Parkes radio telescope hawking for alien civilisations

AUSTRALIA’s Parkes radio telescope is at the sharp edge of the search for civilisations across the cosmos, launched by internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner and renowned physicist and author Stephen Hawking.

Breakthrough Listen, the 10-year, $100-million astronomical search for intelligent life beyond Earth, launched in 2015 by Milner and Hawking announced its first observations using CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope late last year. 

Parkes has joined two US telescopes, the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory in California, in their ongoing surveys to determine whether civilisations exist elsewhere and have developed technologies similar to our own.

Mr Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives which include Breakthrough Listen, said the addition of Parkes was an important milestone.

"These major instruments are the ears of planet Earth, and now they are listening for signs of other civilisations,” Mr Milner said.

After 14 days of commissioning and test observations, ‘first light’ for Breakthrough Listen at Parkes was achieved on November 8, 2016, with an observation of the newly-discovered Earth-size planet orbiting the nearest star to our Sun, Proxima Centauri.

A red dwarf star 4.3 light years from Earth, Proxima Centauri is known to have a planet (named ‘Proxima b’) orbiting within its habitable zone, the region where water could exist in liquid form on the planet’s surface. 

Such ‘exo-Earths’ are among the primary targets for Breakthrough Listen.

Berkeley SETI Research Center director and leader of the Breakthrough Listen science program, Andrew Siemion said the chances of any particular planet hosting intelligent life-forms were probably minuscule.

“But once we knew there was a planet right next door, we had to ask the question, and it was a fitting first observation for Parkes," Dr Siemion said.

“To find a civilisation just 4.2 light years away would change everything.”

CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope has long worked in unison with the US and European space programs because it is perfectly positioned to observe parts of the sky that cannot be seen from the northern hemisphere. This includes the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy, large swaths of the Galactic plane, and numerous other galaxies in the nearby Universe.

CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science director, Douglas Bock said the Parkes telescope was one of the most highly cited radio telescopes in the world.

“The Parkes radio telescope has a long list of achievements to its credit, including the discovery of the first ‘fast radio burst’,” Dr Bock said.

“Its unique view of the southern hemisphere sky and cutting-edge instrumentation means it now also has a great opportunity to contribute to the search for extra-terrestrial life.”

Swinburne University of Technology is working closely with University of California, Berkeley, and CSIRO to design and implement a signal-processing and data-storage system for the project that will make the Breakthrough Listen data available to the science community.

ARC laureate fellow at the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology, professor Matthew Bailes, who is also the Breakthrough Listen project’s Australian science coordinator, said Breakthrough Listen would do more than just “hunt for ET”.

“The detection system on Parkes will be simultaneously searching for naturally occurring phenomena such as pulsars and fast radio bursts, which are a large part of Parkes’ present work,” Dr Bailes said.

“The Australian science community welcomes the opportunity to share the Breakthrough Listen data for other ongoing research projects.”

Breakthrough Listen will use 25 percent of the science time available on the Parkes radio telescope over the next five years.

The Breakthrough Listen science program is directly aligned with CSIRO’s strategy to operate world-class national facilities for the use of scientists, to ensure that those facilities are adequately and sustainably funded, and to facilitate the delivery of world-leading science outcomes and impact.




Scientists get all protective over Defence personnel

INNOVATIVE work by an Australian research team into head and body protection, from very high forces and impacts, is providing an edge for Defence personnel and has wider ranging applications beyond the military.

Defence scientist Horace Billon and his team, part of the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST) advise clients such Australian Special Forces on how best to maintain their current equipment and guide them on future equipment acquisition. 

Dr Billion said there was a range of challenging frontiers in individual protection.

“One is head protection and, in particular, gaining a deeper understanding of mild traumatic brain injury, which is likely to arise from impact and blast effects,” Dr Billion said.

“What we found is that a lot of the head injury criteria that we use have been taken from the automotive industry.

“However, the criteria associated with vehicle crashes don’t necessarily cover the whole range of ballistic phenomena, in particular very short duration and very high strain rates.”

The goal for the DST group of scientists right now is to establish a more robust set of criteria, so what is developed can cover the entire gamut of military situations.

 “Our challenge is to come up with better criteria which will take a lot of work but is something that would be good for DST to be involved in, potentially through an international collaboration under The Technical Cooperation Program,” Dr Billion said.

