Our blog is moving! Come to the housewarming and win a gift


By Jenna Daroczy, CSIRO Digital Editor

About four years ago, we hatched a plan to start sharing our science with the world of social media with our very first blog. Now we’re super excited to give you a first look at the next evolution.

Over the years we’ve brought you all the latest from our work in space in our Universe blog, our voyages at sea with our Investigator blog, and of course, stories from right across our varied and diverse science right here in our News Blog.

So to keep giving you all the news you know and love, we’ve built a new home for all of the great news you love that really showcases the breadth and depth of work we do here.

The new blog.

The new blog.

Whether it’s tasty treats from our projects in health, whiz-bang advances in the world of tech, partnerships with industry that give Australia the competitive edge, or anything in between, it’s now easier to cruise around all of our stories at our new site: blog.csiro.au

We’ve organised our archive of news into handy categories for you to browse through, and designed nice, clean pages to make catching up on the latest innovations and research a breeze. So what are you waiting for? Dive in!

A note for our dear subscribers:

We love you! No, seriously, we do. And we’re committed to making this move work for our relationship.

If you’re receiving our updates by email, we’ve got you covered. We’ll make sure you’re signed up to keep getting all the latest news direct to your inbox. We’ve even tweaked our system so you’ll get all the updates from the day in one handy email, rather than multiple emails during your day.

If you’re keeping up with us through a WordPress.com subscription, things are a little trickier.

Unfortunately, we can’t do all the work in this relationship, we need you to come on over and subscribe to our new blog. It’s really easy, and you can opt for a daily email update, or a weekly wrap-up with everything we’ve been up to. Just head to our Subscribe page.

So come on over and check out our new digs!

Just to sweeten the deal, we’ve got our hands on a bunch of tickets for Buzz Aldrin’s* upcoming speaking gigs in Melbourne and Sydney. All you need to do is subscribe for your chance to win. And don’t worry if you’re already a subscriber – we’ve included you in the draw too.

*When and where? Sydney: 27 November; Melbourne: 29 November. Visit www.liveonstageaustralia.com.au for more info.

*How will winners be decided? We will be choosing the winners from our email subscriber list at random. Winners will be notified by Friday 23 October.

‘WTF is that?’ How we’re trawling the Universe for the unknown

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder. Credit: Alex Cherney

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder. Credit: Alex Cherney

Here’s a challenge: how would you go about finding something if you didn’t know what it was you were looking for?

No, this isn’t an ancient riddle or one of those horrible corporate team building exercises. It’s actually a very real problem being being faced by astronomers using our newest telescope, the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP).

In order to understand how galaxies form and evolve, the Evolutionary Map of the Universe (EMU) team will take a census of radio sources in the sky. Along the way they expect to find about 70 million galaxies along the way – which is a substantial increase from the 2.5 million we currently know of. But to do so means trawling through, literally, a Universe of data.

“With EMU significantly increasing the volume of phase space we’re observing, it’s more than likely we’re going to stumble across some unexpected new phenomena,” said the project’s Principal Investigator, Ray Norris.

The EMU in the sky. Credit: Barnaby Norris.

The EMU in the sky. Credit: Barnaby Norris.

But with the supercomputer only sifting through data collected according to a specific selection criteria, there is a chance that these phenomena may fall through the cracks and lie undiscovered for decades, until an “open-minded researcher” suddenly recognises something odd in the data.

The truth is out there, but how would the team find it?

Well, we can tell you how: by developing a cloud computing platform that learns how to stumble across unexpected bits of science that would otherwise be ignored.

“We had a huge opportunity to analyse the data to look for outliers that might point to some new and interesting discovery, so we looked to cloud computing as a way to mine the massive amounts of data looking for any hidden gems.”

The result is the Widefield ouTlier Finder (WTF), a project to develop data mining techniques that search for phenomena beyond the limits of current astronomical knowledge.

Ray says there are three types of outliers they’re looking for. “First are the artefacts, which are important for our quality control, then there are the statistical outliers which are interesting, but the most important are the third kind of outliers – the entirely unexpected bits of science, the ones that make us stop and say – WTF?”.

The complexity of the newest telescopes like ASKAP means that we can’t just hope to simply stumble across new phenomena, we have to actively look for it by whatever means we can, or else we’ll end up missing the most exciting science results of the future.”

A colourful representation of the EMU sky coverage. The area in the top left is the part of the sky not covered by EMU.

A colourful representation of the EMU sky coverage. The area in the top left is the part of the sky not covered by EMU.

