Month: December 2016

2016, the year that was: Politics and Society

If you had the feeling that global politics in 2016 operated on something of a fault line, you’re not alone. Month after month, the world was rocked by unexpected yet momentous events: terror attacks in Nice and Brussels, Brexit and the rise of Trump, to name just a few.

Here in Australia, our federal election on July 2 seemed fairly tame by comparison, despite the fact that it took more than a week for the result to be known (even then, we didn’t know if it would be a minority or majority government).

There was, too, the unmistakable irony of going to a double-dissolution election because of a fractured and unwieldy Senate, only to find ourselves after the election with a razor-thin majority government and a fractured and unwieldy Senate.

Before all of that, the relatively new Turnbull government was having trouble passing its industrial relations laws, the rejection of which by the Senate was the ostensible reason for the double-dissolution election. Part of this reflected the changing nature of trade unions, which we covered in a series in April.

It wasn’t until December that the government finally negotiated the passage of the enabling bill for the Australian Building and Corruption Commission (ABCC), by which time, judging by the response, few Australians seemed to care.

Tale of two Australias

One of the most striking aspects of the federal election result was the extent to which, as Dennis Altman wrote, the “rusted on” vote has diminished. This reflects, albeit in a more understated way, the seismic political shifts happening elsewhere in the world: the shift away from establishment parties and institutions; the boom of right-wing populism.

In Australia, this was reflected by the rise of the “micro” parties at the expense, particularly of the two major parties. One Nation and Pauline Hanson returned seemingly stronger than ever; the moderate populist line offered by the Nick Xenophon team also appealed. Jacqui Lambie, Bob Katter and Cathy McGowan were returned to parliament while the “Human Headline”, Derryn Hinch, joined the Senate.

Since the election, the micro parties and independents have provided much of parliament’s color – One Nation has already split with controversial Senator Rod Culleton, while Family First’s Bob Day quit after his business collapsed.

Political donations continue to be in the spotlight, with calls for more transparency on exactly what donors expect – and are given – their generous support.

We can only hope for a calmer and more constructive parliament in 2017. We’re unlikely to get it, of course, but we can hope.

Take a jump to the left? No, a huge step to the right

Our seemingly endless election campaign was sandwiched between two cataclysmic and unexpected politic events.

The first was the stunning success of the Brexit campaign, led by Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, which was not predicted when Britons went to vote in the referendum. The result caused British Prime Minister David Cameron to resign, and Theresa May to become the UK’s second female prime minister.

The Brexit result left many pundits wondering how they didn’t see it coming. But if that was a surprise, it was nothing alongside the November 8 election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, so sure were so many that Hillary Clinton would become the first woman elected to what is still arguably the most powerful job in the world. She had, after all, performed clinically in the three televised debates, while Trump seemed to stumble from one disaster to another, all the while using the media to his advantage – even though the media were largely critical of him.

Trump’s election caused – and continues to cause – a great deal of consternation, with worries about how he will handle the Asian region, immigration, and the economy among a host of other issues. His presidency promises one thing for sure: it will not be dull.

Tale of two Australias, part two: gay marriage, safe schools and free speech

Politics and policy are often slow to catch up with social change. With that in mind, and with the legalization on gay marriage poised to go to a plebiscite under a returned Coalition government, we launched a series in May looking at just how the family has changed.

Still, after heated debate and canvassing both the pros and cons of a plebiscite, the notion was eventually rolled by the Senate out of fears of the damage a public campaign could do young LGBTI people and their families.

The same-sex marriage debate has embedded in it a question of freedom of speech, which had a nexus with another passionately contested, and still unresolved, debate: whether Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act should be changed. So hotly debated was it that we published a series on the politics of free speech in September.

Led by powerful conservative voices within the government such as Senator Cory Bernardi, you can expect to hear plenty more about freedom of speech, and in particular 18C, in the year ahead.

That wasn’t the only issue that was exercising Bernardi and other conservatives such as George Christensen. The Safe Schools Coalition, and the sex ed program it offers in Australian schools, became one of the most fiercely contested issues inside the parliament and in society more broadly. Of most concern seemed to be discussing issues of gender identity and fluidity with schoolchildren – an issue on which research is often cast aside in favor of ideology. Again, there is little doubt that this debate will be revisited in the coming year.

The nation was shocked in July after the airing of a Four Corners program detailing the abuse of children at the Don Dale facility in the Northern Territory. The shocking footage immediately prompted the prime minister to announce a royal commission, as our authors unpacked the nature of torture, the failure of the state to care for prisoners – especially the very young – and why so many Indigenous children are incarcerated in the first place.

