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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
The Women in Astronomy Chapter of the Astronomical Society of Australia is holding its annual workshop in Canberra this week. One of today’s highlights will be the official launch of The Pleiades Awards, a new initiative for astronomy organisations to monitor and improve the status of women.
Current Chair of the Women in Astronomy Chapter, our own Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith, explains…
Towards gender equity in Australian astronomy research institutes
Professional astronomy in Australia is male-dominated, with men constituting 76% of Members and 87% of Fellows of the Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA), our peak professional body. Although women make up an increasing proportion of astronomy PhD students in Australia, the system is haemorrhaging women as they rise above the Level B (Lecturer) stage of their careers.
I have sometimes heard this fact dismissed as ‘inevitable’, since it is predominantly women who (have the audacity to) possess the biological apparatus necessary for childbirth. This is a non-argument. In my view, a system that fails to accommodate highly skilled and talented scientists (regardless of gender) after they take on new responsibilities is spectacularly broken.
We know that childbirth is not the only reason for the gender disparity in our profession. Studies have shown that on the basis of identical job applications, women are judged as less competent and deserving of a lower starting salary. This phenomenon and its knock-on effects must be recognised and remedied through proactive measures.
It’s not all doom and gloom. In recent years there has been increasing acknowledgement of the very real obstacles facing women in our profession. This awareness has been driven by the efforts of organisations such as the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women and the Astronomical Society of Australia’s Chapter for Women in Astronomy, of which I am the current Chair.
The ASA Chapter for Women in Astronomy
The ASA Chapter for Women in Astronomy was formed in 2009 with two primary aims: (i) to monitor the status of women in our professional community and (ii) to encourage appropriate representation of women in positions of seniority and influence. We provide networking, mentoring and professional development opportunities for our members through an annual ‘Women in Astronomy Workshop’. Now in its fourth year, this meeting brings together approximately 80-100 astronomers from around Australia to take part in facilitated discussions, professional coaching and networking. It is a popular event, which provides a supportive and empowering environment to discuss and plan actions towards gender equity.
This year’s workshop, entitled ‘We are all made of stars’, is taking part this week – on 28 and 29 August – at the Australian National University. This year’s focus will be to identify positive changes that will establish equity and diversity within Australian astronomy.
Participants will take part in practical sessions including association tests on race and gender, discussion sessions on causal or ‘normalised’ prejudices and role-playing of tricky situations. Guest speakers include Elizabeth Broderick: the Australian Human Rights Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Cordelia Fine: academic and author of “Delusions of Gender” and Senator the Hon. Michaelia Cash: Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women.
A new national initiative: The Pleiades Awards
At this year’s workshop, we are also launching a national gender diversity initiative called The Pleiades Awards. Aimed at astronomy departments and research institutes in Australia, the Pleiades Awards provide a framework for organisations to monitor and improve the status of women.
Following the nomenclature of the U.K.’s Athena SWAN gender equity scheme, there are three levels of Pleiades Award: Gold, Silver and Bronze. Full details are available on our website.
Bronze is the entry-level award for organisations that have examined their current conduct against the aims of the Chapter, developed a credible plan of action towards states best practices and demonstrated commitment to implement changes consistently across the organisation including a clear line of responsibility.
The Silver award will be given to organisations with a sustained record, of at least two years, monitoring the conduct of the organisation and working towards best practices. The Silver level also recognises leadership in promoting examples of best practice to other organisations in the astronomy community.
The Gold Pleiades award will recognise a truly outstanding and sustained commitment to best practice in relation to gender equity. Attaining this level is very challenging and a Gold Pleiades is an exceptional accomplishment.
There is no limit to the number of awards that can be given per year and our aim is that every astronomy research institute in Australia will begin to work through the award levels this year.
Is this really needed?
Many of Australia’s science leaders are aware of the problems in our system and are committed to tackling them. But it is still all too common for our Chapter to receive first-hand accounts of bullying, harassment and marginalisation. This will only stop when organisations are held accountable for the work environment and culture they generate (or tolerate).
I have heard accounts of senior scientists publicly diminishing efforts by our members to improve their workplace environments. I speak to professional, smart, confident women who feel alone and disempowered, simply because the majority of good people are either unaware or are simply doing nothing to support them.