WTF’s cloud-based backend is hosted on Amazon Web Services servers, where the researchers are able to access software for data reduction, calibration and viewing right from their desktop. The team is currently issuing a challenge using data peppered with “EMU (Easter) Eggs” – objects that might pose a challenge to data mining algorithms. This way they hope to train the system to recognise things that systematically depart from known categories of astronomical objects, to help better prepare for unanticipated discoveries that would otherwise remain hidden.

EMU has received a grant to develop a cloud computing platform for machine learning as part of the AstroCompute in the Cloud collaboration, driven by Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the SKA Telescope. The collaboration is intended to accelerate the development of innovative tools and techniques for processing, storing and analysing the global astronomy community’s vast amounts of astronomic data in the cloud.

For more information about ASKAP, visit our website.

#MoonBuzz: celebrating two giant years for space exploration

Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Source: Wikipedia

Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Source: Wikipedia

By Eamonn Bermingham

From seeing the first ever up-close images of Pluto, to finding water on Mars, to Stephen Hawking teaming up with a Russian billionaire in the search for aliens, 2015 has been a huge year for space exploration. So as we celebrate World Space Week, it seems quite fitting that our minds cast back to another big year for space. In fact, the biggest of them all: 1969, the year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon.

But before you settle into your lounge, office chair or ergonomic workspace for our tale of space history, we have got some big news. To celebrate Buzz Aldrin’s upcoming visit to Australia next month, we’ve managed to get our hands on some front row tickets to see the famous astronaut in person. He will be captivating audiences in Sydney and Melbourne with a journey through space and time, from the historic walk on the moon to his vision for a future manned mission to Mars.

We’ve got more details on how you can win at the bottom, but right now we’d like to take a trip down our own memory lane, as we recall our role in one of humanity’s most significant achievements.

At 12.56 pm on 21 July 1969 Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST), mankind took its ‘one giant leap’ and 600 million people watched as Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon.

Our Parkes radio telescope, along with NASA’s antenna at Honeysuckle Creek near Canberra, played a key role in televising the first moon walk.

The ‘Dish’ famously supported receiving the television signals on that momentous day. Although many people think the Parkes telescope was the only station receiving the signal, it was the 26-metre antenna at NASA’s Honeysuckle Creek space tracking station near Canberra that was the prime station assigned with receiving the initial TV pictures from the Moon and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface. (The Tidbinbillla deep space tracking station, today known as the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, provided support to the command module in lunar orbit.)

Eight and a half minutes after those first historic images were broadcast around the world, the television signal being received by the larger 64-metre Parkes radio telescope was then selected by NASA to provide the images for the following two hours and 12 minutes of live broadcast as the Apollo 11 astronauts explored the Moon surface.

While the Parkes telescope successfully received the signals, the occasion didn’t go without a hitch. The lunar module had landed at 6.17am AEST. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were supposed to rest before the Moonwalk, but Neil Armstrong was keen to get going. The astronauts were slow getting into their suits and when they got outside the Moon was rising over Parkes.

Parkes moon landing

Inside the Parkes telescope control room during the Apollo 11 mission.

The telescope was fully tipped over, waiting for the Moon to rise, when a series of strong wind gusts – 110 km per hour – hit. They made the control room shudder, and slammed the telescope back against its zenith axis gears. Fortunately the wind slowed, and Buzz Aldrin activated the TV camera just as the Moon came into the telescope’s field-of-view. At this time, Honeysuckle Creek was taking the main signal. Eight minutes later the Moon was in the Parkes main detector’s field-of-view and NASA switched to Parkes. The weather was still bad, and the telescope operated well beyond its safety limits.

The signals received by Parkes were sent to Sydney. From there the TV signal was split. One signal went to the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the other to Houston for the international telecast. The international signal had to travel halfway around the world from Sydney to Houston, adding a delay. So Australian audiences saw Neil Armstrong’s historic first step 0.3 seconds before the rest of the world.


To celebrate Buzz’s visit, we’re giving away 3 tickets for both the Sydney and Melbourne events. Entering is simple enough: we want you to take a moon selfie using the hashtag #MoonBuzz. But instead of taking a selfie with the moon, we want you to take a selfie as the moon. All you need to do is get your hands on a camera and a toilet roll (bear with us here, we’re not raving lunar-tics) and follow these steps:

  •  Hold the toilet roll in front of your face so that you’re looking down the cylinder.
  •  Position your camera / phone at the other end, so that your face is framed by the roll.
  • Take the photo!
  • Submit your entry via any of our social channels (Instagram, Twitter or Facebook) with the hashtag #MoonBuzz

To give you an idea of what we’re after, here’s one we prepared earlier:


And the more creative you can get, the better*. Hurry, entries close next Sunday 11 October. Terms and conditions below.