Islamic State falters in Iraq and Syria, and terror hits Europe

What may have initially looked like an accident: a truck plowing into a crowd of people in the French city of Nice, was soon revealed to be an act of terrorism.

This followed the Brussels bombing in March, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Then, in December, a truck plowed into a Christmas market in Berlin, in an attack eerily similar to the one in Nice, boding ill for the year ahead and the ongoing threat of terror.

Meanwhile, the cities of Mosul and Aleppo will be forever etched in our minds, for the worst possible reasons. Even though IS is on the back foot in both cities, their futures, and those of their citizens, remain uncertain.

There is no sign this will end anytime soon.

Hot in the cities

Closer to home, throughout 2016 we explored how our cities are responding to challenges such as climate change and the pressures of simultaneous urban expansion and densification on resources, urban infrastructure, and services, including the humble public toilet.

Most competing “global cities” aspire to be more resilient, sustainable and liveable. Yet the problems of unaffordable housing and transport congestion seem a world away from the technology-driven promise of smart cities. Questions of grossly unequal access, opportunity, wealth and wellbeing across cities continued to occupy our authors.

In seeking answers to these questions, we considered how more coherent, inclusive and democratic urban policymaking might help make city life better for all.

What will the new year hold?

After all that happened in 2016, 2017 will have to be a quieter, gentler year, right? Well, let’s just put it this way: one of the first major international political events on the 2017 calendar is the January 20 inauguration of the next president of the United States and avid tweeter, Donald Trump.

Happy new year.

The Conversation

Amanda Dunn, Editor, The Conversation; John Watson, Editor, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, Deputy Multimedia Editor, The Conversation


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Interstellar: Crossing the Cosmic Void

Humanity’s great leap into the space between the stars has, in a sense, already begun. NASA’s Voyager 1 probe broke through the sun’s magnetic bubble to touch the interstellar wind. Voyager 2 isn’t far behind. New Horizons shot past Pluto on its way to encounters with more distant dwarf worlds, the rubble at the solar system’s edge.

Closer to home, we’re working on techniques to help us cross greater distances. Astronauts feast on romaine lettuce grown aboard the International Space Station, perhaps a preview of future banquets en route to Mars, or to deep space.

For the moment, sending humans to other stars remains firmly in the realm of science fiction—as in the new film, “Passengers,” when hibernating travelers awaken in midflight. But while NASA so far has proposed no new missions beyond our solar system, scientists and engineers are sketching out possible technologies that might one day help to get us there.

NASA’s Journey to Mars, a plan aimed at building on robotic missions to send humans to the red planet, could be helping lay the groundwork.

“Propulsion, power, life support, manufacturing, communication, navigation, robotics: the Journey to Mars is going to force us to make advances in every one of these areas,” said Jeffrey Sheehy, NASA’s Space Technology Missions Directorate chief engineer in Washington, D.C. “Those systems are not going to be advanced enough to do an interstellar mission. But Mars is stepping us that much farther into space. It’s a step along the way to the stars.”

Selfie taken by Curiosity the Mars rover
A selfie taken by Curiosity the Mars rover in the Murray Buttes area. NASA’s Journey to Mars, a plan aimed at building on robotic missions to send humans to the red planet, could be helping lay the groundwork.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Charting the unknown

Hurling ourselves, Passengers-style, just to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, would require crossing almost inconceivably vast distances. We would need truly exotic technology, such as suspended animation or multi-generational life support. That places in-person visits well out of reach, at least for the near term.

But the possibility of robotic interstellar probes is coming into much sharper focus. Space probe pioneers say the radiation, energy and particle-bathed space between the stars—the so-called interstellar medium—is itself a worthy science destination.

“We need more explorers, more of these local probes into this region, so we can understand better these interface conditions between our sun and the interstellar medium,” said Leon Alkalai, an engineering fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and co-author of a 2015 report on exploring interstellar space. “Like the ancient mariners, we want to start creating a map.”

Alkalai’s report, “Science and Enabling Technologies for the Exploration of the Interstellar Medium,” maps out the knowns and unknowns of largely uncharted regions, from the dark, distant, dwarf worlds of the Kuiper Belt to the “bow shock”—the turbulent transition thought to separate the sun’s bubble of plasma from the interstellar wind. Drawing on the work of more than 30 specialists during two workshops at the Keck Institute for Space Studies, the report poses pressing questions about the structure, composition and energy flow in this cosmic vastness. And it paints one of the most detailed pictures yet of a possible interstellar probe using present-day technology.