The Pleiades Awards scheme is a step towards unifying the efforts of our Chapter nationwide. For this reason, I hope that the Pleiades Awards is embraced universally so that we are able to provide a practical and supportive framework for organisations to channel their efforts and towards creating sustainably better workplaces.
Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith is a research astronomer at CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division in Sydney, Australia. She is the Project Scientist for the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope, which is located in remote Western Australia. Her research spans several areas of Galactic astrophysics including the birth and death of stars and astrophysical masers. Lisa is involved in many aspects of the ASKAP project including commissioning, science readiness, science surveys and spectrum management. She also takes part in international science activities for the Square Kilometre Array including a science advisory role to the Australian Government. Lisa is passionate about communicating her science and is a keen advocate for astronomy in the media. She regularly presents around the world and takes part in educational outreach work in schools, including long-term partnerships in metropolitan Sydney and a remote aboriginal community in Western Australia. As Chair of the Astronomical Society of Australia’s Chapter for Women in Astronomy, Lisa is a strong advocate for best practices in astronomy workplaces.
This blog post was originally published by Women in Science Australia.
National Science Week has just wrapped up for another year. One of the week’s final events was a special astronomy weekend at Uluru, in the heart of Australia’s red centre, that brought together some of Australia’s leading astronomers with people keen to learn more about our Universe.
Here, our own Professor Ray Norris gives his account of this special weekend with the stars…
For the closing weekend of National Science Week (22-24 August 2014), I was lucky enough to be part of a brilliant astronomical outreach event at Uluru (Ayers Rock).
It had been widely advertised and so the resort was packed — not just with amateur astronomers but with families and individuals who wanted to combine a trip to this national icon with a taste of what cutting-edge science has to offer.
For three days my colleagues and I gave talks and participated in discussions, gave guided tours of the sky, and just sat and chatted with people over the odd beer or two.
Professor Steven Tingay from Curtin University got schoolkids and grandfathers working together to build a real working radio telescope.
Professor Bryan Gaensler from Sydney University showed how the extreme Universe can stretch our minds, while Professor Rachel Webster from Melbourne University exposed the dark side of the Universe.
And I described the depth and complexity of ancient Aboriginal astronomical knowledge, which has not only provided Aboriginal people with calendars and navigation, but shows how Aboriginal people thousands of years ago figured out how the sky works.
The highlight for me was probably the panel sessions, in which members of the audience would toss us some curly question about the Universe, invariably resulting in an argument between the astronomers on stage, brilliantly hosted by science celebrity Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. “What’s the next Big Discovery?” “Dark Matter!”, “Dark Energy”, “No it’s something we haven’t thought of yet!”
Or maybe the highlight was when someone over dinner asked me about the expansion of the Universe, something that had puzzled them for years: “Where’s the centre of the expansion? What’s it expanding in to?”. Questions like these are bread and butter to most astrophysicists, and it’s incredibly satisfying to work through that knowledge in a one-on-one discussion with someone with a thirst for understanding.
Or was the highlight standing under the ink-black sky, pointing out the Aboriginal ‘Emu in the Sky’ constellation, hearing the unprompted gasps of amazement as people suddenly ‘got it’ for the first time. No, don’t look at the stars, look at the dark spaces in between, and it’s not that big, it’s T-H-A-T big!
Or perhaps the highlight was when I was describing my own research on the evolution of galaxies, and I suddenly saw it from the perspective of the audience.
In our work-life as astrophysicists, we tend to immerse ourselves so deeply into our subject, so focused on the details, that we sometimes lose sight of why this is important, how privileged we are to be employed to tackle some of the biggest questions in the history of the Universe. One of the things I love about outreach is that it reminds me why I do astrophysics!
There were many other highlights, too numerous to list here.
Transplanting cutting-edge astrophysical knowledge into a magical place with an incredible landscape and stunning skies, immersed in an Indigenous tradition going back thousands of years, was a brilliant coup. It resulted from a partnership between CAASTRO (the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics), with which the astronomers are affiliated, and Voyages, the company that manages Ayers Rock Resort.
As we caught our plane back to Sydney, I found out from my fellow passengers, who had been in the audience, that they had enjoyed it as much as me! But I wonder if they realised that I learned as much from the weekend as they had?