  • Did I Win?:Winners will be chosen by CSIRO based on images uploaded to our social channels (Instagram, Twitter and Facebook) which include the hashtag: #MoonBuzz. Users should also indicate their city of choice (Sydney or Melbourne) in their post. The image adjudged to be the most interesting, unique or humorous (ie the best) will be declared the winner.
  • When and Where: Sydney: 27 November; Melbourne: 29 November. Visit www.liveonstageaustralia.com.au for more info.
  • Be a Follower:You must be following one of our accounts to be considered (whether it be submitted via Instagram, Facebook or Twitter)
  • Not on Instagram?:Shame on you! But we don’t mind, share your pics with us on Facebook and Twitter and we will include those in the competition, if you include #CSIROgram
  • No, you’re not funny: Trust us, submitting a picture of you ‘mooning’ us will not get any laughs. We’ll just block and report you.

*As much as we’d love to claim credit for coming up with this selfie idea, credit must go to fans of the Mighty Boosh.

For more information on our astronomy work, visit our website.

Pedal to the metal: how we’re producing aerospace parts five times faster

Australian F-35A flying out of Luke Air Force Base, USA (credit Lockheed Martin)

Australian F-35A flying out of Luke Air Force Base, USA (credit Lockheed Martin)

By Emily Lehmann 

In a mission to bolster the nation’s air force fleet, the Australian Government has committed to bring home 72 stealthy, next-gen F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF). It’s Australia’s largest military acquisition and will be part of a more than 3000-strong global fleet of JSFs – and every one of these strike fighters will have Australian made components inside.

Increasing production rates to deliver these aerospace parts is critical. That’s why the Australian Government’s New Air Combat Capability program tasked us with developing a technology to drive greater efficiency for the local manufacturers who make and supply them.

The result? A metal machining (cutting) technology that is five times faster and which dramatically reduces machining costs by as much as 80 per cent.

Crucial titanium alloy parts make up about 15 per cent of an aircraft, and are ideal for their lightweight, yet super strong qualities. But from a machining point of view, titanium alloys are notoriously difficult and complicated to work with. The conventional methods out there are slow and tools tend to break prematurely.

Our technology, called thermally assisted machining (TAM) works by pointing a laser beam on the workpiece ahead of the cutting tool, heating up the metal so that it’s more pliable. This speeds up the process while preventing damage and wear to machining tools.

The new set up, showing the laser beam head on the right.

The new set up, showing the laser beam head on the right.

With metal aerospace components estimated to be worth a sizey $50 billion worldwide (and growing) this technology could see Australian manufacturers further tap into the global market for military and commercial aircraft.

TAM’s applications go beyond the titanium machining too, and could benefit other nickel and iron base super alloys which are difficult to machine.

We’re now partnering with local manufacturer H&H Tools to develop a prototype for a gantry type milling machine to demonstrate how the technology works. We expect this to be ready in 2016.

Find out more about our technologies for high performance metals.

A star is formed: Shari Breen named L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science 2015 Fellow

Twitter Shari Breen

Dr Shari Breen.

How are stars made?

It’s a heady question pondered by humans for as long as history has been recorded – each civilization has had their own creation myths explaining how the stars and the night sky came to be.

But for our astronomer, Shari Breen, it’s a question she takes a lot more literally: just how did stars form from nothing more than clouds of gas into their current state?

Shari’s been working on this question for eight years now, and her current area of focus is showing a lot of promise in helping to answer this universal question. What’s more, her star-studded studies are attracting some highly-esteemed recognition: Shari has just been named as a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow.

Along with three other outstanding female scientists, Shari was selected from a field of over 240 applicants and awarded a prize of $25,000.

Shari (third from left) with her award last night.

Shari (third from left) with her award last night.

Shari’s own star is undeniably on the rise, and we congratulate her on this amazing recognition of her work. But let’s return to that universal question: just how is a (celestial) star created?

According to Shari, one of the difficulties in understanding the process through which stars form (particularly high-mass stars) is the lack of ‘signposts’ in identifying different evolutionary stages. We know the ingredients that make up a star, but when were each of them added?

“My research focusses on providing an evolutionary timeline for high-mass star formation. The central idea is fairly simple – we know of many observable characteristics of young stars, and if we had a reliable evolutionary timeline for their formation, we can work out the sequence in which each characteristic was arising.”

