Is the Red Rectangle a cosmic Rosetta Stone?

THE RED RECTANGLE IS A PECULIAR NEBULA WITH SOME STRANGE CHEMICAL PROPERTIES. CREDIT: NASA/ESA/ HANS VAN WINCKEL (CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF LEUVEN) /MARTIN COHEN (UCB).
THE RED RECTANGLE IS A PECULIAR NEBULA WITH SOME STRANGE CHEMICAL PROPERTIES. CREDIT: NASA/ESA/ HANS VAN WINCKEL (CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF LEUVEN) /MARTIN COHEN (UCB).

Cracking the puzzle of unusual molecules in deep space that absorb some wavelengths of starlight is like unlocking the secrets of the Rosetta Stone, according to Rob Sharp of the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “It’s the longest-standing problem in astronomical spectroscopy,” he says.

The identity of the molecules has been a mystery for 80 years, but Rob has now joined forces with chemists at the University of Sydney to try to crack the molecular code. Continue reading Is the Red Rectangle a cosmic Rosetta Stone?

Sifting sky data

THE GIANT MAGELLAN TELESCOPE. CREDIT: GIANT MAGELLAN TELESCOPE—GMTO CORPORATION.
The Giant Magellan Telescope may use Australian Starbugs technology when it begins operating in around 2018. Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope—GMTO Corporation

Imagine an extremely large optical telescope fitted with detectors that can selectively collect light from a particular section of the telescope’s focal plane. Using revolutionary robotic technology called Starbugs, the detector will reconfigure itself in real time to collect from any particular area of the image, and will feed the data into any analytical instrument.

That’s exactly what Matthew Colless and his team at the Australian Astronomical Observatory have in mind with the development of MANIFEST (the many-instrument fibre system)—which make use of the special photonic technologies developed by Joss Bland-Hawthorn and his team at the University of Sydney. Continue reading Sifting sky data

Starquakes reveal family secrets

LAUNCHING THE KEPLER SPACE TELESCOPE. CREDIT: BALL AEROSPACE AND TECHNOLOGIES CORP.
LAUNCHING THE KEPLER SPACE TELESCOPE. CREDIT: BALL AEROSPACE AND TECHNOLOGIES CORP.

Stars forming in clusters from a single galactic dust cloud are not as similar to one another as previously thought, according to an international team of astronomers who analysed ‘starquakes’ from just three months of data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope. And there is at least another four years’ data to come.

“In the past, it was assumed that the only difference [between stars in the same cluster] would be their mass,” says Dennis Stello of the University of Sydney. “But the seismology [data] tells us that might not be correct. There’s probably a spread in age or in composition because the original cloud of gas was not homogeneous.” Continue reading Starquakes reveal family secrets

Bringing dark corners of the Universe to light

JOSS BLAND-HAWTHORN HOLDING A PHOTONIC LANTERN, A REVOLUTIONARY DEVICE TO ANALYSE THE LIGHT OF DISTANT STARS, INVENTED IN AUSTRALIA. CREDIT: CHRIS WALSH.
JOSS BLAND-HAWTHORN HOLDING A PHOTONIC LANTERN, A REVOLUTIONARY DEVICE TO ANALYSE THE LIGHT OF DISTANT STARS, INVENTED IN AUSTRALIA. CREDIT: CHRIS WALSH.

Using the Gemini South telescope in Chile, a team of astronomers led by Joss Bland-Hawthorn of the University of Sydney revealed the faint, outer regions of the galaxy called NGC 300, showing that the galaxy is at least twice the size as thought previously. The findings suggest that our own Milky Way galaxy could also be bigger than the textbooks say.

But Joss’s telescope observations are just a part of his contribution to astronomy. He is also helping to pioneer a new technology known as astrophotonics, which uses optical systems to improve our understanding of the Universe. Continue reading Bringing dark corners of the Universe to light

Seeing a beach ball on the moon

SUSI AT NARRABRI—ONE OF THE HIGHEST SPATIAL RESOLUTION TELESCOPES USING VISIBLE LIGHT. CREDIT: GORDON ROBERTSON.
SUSI AT NARRABRI—ONE OF THE HIGHEST SPATIAL RESOLUTION TELESCOPES USING VISIBLE LIGHT. CREDIT: GORDON ROBERTSON.