Artist's illustration of interstellar medium
An annotated illustration of the interstellar medium. The solar gravity lens marks the point where a conceptual spacecraft in interstellar space could use our sun as a gigantic lens, allowing zoomed-in close-ups of planets orbiting other stars.
Credits: Charles Carter/Keck Institute for Space Studies

Part of the report focuses on a “Design Reference Mission,” a conceptual starting point that allowed workshop scientists to begin teasing out some of the technical requirements of an interstellar probe. The resulting probe concept was meant to be “daring, challenging, inspirational to the public,” and “a rational first step towards attempting to reach another star,” the report said. It’s the latest in a long line of interstellar probe concepts by NASA scientists stretching back to the 1970s.

In this conceptual scenario, the disk-shaped probe in a bullet-shaped housing is launched as a payload on the Space Launch System, NASA’s next big rocket, in the late 2020s. With gravitational boosts from Earth, Jupiter and the sun itself, it could reach interstellar space in just 10 years. By comparison, it took Voyager 1 36 years to reach the heliopause, or the boundary of interstellar space.

The probe would rely on both rockets and electrical power from next-generation radioisotope thermoelectric generators, enhanced versions of the kind now onboard the Mars Curiosity Rover. Such a probe would carry a variety of sensors and a communications antenna. It could investigate the interstellar medium and its boundary with the solar system, and perhaps even conduct a flyby of a Kuiper Belt object, one of the many unknown space bodies that orbit the sun far beyond Pluto.

Future studies could examine the possibility of electric propulsion for the probe, or solar or electric sails.

Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968
Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. Possible future technology like solar gravitational lensing may give us pictures of other worlds detailed enough to reveal continents and oceans, like this photo of Earth.
Credits: NASA

Solar gravity: a window on another world

One of the most extraordinary conceptual spacecraft detailed in the report also would exit the solar system, but only just. And its focus, literally, would be on alien worlds.

This conceptual spacecraft would be parked in near interstellar space to use our sun as a gigantic lens, allowing zoomed-in close-ups of planets orbiting other stars. A space telescope would be lofted to a position far beyond Pluto, some 550 times the distance from Earth to the sun, or farther. It would take advantage of an effect described by Einstein: the power of gravity to bend light rays.

The stream of light from a distant star and its planet would be bent around the edges of the sun, like water flowing around a rock, meeting on the other side at a focal point—where it would be greatly magnified. The telescope would be placed in just the right position to capture these images.

The images would be smeared into a ring around the sun, called an Einstein ring, and the technical challenges would be immense: the distortions would have to be corrected and the fragmentary images reassembled. But if successful, the lens could be powerful enough to reveal surface features of an exoplanet—a planet around another star.

“It would almost be like the Earthrise picture from the moon,” Alkalai said, recalling the iconic image sent back by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968. “You would see clouds and continents and oceans, that kind of scale of images. From Earth, every image of an exoplanet is a single pixel, so you’re looking with a straw at the exoplanet. If you want to image continents on an exoplanet, you need something like the solar gravitational lens.”

Once we are ready to take the giant stride to another star, the problem of propulsion takes center stage. Carrying bulky fuel tanks could increase the mass of an interstellar probe beyond the realm of feasibility.

But reaching even one-tenth the speed of light would allow a space probe to arrive at the nearest star in a 50-year time frame, Sheehy said.

“We would never be able to accelerate to that kind of velocity using a chemical reaction,” such as those in present-day rockets, he said.

One answer that might just possibly be within reach, he said, involves “beamed energy.” A powerful laser array, either on Earth’s surface or in orbit, could be used to accelerate space probes equipped with sails to some fraction of the speed of light. NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program (NIAC) recently chose one such project, led by Philip Lubin at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to receive a second grant for further development.

NIAC also recently provided funding for a conceptual project that might warm the hearts of “Passengers” fans. Called “Advanced Torpor Inducing Transfer Habitats for Human Stasis to Mars,” this research effort by John Bradford of Space Works Inc., in Atlanta, investigates how to place astronauts in a deep sleep state with reduced metabolic rates for trips between Earth and Mars. While it isn’t true suspended animation or intended for interstellar travel, such a project highlights the extreme technical difficulties involved in sending fragile human bodies across the reaches of interstellar space.

