Australia To Create Its Own Space Agency

This year’s International Astronautical Congress is being held in Adelaide, Australia and the opening ceremonies of this meeting of ‘all things space’ included a special announcement. The Australian government announced that it will establish a new national space agency, with the hopes of growing Australia’s already vibrant space industry.

Michaelia Cash, Australian’s acting Minister of Industry, Innovation and Science was quoted as saying that Australia will not have a NASA but an agency “right for our nation, right for our industry … that will provide the vehicle for Australia to have a long-term strategic plan for space – a plan that supports the innovative application of space technologies and grows our domestic space industry, including through defense space procurement.”

Australia’s space industry is worth about $4 billion and already employs about 11,500 people. But proponents for creating a space agency for the country say it will help coordinate and expand the efforts.

Of course Australia has been very active in space exploration, being part of every deep-space mission NASA has flown with tracking and communications as part the Deep Space Network and the precursor system of dishes around the world. The tracking and communications dish at Parkes, Honeysuckle Creek, Tidbinbilla and Canberra were notoriously part of the Apollo missions, and several other large radio dishes in Australia have been listening to space to tease out astronomical details. Additionally, the Square Kilometer Array being built in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will help us answer fundamental questions in astronomy and cosmology.

In depth: how we *really* watched the footage from the Apollo 11 Moon landing, thanks to the Australian radio dishes.

But still, many have said that Australia is one of the few major developed countries that do not have a space agency. New Zealand established their space agency last year. You can see a list of all the world’s space agencies from Heather Archuletta’s Pillownaut website.

Reportedly, the plan is to double the size of Australia’s current space capacity within five years and add thousands of new jobs, while taking advantage of new technology such as cubesats.

“We have longstanding ties with NASA, exploring space together and generating all of these jobs. And that’s the key point, it is a jobs industry-first agency,” astrophysicist Alan Duffy told ABC. “It’s designed to create satellites and new uses for the images that come from those satellites, and I don’t mean giant, bus-sized satellites of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Thanks to smartphones something the size of a toaster has the same capabilities as some of these historic launches. So we get to space cheaper and we can do more when we’re there.”

Reportedly, more details of the new space agency will be announced this week during the IAC, which is a gathering of thousands of global space experts, heads of other space agencies and private companies.

Sources: ABC, Sydney Morning Herald

Early Earth Was Almost Entirely Underwater, With Just A Few Islands

Earth's Hadean Eon is a bit of a mystery to us, because geologic evidence from that time is scarce. Researchers at the Australian National University have used tiny zircon grains to get a better picture of early Earth. Credit: NASA

It might seem unlikely, but tiny grains of minerals can help tell the story of early Earth. And researchers studying those grains say that 4.4 billion years ago, Earth was a barren, mountainless place, and almost everything was under water. Only a handful of islands poked above the surface.

Scientists at the Australian National University are behind this study, led by researcher Dr. Antony Burnham. The mineral grains in the study are the oldest rocks ever found. They’re 4.4 billion year old zircon mineral grains from the Jack Hills of Western Australia, where they were preserved in sandstone formations.

4.4 billion years ago, the Earth was in what is called the ‘Hadean Eon’. This time period is poorly understood, because there is no rock record dating from that time. This is where the zircon mineral grains come in.

“The history of the Earth is like a book with its first chapter ripped out with no surviving rocks from the very early period, but we’ve used these trace elements of zircon to build a profile of the world at that time.” – Lead Researcher Dr. Antony Burnham, Australian National University

In a sense, these zircon grains are the missing pages.

Zircon’s chemical name is zirconium silicate, and it’s found almost everywhere in the Earth’s crust. This study focuses on what’s called detrital zircon, which is formed in igneous rocks, but then survives over time until deposited in sedimentary rocks. Zircon grains are typically very small, about 0.1 to 0.3 mm in size.

Zircon crystals from the Jack Hills in western Australia are the oldest rock fragments ever found. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU
Zircon crystals from the Jack Hills in western Australia are the oldest rock fragments ever found. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU

Zircon commonly contains traces of thorium and uranium, which means they can be easily dated by modern dating methods. Zircon can survive a lot of geologic processes like metamorphism, which explains their usefulness in studying the early Earth. They’re not easily destroyed, and they have a story to tell us.

