ellingsen (University of Tasmania) and our own Shari Breen, and their international collaborators, have discovered the first class I methanol maser outside our own galaxy. Could this type of alcohol be used to test if fundamental constants really are constant?

Ever thought that alcohol had revealed to you some fundamental truth? It seems to have done that for a bunch of astronomers using CSIRO’s Compact Array telescope.

But they were studying the stuff, rather than drinking it. The alcohol was methanol, rather than the less-poisonous ethanol. And to cap it off, the good stuff was not in the fridge but rather less handy, in the Sculptor galaxy (NGC 253) 11.4 million light-years away.

Five white telescope dishes on a bright, sunny day

CSIRO’s Compact Array radio telescope. (Image: D. Smyth).

As the Compact Array is a radio telescope, you might guess—and you’d be right—that the astronomers found the methanol because it was glowing in radio waves.

The methanol molecules form what’s called a maser: the natural equivalent of a laser, but emitting radio waves rather than light. Under the right circumstances, the methanol molecules can be ‘fed’ with energy (from radiation, or pressure waves) passing through the gas they’re in, and re-emit this energy in a very concentrated form at a very specific wavelength.

There are two kinds, or classes, of methanol maser. Both can be found in gas clouds that are turning into stars. So-called ‘class II’ methanol masers sit right near the embryonic star: they get their energy from the radiation the star emits. ‘Class I’ methanol masers sit further away from the star, and are powered by the energy in colliding gas molecules.

The new methanol maser the astronomers have found is a class I maser, and it’s the very first one found in a galaxy other than our own.

Testing the Universe
So, what’s all that got to do with fundamental truths?

Physics is strewn with fundamental constants—numbers that, for our physical theories to work, we assume remain constant throughout time and space. Some of these numbers, the dimensionless ones, may be more fundamental than others, but we do assume that all of them are unchanging.

But what if they aren’t? Physicist Paul Dirac made that unsettling suggestion back in 1937 (specifically about the gravitational constant, G). Careful laboratory experiments made over many years haven’t found evidence for these numbers changing.

However, they also need to be tested in the Universe. Because light travels at a finite speed, looking out into space is also looking back in time (we see objects as they were when they emitted that light, which can be billions of years ago). So we should, in principle, be able to learn if some of these fundamental numbers have changed over long periods of time.

One of the fundamental numbers is μ (the Greek letter mu), which is the ratio of the mass of the proton to the mass of the electron. This ratio would be different from what it is in the laboratory if, for example, ‘scalar fields’ were responsible for ‘dark energy’.

It turns out that methanol is about 100 times more sensitive to changes in μ than other molecules we can observe readily in space.

The methanol maser emission found in NGC 253 was about ten times intrinsically brighter than the same kind of emission recently found coming from the centre of our own Galaxy. NGC 253 was targeted because it’s a galaxy that is very actively forming stars. If more star formation leads to more methanol maser emission, then we might be able to detect such emission from galaxies that existed and were forming their stars much earlier on in the Universe. In turn, that would give us a good chance to determine if μ has changed over time.

And if μ has changed over time? That would be a very big deal. If you changed the physical constants even slightly, life like us wouldn’t be possible.

Watch this space!

The original research paper on which this post is based was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters (Simon P. Ellingsen et al. 2014 ApJ 790 L28 http://stacks.iop.org/2041-8205/790/L28).


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