The wonder of her work isn’t lost on Shari. “I always find it quite astounding that we don’t understand something as basic as how stars are forming. I really love the mystery aspect of it: I love that you can make a contribution to such a fundamental issue.”

We can’t wait to see what contributions Shari will make next.

To find out more about our astronomy research, check out our website.

Seabirds are eating plastic litter in our oceans – but not only where you’d expect

albatross marine debris

Chris Wilcox, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO, and Erik van Sebille, Imperial College London

Many of you may have already seen the photograph above, of an albatross carcass full of undigested plastic junk. But how representative is that of the wider issue facing seabirds?

To help answer that question, we carried out the first worldwide analysis of the threat posed by plastic pollution to seabird species.

Our study, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that nearly 60% of all seabird species studied so far have had plastic in their gut. This figure is based on reviewing previous reports in the scientific literature, but if we use a statistical model to infer what would be found at the current time and include unstudied species, we expect that more than 90% of seabirds have eaten plastic rubbish.

Rising tide of plastic

Our analysis of published studies shows that the amount of plastic in seabird’s stomachs has been climbing over the past half-century. In 1960, plastic was found in the stomachs of less than 5% of seabirds, but by 2010 this had risen to 80%. We predict that by 2050, 99% of the world’s seabird species will be accidentally eating plastic, unless we take action to clean up the oceans.

Perhaps surprisingly, we also found that the area with the worst expected impact is at the boundary of the Southern Ocean and the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand. While this region is far away from the subtropical gyres, dubbed “ocean garbage patches”, that collect the highest densities of plastic, the highest threat is in areas where plastic rubbish overlaps with large numbers of different seabird species – such as the Southern Ocean off Australia.

Expected number of seabird species ingesting plastic. PNAS

Seabirds are excellent indicators of ecosystem health. The high estimates of plastic in seabirds we found were not so surprising, considering that members of our research team have previously found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird. These items include a wide range of things most of us would recognise: bags, bottle caps, bits of balloons, cigarette lighters, even toothbrushes and plastic toys.

Seabirds can have surprising amounts of plastic in their gut. Working on islands off Australia, we have found birds with plastics making up 8% of their body weight. Imagine a person weighing 62 kg having almost 5 kg of plastic in their digestive tract. And then think about how large that lump would be, given that many types of plastic are designed to be as lightweight as possible.

The more plastic a seabird encounters, the more it tends to eat, which means that one of the best predictors of the amount of plastic in a seabird’s gut is the concentration of ocean plastic in the region where it lives. This finding points the way to a solution: reducing the amount of plastic that goes into the ocean would directly reduce the amount that seabirds (and other wildlife) accidentally eat.

That might sound obvious, but as we can see from the stomach contents of the birds, many of the items are things people use every day, so the link to human rubbish is clear.

Plastic from a dead flesh-footed shearwater, amounting to 8% of the bird’s body weight. Britta Denise Hardesty, Author provided

Our study suggests that improving waste management would directly benefit wildlife. There are several actions we could take, such as reducing packaging, banning single-use plastic items or charging an extra fee to use them, and introducing deposits for recyclable items like drink containers.

Many of these types of policies are already proving to be locally effective in reducing waste lost into the environment, a substantial portion of which ends up polluting the ocean.

One recent study of industrial practices in Europe found that improved management of plastic led to a clear reduction in the number of plastic items found in seabirds in the North Sea within a few decades. This is encouraging, as it suggests not only that the solutions are effective, but also that they work in a relatively short time.

Given that most of these items were in someone’s hands at some point, it seems that a simple behaviour change can reduce a global impact to our seabirds, and to other marine species as well.

This work was carried out as part of a national marine debris project supported by CSIRO and Shell’s Social investment program, as well as the marine debris working group at the US National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, with support from Ocean Conservancy.

The Conversation

Chris Wilcox is Senior Research Scientist at CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty is Senior Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship at CSIRO, and Erik van Sebille is Lecturer in oceanography and climate change at Imperial College London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia: riding on the insect’s back


Love me tender: the giant northern termite, an endemic species living in tropical Australia. 

David Yeates, CSIRO

As you may have spotted, the title of this article is a cheeky reference to the famous saying that Australia rides on the back of a particular woolly ruminant. The reference dates back to 1894, when the wool industry was one of the primary sources of Australia’s prosperity.

Wool was our main export commodity from 1871 to the 1960s. For more than a century, the golden fleece drew pastoral workers and professionals to regional Australia, and sustained many a country town.