The zircon grains were crystallized in magma about 500 million years after the Earth formed. As a result, they offer rare insights into conditions on Earth at the time. The zircon grains in question are referred to as detritus, because they formed in magma but were deposited in the geologically-important sandstone at Jack Hills, Australia. The detritus grains were compared to a second type of zircon grain which were formed directly in the sedimentary formations.

By distinguishing between the two types, researchers gain a new geochemical tool to understand early Earth.

The Jack Hills in Western Australia contain the oldest rocks known to exist on Earth. A team studying them concludes that early Earth was mostly a water world. By NASA Earth Observatory - http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Study/Zircon/zircon.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=738512
The Jack Hills in Western Australia contain the oldest rocks known to exist on Earth. A team studying them concludes that early Earth was mostly a water world. By NASA Earth Observatory – http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Study/Zircon/zircon.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=738512

“We used the granites of southeast Australia to decipher the link between zircon composition and magma type, and built a picture of what those missing rocks were,” he said.

“Our research indicates there were no mountains and continental collisions during Earth’s first 700 million years or more of existence – it was a much more quiet and dull place,” says Dr. Burnham from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences.

The detrital zircons formed elsewhere, but were deposited in the Jack Hills formation. By Robert Simmon, NASA - http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Study/Zircon/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4258701
The detrital zircons formed elsewhere, but were deposited in the Jack Hills formation. By Robert Simmon, NASA – http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Study/Zircon/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4258701

“Our findings also showed that there are strong similarities with zircon from the types of rocks that predominated for the following 1.5 billion years, suggesting that it took the Earth a long time to evolve into the planet that we know today.” The team’s results are published in the journal Nature Geoscience, and is titled “Formation of Hadean granites by melting of igneous crust.”

Dr. Antony Burnham from the Australian National University's Research School of Earth Sciences, led this study. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU.
Dr. Antony Burnham from the Australian National University’s Research School of Earth Sciences, led this study. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU.

This is not the first time that ancient, detrital zircons have been at the center of scientific studies of early Earth. In a previous study, they were used to conclude that Earth had a significant hydrosphere 4.3 billion years ago.

30 km Wide Asteroid Impacted Australia 3.4 Billion Years Ago

This is an artist’s depiction of a 10-kilometer (6-mile) diameter asteroid striking the Earth. New evidence in Australia suggests an asteroid 2 to 3 times larger than this struck Earth early in its life. Credit: Don Davis/Southwest Research Institute.

New evidence found in northwestern Australia suggests that a massive asteroid, 20 to 30 kilometres in diameter, struck Earth about 3.5 billion years ago. This impact would have dwarfed anything experienced by humans, and dinosaurs, releasing as much energy as millions of nuclear weapons. Impacts this large can trigger earthquakes and tsunamis, and change the geological history of Earth.

The evidence was uncovered by Andrew Glikson and Arthur Hickman from the Australian National University. While drilling for the Geological Survey of Western Australia, the two obtained drilling cores from some of the oldest known sediments on Earth. Sandwiched between two layers of sediment were tiny glass beads called spherules, which were formed from vaporized material from the asteroid impact.

Impact spherules formed from material vaporized by an asteroid impact. Image: A. Glikson/Australian National University
Impact spherules formed from material vaporized by an asteroid impact. Image: A. Glikson/Australian National University

The enormity of this impact cannot be overstated. “The impact would have triggered earthquakes orders of magnitude greater than terrestrial earthquakes, it would have caused huge tsunamis and would have made cliffs crumble,” said Dr. Glikson, from the ANU Planetary Institute.

This asteroid impact is the second oldest one that we know of. It is also one of the largest found yet, and at 20 to 30 kilometers in diameter, it is 2 the 3 times the size of the famous Chicxulub asteroid that struck the Yucatan in Mexico. That impact is thought to be responsible for ending the age of dinosaurs on Earth.

This image shows a very faint circular outline of the Chicxulub crater. After 65 million years, it is barely visible. All evidence of craters billions of years old would now be gone. Image: NASA/JPL
This image shows a very faint circular outline of the Chicxulub crater. After 65 million years, it is barely visible. All evidence of craters billions of years old would now be gone. Image: NASA/JPL

The crater itself would have been hundreds of kilometers in diameter, though all traces of it are now gone. “Exactly where this asteroid struck the earth remains a mystery,” Dr. Glikson said. “Any craters from this time on Earth’s surface have been obliterated by volcanic activity and tectonic movements.”