Swirling dust and star-forming gas, solar explosions and dancing dishes. These are among the eight photographs and videos that have won top honours in this year’s David Malin Awards, Australia’s premier astrophotography competition.
Renowned photographer Dr David Malin judged the awards, which are run by the Central West Astronomical Society.
“The winning entries show both technical skill and an ability to capture the beauty of the sky in a visually pleasing way,” said John Sarkissian, CSIRO Operations Scientist at Parkes radio telescope – ‘the Dish’ – and organiser of the awards.
“More than 200 entries were submitted this year. With such stiff competition, to have received any one of these awards is a great honour. Congratulations to all of the finalists and winners.”
And the winners are…
Winning photographs and videos in the David Malin Awards 2014. Click on the images in the gallery above for larger versions.
Overall winner and winner Deep Sky category: ‘Dust and Gas’, Paul Haese
The Deep Sky category is for photographs taken with a telescope. Paul Haese’s winning entry shows the Great Nebula in the constellation Orion, a star-forming region located 1,300 light years from Earth. The nebula is 24 light years across and Paul’s image shows all the dust and gas in the region.
“This is the best true-colour image of the Orion nebula I have seen for a long time,” said David Malin. “It has everything. The basics are well covered by a realistic-looking colour balance and the dynamic range, which makes the heart of the nebula look brighter than everything else, which is as it should be. But the other things are right too, including the delicate, faint nebulosity that fills the field and the careful handling of the bright stars, which don’t dominate the image. Fantastic!”
Winner Wide-Field category: ‘Dusty Heart of the Milky Way’, Phil Hart
“This is a two-frame mosaic of the bright and dusty central regions of our Milky Way Galaxy. The view is toward the centre of the Galaxy in the direction of the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius,” said Phil Hart. The Wide-Field category is for photographs taken without the use of a telescope.
Winner Open Theme – The Moon category: ‘Marine Moonset’, Phil Hart
This year’s open-themed section sought innovative and imaginative images of the Moon, in any of its phases and guises. Phil Hart’s winning entry captured the full Moon as it set over the shipping channel in Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay, as seen from St Kilda an hour before sunrise on 14 May 2014.
Winner Solar System – Hires category: ‘Mars 2014’, Stefan Buda
The Solar System – Hires category is for high-resolution images involving subjects that appear smaller than the diameter of the full Moon.
“Every two years and two months, the Earth and Mars approach each other. This image represents a record of the appearance of the planet Mars between January and May 2014,” said Stefan Buda of his winning entry.
Winner Solar System – Wide-Field category: ‘Prominence’, Paul Haese
The Solar System – Wide-Field category is for wide-field shots of scenes greater than the diameter of the full Moon.
“The Sun is a dynamic and active star,” said Paul Haese. “From time to time we see massive prominences that are released from the Sun’s surface. This shot shows a massive prominence that was released on 8 October 2013.”
Winner Photo Editor’s Choice: ‘The Horsehead and Flame Nebulas’, David Fitz-Henry
Steve Grove, Photographic Manager with News Corporation Australia, chose David Fitz-Henry’s shortlisted image for this year’s ‘Photo Editor’s Choice’ award.
The Horsehead Nebula is a dark nebula in the constellation of Orion. It lies approximately 1,500 light years from Earth. The Flame Nebula lies to the lower-left of the image and is part of the same molecular cloud complex.
Winner Animated Sequences – Scientific category: ‘Shine On’, Peter Ward
Scientific animations are short sequences that have an obvious scientific purpose. These sequences usually require great skill and/or perseverance in first obtaining the data and then in collating them to reveal an aspect of scientific merit.
Peter Ward’s winning entry is a time-lapse sequence of the solar chromosphere. Individual sequences were taken over several weeks, around Easter 2014.
Winner Animated Sequences – Aesthetic category: ‘Dance of the Dishes’, Alex Cherney
Aesthetic sequences are animations that are visually pleasing in some way, where the use of appropriate music and editing is encouraged, but always with a strong astronomical component.
“Very smoothly edited and professional-looking sequences of the [CSIRO] Australia Telescope Compact Array telescopes at work, and I especially like the fish-eye sequences of the dishes nodding at each other as they scan the Milky Way. Great stuff,” commented David Malin.