It is likely that most people would consider the native birds and animals in the farm shelterbelt to be the main source of agricultural biodiversity. However, the most diverse and important biodiversity is much smaller. And it’s invertebrate.

Looking beneath the farmer’s feet we would find countless insects and other invertebrates living out their lives, and in so doing providing services that we take freely and for granted.

Beneficial bugs

While Australia long ago hopped off the sheep’s back, insects and other invertebrates still do things that sustain our society. Yes, “sustain”. In recent years, agricultural economists have put estimates on the values of some of these insect services to human society.

In one 2009 example, the total economic value of insect pollination of agricultural crops worldwide was A$220 billion. A sizeable fraction of this pollination occurs in Australia by species such as the European honeybee, and many thousands of native bees and flies.

Insects are a bit like car keys, you only notice them when they are missing. During the mid noughties, honeybees died in large numbers in Europe and the United States, a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The cause of CCD is complex and not yet fully understood.

But the effects were transparent. Profits from pollinated crops, such as almonds decreased. The prices of some foods increased significantly, because farmers had to pay more for disease-free bees, often importing them from CCD-free Australia.

Honey bee hard at work boosting agricultural productivity. Bob Peterson/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Another good example is the service that introduced dung beetles provide. Australia’s cattle herd was estimated at 30 million in the 1970s, each animal producing 10 pats per day, covering over 2.5 million hectares of pasture each year.

Millions of bush flies (Musca vetustissima) also bred in the dung. Overseas these dung pats would have been recycled into soil nutrients by the local dung beetles that buried small chunks of the dung in the soil to rear their young. However, Australia’s native dung beetles are adapted to feed on and bury dry, fibrous marsupial dung, and avoid the much more moist cattle dung.

CSIRO introduced dung beetles from Europe and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s that buried cattle dung underground so that it became a fertiliser for use by grass and other plants. The burrowing activity of the beetles also aerated the soil. And it also provided another important service: controlling the bush fly plague by removing and burying the dung that bush flies were breeding in.

Australia’s outdoor café owners probably don’t know it, but they owe at least part of their clientele to the silent work of introduced dung beetles working tirelessly in the agricultural districts surrounding our cities, once the source of most of our bush flies.

If you want to know more about the dung beetle story, watch the documentary The Great Australian Fly by 360 degree films, which can be found on ABC’s iView.

Great engineers

We often have an ambiguous relationship with insects, entire groups are prejudiced because of a few pest species. Termites are an excellent case in point. In most cases we only think of the damage they can do to timber in buildings.

Termites are impressive builders, dotting the landscape with their imposing structures. Bob Peterson/Flickr, CC BY-SA

But termites are in fact great soil engineers. They play a key role in the functioning of many tropical and subtropical landscapes, such as those found over much of northern Australia. They decompose wood and grass, and they are also social creatures, living in great colonies that sometimes produce a characteristic mound. Their region of influence in the soil is termed the termitosphere, and this is where termites are busy nutrifying, aerating, moistening and mixing the soil.

Termites are small but numerous, and their biomass can exceed 50 grams per square metre, much greater than mammalian browsers in the same environments. Because termite mounds are intense, crowded insect cities full of life, growth, decomposition, waste and death, soil nutrient levels are much higher around them – up to seven times higher in one Australian example.

Termite excavations move soil around between layers, and create tiny holes in the soil that allow air and moisture to infiltrate. Termites modify many soil characteristics, improving and increasing the productivity of soils, and they do this free of charge over much of northern Australia. Overall, the positive benefits of the termitosphere are far greater than the costs.

Hidden biodiversity

With insects being such a valuable resource, and part of the natural heritage of a first world country such as Australia, you would think that we had a good handle on our insect diversity.

The reality is very different. We have only managed to catalogue around 25% of our insect biodiversity at species level. The remaining 75% cannot be managed well because we don’t have the basic information required such as what it is, where it occurs, and what it does.

For example, there are around 260 named termite species in Australia, but this represents less than half the total number, and many of these unnamed species are represented in CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection. Imagine trying to manage a library without knowing how many books you had on hand, and what they were about.

In other areas such as medicine and physics we have learnt the importance of small things: germs, atoms, chemical molecules etc. We gain knowledge in these areas by reducing the system to its basic components and working on the properties of these parts and their interactions.

But in biodiversity science we are still trying to understand and manage ecosystems with only a basic knowledge of a subset of the biological components in the system. Australian ecosystems ride on the insect’s back, and we would be better off economically, socially and environmentally if we invested more in understanding our insect fauna.

The Conversation

David Yeates is Director of the Australian National Insect Collection at CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.