“Material from the impact would have spread worldwide. These spherules were found in sea floor sediments that date from 3.46 billion years ago,” said Glikson.

At 3.46 billion years ago, this puts this impact event close to a period of time 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago known as the Late Heavy Bombardment. This was a period of time when a disproportionate number of asteroids struck the Earth and the Moon, and probably Mercury, Venus, and Mars, too. The Late Heavy Bombardment was probably caused by the gas giants in our Solar System. As these planets migrated, their gravity caused enormous disruption, pulling objects in the asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt into trajectories that sent them towards the inner Solar System.

The Late Heavy Bombardment is thought to be a period of time when the Earth, and the rest of the bodies in the inner Solar System, were repeatedly struck by asteroids. Image: NASA/ESA
The Late Heavy Bombardment is thought to be a period of time when the Earth, and the rest of the bodies in the inner Solar System, were repeatedly struck by asteroids. Image: NASA/ESA

The surfaces of Mercury and the Moon are covered in impact craters. Samples of rock from the lunar surface, brought back to Earth by the Apollo astronauts, have been subjected to isotopic dating. Their age is constrained to a fairly narrow band of time, corresponding to the Late Heavy Bombardment. Obviously, the Earth would have been subjected to the same thing. But on geologically active Earth, most traces of impact events have been erased. It’s the sediment that hints at these events.

Australia is geologically ancient, and contains some of the most ancient rocks on Earth. Glikson and Hickman found the glass spherules in cores while drilling at Marble Bar in north-western Australia. Because the sediment layer containing the spherules was preserved between two volcanic layers, its age was determined with great precision.

The sediments at Marble Bar, north-western Australia, where the spherules were found. Image: A Glikson/Australian National University
The sediments at Marble Bar, north-western Australia, where the spherules were found. Image: A Glikson/Australian National University

For over 20 years, Dr. Glikson has been searching for evidence of asteroid impacts. When these glass beads were found in the core samples, he suspected an asteroid impact. Testing confirmed that the levels of elements such as platinum, nickel and chromium, matched those in asteroids.

This is not the first evidence of impact events that Glikson has uncovered. In 2015, Glikson discovered evidence of another massive asteroid strike in the Warburton Basin in Central Australia. At that site, buried in the crust 30 kilometers deep, in rock that is 300 to 500 million years old, Glikson found evidence of a double impact crater covering an area 400 kilometers wide.

This crater was believed to be the result of an asteroid that broke into two before slamming into Earth. “The two asteroids must each have been over 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) across — it would have been curtains for many life species on the planet at the time,” said Glikson.

“There may have been many more similar impacts, for which the evidence has not been found, said Dr. Glikson. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve only found evidence for 17 impacts older than 2.5 billion years, but there could have been hundreds.”

Finding the sites of ancient impacts is not easy. Advances in satellite imaging helped locate and pinpoint the Chicxulub crater, and others. If there have been hundreds of enormous asteroid impacts, like Dr. Glikson suggests, then they would have had an equally enormous impact on Earth’s evolution. But pinpointing these sites remains elusive.

Australian Astronomy Envy: This Video Is Like A Telescope Brochure

Performing observations in Australia is on many astronomers’ bucket lists, and this video timelapse shows you precisely why. Famous, world-class observatories, dark sky and the beautiful desolation of the desert combine in this award-winning sequence shot by Alex Cherney and posted on Vimeo.

Cherney writes that the video “is the result of over three years of work” and was the winner of the 2014 STARMUS astrophotography competition. Here are the observatories that are featured:

  • Roque De Los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma;
  • Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, Murchison, Australia;
  • Australia Telescope Compact Array, Narrarbri, Australia;
  • Parkes Radio Observatory, Australia;
  • Siding Spring Observatory, Australia;
  • Mount John Observatory, New Zealand

Astrophoto: “Second Star to the Right and Straight on Until Morning!”

Which way to the center of the galaxy? This very creative — and gorgeous — view of the Milky Way was taken this past weekend (March 9, 2014) by astrophotographer Carlos Orue from Australia. Carlos said the Milky Way was so bright under these dark skies that “I almost needed sunnies to turn down the glare! Lots of green airglow visible too.” Also visible are the large and small Magallanic clouds.