David Malin Awards 2014 on show
All of the shortlisted and winning entries are included in a year-long exhibition at the CSIRO Parkes Observatory’s Visitors Centre from 20 July 2014. A second touring exhibition, organised by the Powerhouse Museum, will travel to selected venues beginning with Sydney Observatory in August 2014.
The David Malin Awards are run as part of the Central West Astronomical Society’s annual AstroFest. They are supported in 2014 by CSIRO, Canon Australia, Parkes Shire Council and Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.
If you liked these photos, take a look at our previous post on the shortlisted entries in this year’s awards: ‘Catching stars’.
Entry to the Parkes Observatory Visitors Centre is free; it’s open daily from 8.30am to 4.15pm. For more information see www.csiro.au/parkes.
By Glen Nagle
CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science
It’s funny the things you remember from your childhood. For me, my two outstanding memories are of those first steps on the Moon and a bright orange carpet.
This week marks the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the surface of the Moon. At 12.56pm on the 21st of July 1969, an estimated 600 million people around the world were transfixed to their black and white television sets as astronaut Neil Armstrong placed his booted foot on the grey lunar soil. The grainy images relayed around the world from dish-like antennas in Australia.
I was one of those 600 million viewers, then 7 years old, but today working as the visitor centre manager at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) and the CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope better known to most people as – The Dish.
I still remember that moment as if it happened yesterday. Our school in the southern suburbs of Sydney didn’t have a television set and I was determined to watch the astronauts walking on the Moon, so I nagged my parents to let me stay home and see it. They agreed to let me be ‘home alone’ as long as I didn’t move from this bright orange carpet mat they had placed in front of the TV along with some milk and biscuits.
Needless to say, I never moved. I sat glued to the screen watching those amazing images. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that 45 years later I could sit in my office in either Canberra or Parkes and look out the window to the very dishes that brought those images into my lounge room.
The original dish from the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station in the Australian Capital Territory (later relocated to CDSCC), captured the first 8½ minutes of the moonwalk and beamed that ‘one small step’ around the world. The Parkes dish came in at that point and handled the last two hours of the astronaut’s activity on the Moon’s surface.
It was certainly a magic carpet ride to that young boy all those years ago. It was a moment that set me on a path to loving science and sharing that passion with other people. I’ve been fortunate to have met a number of the astronauts who walked on the Moon and many of the people behind the scenes at the tracking stations that made that mission and those TV images possible.
I ache though for the generation growing up now who never experienced that moment and hope that one day they get to take their own magic carpet ride, be it orange or any other colour.
That next ‘giant leap’ will probably be as we take our first steps on the surface of Mars sometime in the 2030s. I hope that a memory like that will take them from their childhoods and on a journey to places that they never thought possible.
The Parkes Radio Telescope’s visitor centre is currently running an exhibition of photos from the Apollo missions that will run until the end of September 2014.
Entry to the centre is free and is open 7 days, 8.30am to 4.15pm.
The stars look so vibrant that you could just reach out, catch them and put them in your pocket. But you don’t even have to step outside to see them.
They’ve already been captured by the talented photographers whose entries have been shortlisted in the ‘wide-field’ category of this year’s David Malin Awards, Australia’s premier astrophotography competition.
Shortlisted images in the ‘wide-field’ category of the 2014 David Malin Awards. Click on the photos in the gallery above for larger versions.
And these are just a taste of the amazing images and videos that have been shortlisted this year. Other categories include: theme – “the Moon”, Solar System, deep sky, and animated sequences. Head on over to the awards website to take a look at all the images and videos on the 2014 David Malin Awards shortlist.
Judging is now complete and all the winners will be announced at a special ceremony on Saturday 19 July 2014.
The David Malin Awards are run by the Central West Astronomical Society and judged by renowned astrophotographer Dr David Malin. (The Central West of NSW is the region in which our Parkes radio telescope – ‘The Dish’ – is located.) They’re run as part of the Central West Astronomical Society’s annual AstroFest and are supported in 2014 by CSIRO, Canon Australia, Parkes Shire Council and Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.
For more information on the awards see our previous post on the 2013 competition: ‘Phenomenal photos from the David Malin Awards’.