Blog Society 31 August 2016

Monash University

Having just completed its year-long experiment, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation has given scientists a better idea of what it would be like conduct a mission on Mars.

But spending a year living inside a 112-square-metre solar-powered facility on the Hawaiian island of Mauna Loa is not the only way you can get an impression of Martian life.

Mars is our closest planetary neighbour and the next step in space exploration. An inhospitable place with no food, water or breathable air, explorers will need skills in a wide variety of scientific disciplines to survive the harsh conditions.

To give insights into what this would be like, Monash University in Melbourne, Australia has created a free four-week course that aims to teach the basic scientific, problem solving and communication skills that astronauts will need when they touch down on the Martian surface.

Led by Tina Overton and Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway, the course offers participants the chance to be taught topics including geoscience, chemistry, biology, physics and astronomy.

Incorporating the same teaching approaches used in student lectures, the course commitment is just three hours each week and needs no prior scientific knowledge.

The course begins 24 October. Sign up here.

Blog Space 18 August 2016


On Friday, NASA astronauts will install a new gateway or International Docking Adapter for American commercial crew spacecraft at the International Space Station.

The adapter represents the first on-orbit piece of the space station built to internationally standardised docking measurements and is fitted with a host of sensors and systems that are expected to make the docking procedure much easier.

In particular, the adapter has been constructed to automatically perform all the rendezvous steps and dock with the station without input from astronauts, although there will be manual backup systems in place should the need arise.

The adapter is essentially a ring with an internal diameter of 160 centimetres and an overall diameter of 240 centimetres. It was launched on a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft and arrived at the station on 20 July.

The first users of the adapter are expected to be Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon crafts, but due to the international standards of the adapter it will be available to all future spacecraft.

The installation will be conducted during a spacewalk by Expedition 48 commander Jeff Williams and flight engineer Kate Rubins of NASA. The two astronauts will venture outside the space station’s Quest airlock to install the adapter onto Pressurised Mating Adapter-2 (the docking port), which is positioned on the front of the Harmony module.

The installation of the adapter represents a significant step in NASA’s endeavour to return crew launches to US soil.

This will consequently increase the time US crews can dedicate to scientific research helping prepare astronauts for deep space missions such as the journey to Mars.

Coverage of the spacewalk will start at 10.30am UTC (6.30am EDT, 8.30pm AEST), with the walk scheduled to begin 95 minutes in. You can watch on NASA TV below:

Blog Society 17 August 2016

Running during National Science Week, the SCINEMA International Film Festival gives you the opportunity to view this year’s winning submissions.

Some 1,300 films were submitted from 80 countries this year, from which six were selected as winners. Filmmakers were tasked with communicating scientific stories to the public, presenting their work in formats including short stories, documentaries and stop motion.

Below is a list of this year’s winners – they will be on show at the film festival. To see them in full, visit click here for tickets.

Best Film – Maratus by Simon Cunich (Australia)

The story of how a garbage collector's photograph of an unknown colourful spider sparked a massive hunt for the mystery arachnid, changing his life in the process.

Best Short Film – The Amazing Life Cycle of the European Eel by Sofia Castello y Tickell (UK)

The critically endangered European eel is a wonder of nature, undergoing a complex lifecycle that even today is still a mystery. Find out more about how these slithery creatures reproduce in this stop-motion short film.

Best Documentary – Hilleman – A Perilous Quest to Save the World's Children by Donald Mitchell (US)

This documentary explores the work of Maurice Hillman, one of the greatest scientists of all time but few people know about. Hillman developed more than half of the vaccines given to children today, changing the face of modern medicine.

Best Experimental/Animated Film – Metamorphosis of Plants by Urszula Zajączkowska (Poland)

Capturing the life of plants that we do not normally see, Zajączkowska imitates the actions of plants to portray their hidden lives. A culmination of two years of filming, the film is a unique take on scientific filmography.

Award for Technical Merit – Corpus by Marc Héricher (France)

A look at the complex reactions that occur to bring organs to life. These reactions lead to an act of creation, but can this creation be produced by a machine?

Award for Scientific Merit – Wonders of Life – Size Matters by Paul Olding (UK)

Featuring scientific superstar Brian Cox, Wonders of Life – Size Matters explores how your size affects what forces of nature influence your life.

Blog Biology 16 August 2016

Fancy yourself a bit of a researcher? You're in luck – during Australia's National Science Week from 13-21 August (and throughout the year) there are plenty of projects to sink your teeth into.

Here are just a few organisations to contact and ways to get involved:

Great Barrier Reef Citizen Science Alliance

Each day of our month-long celebration of coastal and marine citizen science features one of the active citizen science organisations or initiatives across Queensland.

Be inspired by the stories of citizen science achievements and help find the one that’s right for you!

Engaging the general public in data collection can enhance the scope of scientific research – getting volunteers involved in research allows data to be collected more frequently, or over larger areas. Citizen science provides a great way for communities to work together to protect reefs.