While taking the images for this 14-image panorama, Carlos said he had lots of company: “Kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, emus, bunny rabbits and foxes.”

And just remember, according to Walt Disney, “That second star to the right shines in the night for you, to tell you that the dreams you plan really can come true.”

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Astronaut Captures Incredible Images of Australian Bush Fires

Intense wild fires, or bush fires as they are called in Australia, are burning out of control across southeast Australia with authorities describing the condition as “catastrophic.” The huge fires were easily visible from the International Space Station on Tuesday and onboard, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has been watching from above.

See more of his images below:

A long line of bush fires range in Australia, and are visible from space. Credit: NASA/Chris Hadfield

Officials say more than 130 fires, many uncontained, are burning in the heavily populated New South Wales state, where dry conditions are fueling the fires as temperatures reached 45 degrees and wind gusts reached more than 100 kilometers per hour.

Huge plumes of smoke from bush fires in Australia were visible from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Chris Hadfield.
Huge plumes of smoke from bush fires in Australia were visible from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Chris Hadfield.

In Tasmania, an island south of Australia, rescue officials are still trying to locate around 100 residents who have been missing after a fire tore through a village, destroying dozens of homes. You can see images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite that were taken on January 7, 2013 at the Earth Observatory website.

Follow Chris Hadfield on Twitter to see more images.

Additional information on the bush fires from Voice of America

Thierry Legault: Moonbow and Meteor over Australia’s Wallaman Falls

Night vision under a full Moon at Wallaman Falls in Queensland, Australia. Credit and copyright: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.

Astrophotographer extraordinaire Thierry Legault traveled to Australia for the Transit of Venus this past June, but he didn’t stop with just taking incredible images of the Transit and then head home to France. He’s just published an wonderful collection of night sky images he took from his time in Australia, including this beautifully stunning image of a ‘Moonbow’ over Wallaman Falls, located in between Townsville and Cairns in north Queensland. If you’ve not seen a Moonbow before, you’re probably not alone. Many times, they are only visible in long exposure photographs, as the Moonlight effect is usually too faint for human eyes to discern. But the Moonlight on the water mist from the falls creates a Moonbow.

“The gibbous Moon makes a Moonbow over the falls while a bright meteor crosses the Milky Way,” Thierry wrote to Universe Today, sharing his new images. “Other visitors were sleeping in the camping area, but not me!”

See his entire collection of his Australian Nights images from June 2012 — they’re simply wonderful, and confirms the beauty of the night sky from down under!

Fires in the Sky, Fires on the Ground

 

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With all of the activity that’s been occurring on the Sun recently, the aurorae have been exceptionally bright and have created quite a show to viewers – both on Earth as well as above it!

The image above was taken over the southern Indian Ocean by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The southern lights – a.k.a. aurora australis – glow bright green and red in the upper layers of the atmosphere, creating a dazzling aerial display. (Click here to watch a movie of this.)

Shortly after, fires can be seen on the ground as the ISS passes over Australia:

Wildfires in Australia seen from orbit. Credit: NASA.

From NASA’s Earth Observatory website:

Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) used a digital camera to capture several hundred photographs of the aurora australis, or “southern lights,” while passing over the Indian Ocean on September 17, 2011. You can see the flowing ribbons and rays below as the ISS passed from south of Madagascar to just north of Australia between 17:22 and 17:45 Universal Time. Solar panels and other sections of the ISS fill some of the upper right side of the photograph.

Auroras are a spectacular sign that our planet is electrically and magnetically connected to the Sun. These light shows are provoked by energy from the Sun and fueled by electrically charged particles trapped in Earth’s magnetic field, or magnetosphere. In this case, the space around Earth was stirred up by an explosion of hot, ionized gas from the Sun — a coronal mass ejection — that left the Sun on September 14, 2011.

In the second image above, and in the last frames of the movie, light from the ground replaces the light show in the sky. Wildfires and perhaps some intentionally set agricultural fires burn on the continent of Australia,with smoke plumes faintly visible in the night sky. A gold and green halo of atmospheric airglow hangs above the horizon in the distance.

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Airglow is created by particles in the upper atmosphere that have been charged by UV light from the Sun during the day releasing the energy at night as greenish-yellow visible light.

Fires on the ground, fires in the sky… the stars blazing all around, the Sun in its full glory and a never-ending view of our entire planet… what an incredible place the ISS must be to work in! Absolutely amazing!

