Balloons over the Red Centre

A perfect view of the Milky Way

On a series of calm, cool mornings in April 2017, 70 French scientists (from the French space science agency CNES, CNRS IRAP, and the Université Paul Sabatier de Toulouse) launched three enormous balloons into the sky above the heart of Australia.

CNES was using the Alice Springs Balloon Launching Centre (ASBLS) to send three precision scientific instruments up to altitudes of 30–40 kilometres to make observations that are impossible from the ground.

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The hunt for shapeshifting cancer cells

For a long time, doctors and patients have dreamed of precision oncology, a process that allows specific, effective treatments for individual tumours.

In the past, the complex nature of tumours has made this impossible.

“Within a tumour, there are many different cell populations, each doing different things and behaving in different ways. Most cells will be killed by chemotherapy, but some are not,” says Associate Professor Frederic Hollande of The University of Melbourne.

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Hypersonic travel

Brussels to Sydney in less than three hours

A passenger jet could one day fly halfway around the world in just a few hours. That’s the goal of the HEXAFLY project (High-speed Experimental FLY): going beyond the supersonic realm pioneered by the now-defunct Concorde to reach hypersonic speeds more than five times as fast as sound.

Led by the European Space Agency, the project has now brought on international collaborators to prepare for an early stage test flight planned for 2020.

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The Milky Way is warped

The first accurate 3D map of our galaxy reveals its true shape: warped and twisted.

Astronomers from Macquarie University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have used 1339 ‘standard’ stars to map the real shape of our home galaxy in a paper published in Nature Astronomy today.

They found the Milky Way’s disc of stars becomes increasingly ‘warped’ and twisted the further away the stars are from the galaxy’s centre.

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Cane toads: what they do in the shadows

Cane toads are picking up some shady habits, according to a new study co-authored by a Macquarie University researcher.

Toads in Western Australia have been spotted awake and active during the day in deeply shaded habitats, despite the species usually being nocturnal in Australia and other parts of the world.

However nearby cane toad populations at more exposed sites remained only active at night.

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Promiscuous females and their role in evolution

Males have to make less of an effort to mate with promiscuous female fruit flies, making the quality and quantity of their semen all the more important in the competition to fertilise the females’ eggs.

This also leads to male flies repeatedly mating with the same female, according to a paper published last week in Nature Communications, by researchers from Macquarie University, the University of Oxford and the University of East Anglia, who looked into the eyes of thousands of fruit flies.

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The quest for the missing proteins in rice

Researchers have identified over 5,700 new proteins in rice and are calling for a global effort to find the remaining missing proteins, in a new study co-authored by Macquarie University.

The international team of scientists from Australia, Iran and Japan say there’s an estimated 35,000 proteins encoded by the rice genome, and yet we still don’t have experimental evidence for 82 per cent of them.

This is important because rice is the major food source for more than half the world’s population, and in order for it to grow in warmer climates and with less water we will need to better understand rice at the molecular level. Continue reading The quest for the missing proteins in rice

The shape of a perfect storm: saving lives by predicting firestorms

Correction: an earlier version stated the tool is being formally trialed by the NSW Rural Fire Service. It is currently in use, but formal trials ended in 2016.

Firestorms are a nightmare for emergency services and anyone in their path. They occur when a bushfire meets a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental conditions and creates a thunderstorm.

Dr Rachel Badlan and Associate Professor Jason Sharples are part of a team of experts from UNSW Canberra and ACT Emergency Services that has found the shape of a fire is an important factor in whether it will turn into a firestorm.

Fires that form expansive areas of active flame, rather than spreading as a relatively thin fire-front, are more likely to produce higher smoke plumes and turn into firestorms, the researchers found.

This finding is being used to underpin further development of a predictive model for firestorms. The model was trialed in the 2015 and 2016 fire seasons by the ACT Emergency Services Agency and the NSW Rural Fire Service, and now forms part of the national dialogue around extreme bushfire development.  

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