Wildlife Spotter

The ABC has more than one million images taken by automatic cameras from many beautiful parts of Australia, but need to know if there is an animal in each photo, and if so, what type of animal it is.

By sharing the load they can get through the images faster – that’s the power of citizen science.

Click here to start classifying. You may win a camera!


DuneWatch was established to give the community an opportunity to assist in collecting vital information on the health of the sand dunes. This will expand the knowledge on the local dune systems and also maps BeachCare’s planting activities.

Sand dunes are an important ecosystem as it protects our shorelines and therefore also our coastal development. Dune vegetation ensures that the sand is held together during storm events and attracts a variety of wildlife.

A number of animal species will find their homes in the dunes; others look for shelter or food. The diversity of plants and animals create a valuable and unique coastal environment as each dune has its own composition.

Riverland Change Exchange

The Riverland Change Exchange is an event for local citizen scientists, as well as anyone interested in learning about citizen science and how they might get involved. This bird themed affair is part of the Murray Mallee Science Hub’s National Science Week Extravaganza at the McCormick Centre in Renmark.

3.30 pm: Citizen Science Change Exchange – what is Citizen Science?
4.00 pm: Riverland showcase stories – locals sharing their knowledge & experience with community monitoring programs
5.00 pm: Bird photography workshop with Southern Birding Services
5.45 pm: Presentation of 2016 Citizen Science Award
Then join us for supper and Citizen Science networking
7.00 pm: Finish

Blog Technology 15 August 2016

Deep Space Industries

Hot on the heels of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, US tech company Deep Space Industries has announced plans to embark on the world’s first interplanetary mining mission with the spacecraft they are calling Prospector-1.

The announcement also comes soon after the US Senate passed a law which entitles people to own the goods that they mine from space.

There is enormous potential for profit in this field as asteroids contain many valuable materials including iron, tungsten, magnesium, platinum and gold.

NASA has already revealed its plans to launch OSIRIS-REx later this year to retrieve a small sample from a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu.

Prospector-1, like OSIRIS-REx, will strive to analyse and extract valuable materials from asteroids to bring back to Earth. In addition, though, Deep Space Industries' prospector missions could usher in a new era of low cost space exploration according to the chief engineer at Deep Space Industries, Grant Bonin.

Although the spacecraft will be a meagre 50 kilograms when fully fuelled, the Prospector-1 will be extremely efficient.

Its propulsion system will employ superheated water vapour to generate thrust and since water will be the first asteroid mining product this will allow future Deep Space Industries spacecraft to refuel in space.

The first steps in the process to launch Prospector-1 are already underway as plans were revealed recently to build and fly a precursor model spacecraft called Prospector-X in 2017.

This experimental mission will test the technology in low-Earth orbit, but Deep Space Industries anticipates that by the end of the decade Prospector-1 will be traveling beyond Earth’s orbit on the first space mining exploration mission.

Blog Biology 12 August 2016

Cosmos magazine
Tamper with the DNA of future generations? I had always thought this was a moral line in the sand that would never be crossed — that it had been inscribed with weighty moral force by the pioneers of genetic engineering in the 1970s.

I was mistaken.

The era of genetic engineering began in 1972, when Paul Berg at Stanford University learnt to cut and paste DNA from one virus to another. Dubbed the father of genetic engineering, he realised he’d opened Pandora’s box. People were worried: would scientists create monsters?

Berg called for a moratorium and organised the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA. Amidst the windswept Monterey pines and crashing waves of California’s coast, 140 scientists, lawyers, journalists and ethicists discussed the potential dangers of GM microbes and came up with guidelines to safely contain them.

I had thought that was the moment when the line in the sand was drawn: thou shalt not tamper with the DNA of a human sperm, egg or a newly formed embryo. But on probing, I find no evidence. “There wasn’t a moral line in the sand,” Asilomar co-organiser David Baltimore, now an emeritus professor at California Institute of Technology, told me. “There was the simple recognition we were not techically in a position to consider such a thing”.

Nevertheless, since then many countries have considered germ-line gene modification beyond the pale, and enshrined this belief in legislation.

For decades, the regulatory harness held firm. We’ve had genetically-modified bacteria that produce our drugs, pest-resistant cotton, goats producing spider silk in their milk, gene therapy trials for sick people. But no tampering with the human gene pool.

Until April of last year. Making use of the new CRISPR technique – so accurate it has been named genetic editing rather than engineering – Chinese researchers “edited” the DNA of unviable human embryos to correct a gene that causes severe anaemia.

Sure enough, it sounded the alarm bells.

Jennifer Doudna, the Berkeley scientist who developed CRISPR in 2013, said she’d stopped sleeping at night. NIH head Francis Collins condemned the trespass saying it was “viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed”.

But it’s certainly not a universal reaction. Like Oxford ethicist Julian Savulescu, author of our cover story, Baltimore agrees there is a strong moral case for editing the human germ line. In a bookend to Asilomar, he and Berg helped organise an international meeting of scientists in Washington last December to discuss the ethical implications of the tool. “It’s not ready for prime time now, but it’s only years off,” he says.