And the skies of night were alive with light, with a throbbing, thrilling flame; Amber and rose and violet, opal and gold it came. It swept the sky like a giant scythe, it quivered back to a wedge; Argently bright, it cleft the night with a wavy golden edge.

— “The Ballad of the Northern Lights”, Robert Service

Read more on the NASA Earth Observatory.

Researchers Discover 2nd Largest Impact Crater in Australia

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Geothermal energy researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia have identified what may be the second largest meteorite impact crater in Australia. Dr. Tonguç Uysal of the University of Queensland and Dr. Andrew Glikson of Australian National University identified rock structures that appear to have formed because of the shock of a meteorite impact. Their discovery was made while doing geothermal energy research in the Cooper Basin, which lies on the border between Queensland and South Australia.

The meteorite that caused the impact was likely 8 to 12 km in diameter (5 to 7.5 miles), Dr. Glikson said in an interview. It is also possible that a cluster of smaller meteorites impacted the region, so further testing is needed to pin down the exact nature of the impactor. The impact likely occurred over 300 million years ago, and the shock of the impact altered rock in a zone 80 km (50 miles) in diameter.

Dr. Glikson said, “Dr Uysal is studying the geochemistry and isotopes of granites from the basement below the Cooper Basin and observed potential shock lamella in the quartz grains.” Distinctive features of a shock due to a violent event such as a volcanic eruption, meteorite impact or earthquake are preserved in the rock surrounding such an event. In the case of the Cooper Basin impact, “penetrative intracrystalline planar deformation features” – essentially microscopic lines oriented in the same direction – were discovered in quartz grains. Additionally, the magnetic orientation of some of the rocks is slightly altered, further evidence of an impact event.

The impact structure itself may extend 10,000 square kilometers ( 3,850 square miles) and 524 meters (1,700 feet) deep, though Dr. Glikson said that further studies of the area include, “Studies of the geophysical structure of the basement below the Cooper Basin aimed at defining the impact structure.”

There is significant interest in the Cooper Basin as a source of geothermal energy, and there are several oil and gas companies currently mining the region, which is an important on-shore repository of petroleum. The impact event is likely the reason why this region is such a hotspot for geothermal activity.

“Large impacts result in a hydrothermal cell (boiling of ground water) which effect redistribution and re-concentration of K [potassium], Th [thorium] and U [uranium] upwards in the crust, hence elevated generation of heat from crustal zones enriched in the radiogenic elements,” Dr. Glikson explained.

The recent discovery of this impact crater makes it the second largest in Australia, second only to the Woodleigh impact structure (120 km in diameter), which was produced by an asteroid 6 to 12 km (4 to 8 miles) across, about 360 million years ago.

Dr. Glikson and Dr. Uysal will be presenting their findings at the upcoming Australian Geothermal Energy Conference in Adelaide, which runs from the 16th – 19th of November. They also plan to have their results published in a peer-reviewed journal, Dr. Glikson said. You can read a preliminary abstract of their conference paper here.

Source: Queensland University press release, conference paper abstract, interview with Dr. Andrew Glikson

Australia Pictures

View Of Australia From Galileo

One of the best ways to appreciate Australia is to see it from space. Here are some cool Australia pictures captured by satellites.

This is an image of Australia captured by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft as it was speeding away from Earth towards its final destination of Jupiter.

Australia West Coast

Here’s a photo of the West Coast of Australia captured by the MODIS sensor on board NASA’s Terra satellite. This image shows how Australia can have red deserts, agricultural regions and spectacular coastlines.

Southwest Australia

This is an image of Southwest Australia captured by NASA’s Terra satellite. It shows the continent’s deserts but also its old growth forest near the coast.

Southern Australia

This is a photo of South-Central Australia, which is home to several of the continent’s many deserts. The white regions in this photograph are some of Australia’s dry salt lake beds.

Spider Crater, Western Australia

This is a photograph of Spider Crater in Western Australia. Scientists think the crater was formed between 600 and 900 million years ago.

We’ve written many articles about Australia for Universe Today. Here’s an article about a giant iceberg that was headed for Australia, and here’s an article about a huge river of dust above Australia.

If you’d like more info on Australia, check out the site for NASA’s radio telescope in Australia, and here’s and article about bushfires in Australia.

We’ve recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.