When the present upgrade is complete, the Sydney University Stellar Interferometer (SUSI) will be able to resolve objects the size of a beach ball on the Moon, says Mike Ireland of Macquarie University in Sydney. This large interferometer will be used to determine the dimensions—size, weight and velocity—of pulsating stars, hot stars, and massive stars. SUSI will also be involved in the search for binary stars and their planetary companions. Continue reading Seeing a beach ball on the moon

Keck telescope dons a mask

A FALSE-COLOUR COMPOSITE IMAGE OF 11 FRAMES SHOWING THE 8-MONTH CIRCULAR ROTATION OF THE BINARY STAR, WOLF-RAYET 104. CREDIT: PETER TUTHILL.
A FALSE-COLOUR COMPOSITE IMAGE OF 11 FRAMES SHOWING THE 8-MONTH CIRCULAR ROTATION OF THE BINARY STAR, WOLF-RAYET 104. CREDIT: PETER TUTHILL.

It seems counterintuitive, but restricting the amount of light that reaches a telescope can sharpen up its output. The technique will be used on NASA’s successor to the Hubble Space Telescope: the James Webb Space Telescope. But it is already proving its worth here on Earth.

Images of the binary star known as Wolf-Rayet 104 (WR104), published in 2008 by Peter Tuthill of the University of Sydney, reveal the power of the new technique, which is known as aperture masking. WR104 should be difficult to see because it is in a deep cloud of dust, but Peter and his colleagues used aperture masking when observing the star with the Keck telescope in Hawai’i. The mask leads to sharper images because it cuts down complexity and makes the data easier to process and rid of error. Continue reading Keck telescope dons a mask

Mapping the seafloor from space

We know more about the topography of Mars than that of Earth because 70 per cent of our planet is covered by water.

Kara Matthews has mapped the seafloor using satellite data and software. Credit: Kara Matthews

Now University of Sydney PhD student Kara Matthews has used satellite data and GPlates, a computer package developed at the University, to create a complete digital map of the many geological features of the seafloor.

Fracture zones—the orange lines in the accompanying image—are deep linear scars on the seafloor that extend perpendicular to the boundaries where tectonic plates are moving apart, revealing up to 150 million years of plate movement. They are accompanied by huge ridges on the seafloor, rising up to 2 km above the abyssal plains, and valleys as deep as 8 km below sea level.
Continue reading Mapping the seafloor from space

Slide back in time and see the Himalayas form

Researchers in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney have developed a computer package that lets scientists record and study the Earth over geological time.

GPlates moves geology into the fourth dimension
GPlates image showing topography (left) and predicted temperature 300 km below surface (right) as India moves towards the Eurasian continent 60mya. Credit: Sabin Zahirovic, EarthByte

Their GPlates software, which they describe as “Google Earth with a time-slider,” contains powerful tools for modelling geological processes. Yet it is simple enough to use in schools or at home, and is freely available. By combining data on continental motion, fossils and sediments, for example, scientists can analyse changes in geography, ocean currents and climate over geological time.
Continue reading Slide back in time and see the Himalayas form

Australian scientists elected to Royal Society

Four of Australia’s most accomplished scientists have been elected to the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, the Royal Society of London.

PROF IAN FRAZER LAUNCHES THE CERVICAL CANCER VACCINE GARDASIL. CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND

Prof Ian Frazer, Prof Alan Cowman, Prof Mark Randolph and Dr Patrick Tam join 40 other scientists to be elected to the Royal Society in 2011, which celebrated its 350th anniversary last year.

Continue reading Australian scientists elected to Royal Society

Fresh Science 2010

Each year we identify early-career scientists with a discovery and bring them to Melbourne for a communication boot camp. Here are some of their stories.

More at www.freshscience.org.au

Print your own lasers, lights and TV screens

Print your own lasers, lights and TV screens
Jacek Jasieniak sprinkling quantum dots. Credit: Jacek Jasieniak

Imagine printing your own room lighting, lasers, or solar cells from inks you buy at the local newsagent. Jacek Jasieniak and colleagues at CSIRO, the University of Melbourne and the University of Padua in Italy, have developed liquid inks based on quantum dots that can be used to print such devices and in the first demonstration of their technology have produced tiny lasers. Quantum dots are made of semiconductor material grown as nanometre-sized crystals, around a millionth of a millimetre in diameter. The laser colour they produce can be selectively tuned by varying their size.

Cling wrap captures CO2
Colin Scholes operates a test rig for his carbon capture membrane. Credit: CO2 CRC

Cling wrap captures CO2

High tech cling wraps that ‘sieve out’ carbon dioxide from waste gases can help save the world, says Melbourne University chemical engineer, Colin Scholes who developed the technology. The membranes can be fitted to existing chimneys where they capture CO2 for removal and storage. Not only are the new membranes efficient, they are also relatively cheap to produce. They are already being tested on brown coal power stations in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley, Colin says. “We are hoping these membranes will cut emissions from power stations by up to 90 per cent.”

Continue reading Fresh Science 2010