At present, DST researchers most often use the Hybrid III crash test dummy headform for head protection research. This is a hollow headform which contains a suite of accelerometers inside to provide researchers with rotational and translational acceleration information of the head.

The information recorded can be related to the concussive effect of non-penetrating impacts. The same headform also has an instrumented neck that provides researchers with torques and forces at upper and lower neck joints.

“By measuring all these parameters we can relate the head and neck injury criteria to existing medical criteria for injury,” Dr Billion said. “That gives us an idea as to whether a particular non-penetrating injury would be survivable, and that information is obviously very valuable to our clients.

“We also have a Canadian ballistic load-sensing headform that was developed with assistance from  Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC). It provides us with information, via a series of load cells, about skull fractures from impacts. 

“The heads complement each other in terms of the information we get from them, so for us it’s definitely a case of two heads being better than one.”

One of the DRDC scientists who helped develop the Canadian head, Simon Ouellet, has been working with Dr Billon and colleagues at DST’s Melbourne laboratory this year.

Dr Billon said the crux of the research was in providing the client with a better picture as to what situations they are faced with and what armour systems are appropriate.

“What I find personally rewarding is the short term problem solving we do. The ADF often need solutions in a hurry,” Dr Billon said.

“In that situation we are under pressure to get quick answers but we always try to give them the best possible solution in the given time frame.

“Sometimes that does mean cutting back on the science ‘frills’ and fast tracking it. In those cases it’s better for us to provide a 70-80 percent solution on time, rather than a 100 percent solution that is too late.”



10 innovations get NISA commercialisation backing

NEW RADAR technology for the Australian Defence Force and a standardised cancer treatment for animals are among 10 innovative projects to receive funding through the third round of CSIRO’s ON Accelerate program.

ON, powered by CSIRO, is Australia’s sci-tech accelerator designed to fast-track leading science and technology innovation from the lab to reality, supported through the Federal Government’s $1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda. 

One of the ON Accelerate programs, through RMIT, is Australian Silicon Photonics. This group is developing a low-cost, low-energy solution for datacentre operators to help them manage increased data volumes while reducing energy consumption and environmental impact.

Going for Gold, through the CSIRO, is a safe and cost effective replacement for cyanide that will allow miners to recover more gold from the precious resource while protecting communities and the environment.

DentalAR, through the University of Western Australia), is augmented reality for dentists to help improve patient treatment and reduce time spent in ‘the chair’. 

NutriThick, through Flinders University, is an easy-to-drink, non-dairy and non-animal supplement for highly bioavailable calcium – based on Australian seaweed – that could provide the boost needed by an estimated one in two Australians who suffer from calcium deficiency.

RadVet, through the University of Newcastle, is a standardised and effective treatment for skin cancer in animals;

Passive Radar, developed with the Defence Science and Technology Group, is a new passive radar technology that allows the Australian Defence Force teams to maintain situational awareness without advertising their presence.

LuciGem, through Macquarie University, is a new medical technology that uses nano-sized particles of ruby and diamond to ‘light-up’ human systems to ‘see the unseen’ and improve patient diagnosis and treatment.

CSIRO is involved in the three other projects funded through ON Accelerate. 

DetectORE is designed as a simple, cost-effective solution for detecting gold in the field that will transform work processes and increase efficiency and returns for geologists.

D-tech IT is a new rapid video analysis technology that allows species identification of fish at the ‘point-of-catch’ to enable safer fishing practices and endangered species protection.

Green and Gold is another new technology that will increase capacity for production of renewable oils from plants to meet growing global demand for food oils, industrial chemicals and renewable fuels.

The research teams start a 12 week program to commercialise their research, guided by mentors from industry, science and commercialisation in January 2017 and will culminate in a ‘pitch event’ to industry to secure further funds and partners for commercialisation in April 2017.

The Turnbull Government is also helping researchers to commercialise their discoveries and inventions through the $200 million CSIRO Innovation Fund, which was launched in December.

The CSIRO Innovation Fund will invest in new ventures, some of which may be generated by CSIRO’s ON accelerator.

“ON is making significant inroads to connect and improve collaboration between research agencies and universities, and between research and industry, to improve our global OECD research to industry collaboration ranking and increase positive outputs from research,” former Industry Minister Greg Hunt said.

“In the five months since CSIRO opened the accelerator to all Australian universities and publicly funded research agencies, it has exposed more than 200 researchers to the business and entrepreneurial skills required to understand the customer first, and how to deliver maximum national benefit from their research.