“We should be thinking about it.”

Cosmos issue 70 is out now. You can buy a copy or subscribe here.

Blog Society 10 August 2016

How are your photography skills? Time to put them to use: conservation group The Nature Conservancy Australia is soon accepting entries to its annual photography competition.

The brief is simple – capture nature in Australia at its most beautiful.

“You don’t have to be a photographer by trade to have a good eye, anybody can capture the perfect shot, and this is a great opportunity to showcase what every Aussie sees in their local environment,” says director Rich Gilmore.

Last year’s competition saw more than 3,700 entries with an overall winner selected from a shortlist of 14.

Prizes this year include a $500 Flight Centre voucher, high tea for two at Melbourne’s Zumbo Café and a one-on-one workshop with a competition judge.

Submissions for 2016 close 4 November. To get you inspired, here is the winner of the 2015 competition and a few of the shortlisted finalists.

Keep an eye on their website to enter.

'Chasing Fish'.
Arthur Roy

Overall winner: Chasing Fish

A great eastern egret spots potential prey, in the form of a longtom, as it leaps from the water. Fish make up much of the egret’s diet, requiring fast reactions and a good eye to catch its prey.

'Fury of the Heavens'.
Bob Ellisdon

'Maratus plumosus'.
Billy Brown
Ben Goode

'Seadragon Encounter'.
Carl Charter

Blog Space 08 August 2016

A time-lapse image of a Perseid meteor outburst in August 2009.

The Perseid meteor shower will peak this week, with the most activity between 11 and 12 August.

The shower, which occurs as Earth passes through the trail left by the Swift-Tuttle comet, is expected to be especially vivid this year. Astronomers say the conditions are right for an “outburst”, with the potential for more than double the usual 80 sightings an hour – at least in the Northern hemisphere.

“Under perfect conditions, rates could soar to 200 meteors per hour,” NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke says.

The meteors light up when specks of material from the comet hit Earth’s atmosphere (or when the Earth’s atmosphere hits it). This shower is called the Perseids because they seem to fly out of the constellation Perseus.

Usually Earth just slides past the edge of the comet’s debris stream but this year, with Jupiter’s gravity pulling the dust closer to us, Earth will pass through the middle of the trail. Astronomers believe this year could be one of those events.

Earth began passing through the cloud of dust on 17 July and will have cleared it by 24 August, but the shower's peak — when Earth passes through the densest, dustiest area — will be between midnight and dawn on the morning of 12 August.

In the Northern Hemisphere, a few Perseids will be visible in the early evening and, while they might not be so plentiful, this is the best time to try to see an “earthgrazer" – a long-lasting meteor travelling horizontally across the sky.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the Preseids are visible from tropical and sub-tropical zones, but not until well after midnight.

Comet Swift-Tuttle is the largest object to regularly swing by Earth, last passing us on its orbit around the sun in 1992. It’s next run will be in 2126.

Blog Space 05 August 2016

To coincide with the Curiosity rover's fourth anniversary (in Earth years) on Mars, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has collaborated with GAMEE to develop the social media game Mars Rover.

While Curiosity explores the red planet, gamers can join the fun by driving a rover through rough Martian terrain, challenging themselves to navigate and balance the rover while earning points along the way.

The game also illustrates how NASA’s next Mars rover, in development for launch in 2020, will use radar to search for underground water.

“We’re excited about a new way for people on the go to engage with Curiosity’s current adventures on Mars and future exploration by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover too,” said Michelle Viotti, manager of Mars public engagement initiatives at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“Using social networks, the user can share the fun with friends. The interest that is shared through gameplay also helps us open a door to deeper literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

Blog Society 01 July 2016


Cosmos contributor Andrew Masterson has a new book on the way. Beside being our favourite book title this year, Lolcatz, Santa, and Death by Dog is a collection of the curiosities of science and tech research.

“He discovers attempts to clone dogs, mammoths and John Lennon; explores the biology of Wookies; traces how the Arab Spring was actually started by internet cats; and investigates the deep history of food fads,” publisher Ebury Press says.

The book also includes interviews with some of the giants in the field, including cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson, string theorist Brian Greene, Bill Nye “the science guy”, science comedian Robin Ince, and America's most wanted man, Edward Snowden.

Masterson recently launched a Facebook page called Lolcatz, Santa and Death by Dog, which he hopes to build in the long-term as a repository of curious science and tech stories “for the passing amusement of whoever cares to look”.

You can find it here

Apart from Cosmos, Masterson writes frequently on science, technology and popular culture for publications including The Age and Sydney Morning

Herald, as well as contributing to science documentaries made by Emmy Award-winning Melbourne company, Genepool Productions.

He has also had several novels published, of which two have won the Ned Kelly Award for crime fiction. You can see his collection of work published in Cosmos here.