“Research teams in ON have completed more than 3,000 customer calls with industries from health to mining and minerals, defence, technology and manufacturing to understand the customers’ challenges and how their sci-tech proposition can support.” 

Mr Hunt said the result had been much greater uptake and engagement from industry with the solutions research can deliver – 13 new partnerships or customer agreements signed and more than $1.5 million in external funds secured by ON graduates.

“The combined impact of these big innovations is expected to be felt by all Australians in the form of new jobs, new ways to address some of our biggest social challenges and new opportunities to help industries who are transitioning to compete and grow,” Mr Hunt said.




Elon Musk on ‘Trac’ with solar tiles?

TRACTILE solar roof tile designer and manufacturer, Gold Coast-based Trac Group Holdings, has welcomed billionaire Tesla owner Elon Musk’s planned expansion into the global solar roof tile market.

Trac Group managing director Jason Perkins said the high-profile entrepreneur’s foray into the solar roof tile business would enhance the industry and raise awareness among consumers. 

“During the past eight years we have developed, product tested and refined our Tractile Solar Roof tiles and we are now preparing to start a global roll-out of our products,’’ Mr Perkins said.

“Tractile was one of the first companies to offer solar roof tiles, and the only one in the world that offers both electricity and heated water from a solar roof tile. We are technology leaders with a strong focus on design.

 “Mr Musk has done the industry and our company a huge favour by highlighting the opportunity for the solar roof tile sector.

“It is forecast that the Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) market will grow from about $3 billion in 2015 to over $9 billion in 2019, and surge to $26 billion by 2022.

“Like electric cars, and battery storage, when Musk moves into an industry it is because he sees opportunity.” 

Mr Musk has unveiled prototypes of a new roof combining roof shingles and solar cells and announced his Tesla and SolarCity businesses were expanding into the industry.

Trac Group, which is the designer and manufacturer of award-winning roofing products, attempted an Australian Stock Exchange listing earlier this year to raise funds for the international expansion but it was withdrawn.

“One the issues we encountered during the listing process was that large investors were wary of the technology and unaware of the potential of the market,’’ Mr Perkins said.

“Elon Musk’s announcement has lifted global awareness of the opportunity almost overnight and we are pleased that a visionary business leader such as Mr Musk realises the potential for these products around the world. It validates the opportunity for Tractile to be a key player in this growing market, as well as a potential takeover target.

“At present we have requests for quotes from literally hundreds of potential customers and we are excited about the prospects for the future. 

“Mr Musk’s announcement will help us to attract additional capital, which we need to fund our planned global roll-out, and attract large developers who are looking for innovative products to integrate into their projects.”

Mr Perkins said the US market required five million new roofs every year while the Australian market builds about 100,000 roofs every year. Mr Musk’s company plans to enter the US market next year.

Trac Group Holdings director Bertio Terpstra said he believed Mr Musk’s company would help Trac Group’s efforts. “Our focus at this stage is on niche markets rather than the mass consumer market,’’ Mr Terpstra said.

“We are marketing our products to eco-villages, 50-plus developments, high-end architect-designed homes and off-grid projects.

“Developments that involve bodies corporate are attracted to our products because they should pay for themselves within six years of construction and can be fully financed for retrofit projects.

“I recently attended the Solar Power International exhibition in Las Vegas and there were no building integrated roofing systems on show,’’ Mr Terpstra said.

“The products on display were 10 years behind where we are now and as a result we have appointed an agent in California to sign up distributors in the USA.”

Mr Terpstra said the exclusive distribution licences would be initially priced at $200,000 for every million people in the distributor’s target area.

“The research shows that for every one million people, there are approximately 4000 new roofs required every year, so our distribution licences have been priced to take that into account,’’ Mr Perkins said.

“In exchange our distributors will have exclusive territory access to a variety of Trac Group’s product lines, trademarks and intellectual property.”

“For each territory of one million people or more, the distributor will receive $35,000 worth of stock to establish demonstration homes.”

Mr Perkins said the company had received more than 2200 business leads since its attempted stock exchange listing.

“Trac Group Holdings has been approached by 64 potential distributors interested in arrangements in 12 different countries,’’ Mr Perkins said.

“We also have had requests for product information from 200 retail customers in five different countries for new construction projects and renovations.