The first blooming zinnia flower in the Veggie plant growth system aboard the International Space Station
The first blooming zinnia flower in the Veggie plant growth system aboard the International Space Station. Growing food in space is one of the challenges humans will have to face before attempting interstellar travel.
Credits: NASA

Printing a pizza

If our species ever attempts such trips, they could take many decades or even centuries, perhaps requiring some kind of suspension and revival or vessels that can sustain human life for several generations.

“Maybe the people we launch won’t be the people who actually reach Alpha Centauri,” Sheehy said. “It will be their kids. But you’ve got to eat for those 80 years.”

Learning to grow food in space could help, he said, though growing plants from seeds requires “real estate in space. A tomato plant is so big, a head of lettuce is a certain size.”

Another possibility is using 3-D printers that “build 3-D objects up layer by layer. Why couldn’t we build a cell that way? Why couldn’t we build food that way? Could you print a pizza?”

Alkalai also considers human interstellar travel an extremely distant prospect.

“The notion of sending humans to interstellar space is so far out in the sense that people need to have resources on the scale of a planet,” he said. “The only sci-fi story that I like, that might have some scientific basis, is not to build a Star Trek Enterprise but to really hijack an asteroid.

“Imagine a population that would be able to be on a binary asteroid. Then they could use one of them to swing the other one into interstellar space. Then you have resources on the asteroid, a source of iron, carbon, other materials. They could mine that as a source of resources for living, for energy. You would have to imagine something like this designed for many, many generations.”

But the daunting challenges even to sending robotic probes to the stars should be motivating, not discouraging, Sheehy said.

“Anywhere we’ve ever gone as humans, we always learn something, even if it’s just over the next mountain range,” he said. “A lot of times you discover something about yourself on a journey like that. We always find something that surprises us.”

By Tony Greicius-Editor

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Space Timekeeping: NASA’s SDO Adds Leap Second to Master Clock

On Dec. 31, 2016, official clocks around the world will add a leap second just before midnight Coordinated Universal Time — which corresponds to 6:59:59 p.m. EST. NASA missions will also have to make the switch, including the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, which watches the sun 24/7.

Clocks do this to keep in sync with Earth’s rotation, which gradually slows down over time. When the dinosaurs roamed Earth, for example, our globe took only 23 hours to make a complete rotation. In space, millisecond accuracy is crucial to understanding how satellites orbit.

“SDO moves about 1.9 miles every second,” said Dean Pesnell, the project scientist for SDO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “So does every other object in orbit near SDO. We all have to use the same time to make sure our collision avoidance programs are accurate. So we all add a leap second to the end of 2016, delaying 2017 by one second.”

The leap second is also key to making sure that SDO is in sync with the Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC, used to label each of its images. SDO has a clock that counts the number of seconds since the beginning of the mission. To convert that count to UTC requires knowing just how many leap seconds have been added to Earth-bound clocks since the mission started. When the spacecraft wants to provide a time in UTC, it calls a software module that takes into consideration both the mission’s second count and the number of leap seconds — and then returns a time in UTC.



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A New Home on Mars: NASA Langley’s Icy Concept for Living on the Red Planet

When astronauts set foot on Mars, they may stay for months rather than days as they did during Apollo missions to the moon. The surface of Mars has extreme temperatures and the atmosphere does not provide adequate protection from high-energy radiation. These explorers will need shelters to effectively protect them from the harsh Martian environment and provide a safe place to call home.

For researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the best building material for a new home on Mars may lie in an unexpected material: ice.

Starting with a proposed concept called “Mars Ice Dome,” a group of NASA experts and passionate designers and architects from industry and academia came together at Langley’s Engineering Design Studio. The project was competitively selected through the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD) Center Innovation Fund to encourage creativity and innovation within the NASA Centers in addressing technology needs. This is just one of many potential concepts for sustainable habitation on the Red Planet in support of the agency’s journey to Mars.

“After a day dedicated to identifying needs, goals and constraints we rapidly assessed many crazy, out of the box ideas and finally converged on the current Ice Home design, which provides a sound engineering solution,” said Langley senior systems engineer Kevin Vipavetz, facilitator for the design session.

The team at Langley had assistance in their concept study, as a collaborative team from Space Exploration Architecture and the Clouds Architecture Office that produced a first-prize winning entry for the NASA Centennial Challenge for a 3D-printed habitat (Mars Ice House) played a key role in the design session.

The “Mars Ice Home” is a large inflatable torus, a shape similar to an inner tube, that is surrounded by a shell of water ice. The Mars Ice Home design has several advantages that make it an appealing concept. It is lightweight and can be transported and deployed with simple robotics, then filled with water before the crew arrives. It incorporates materials extracted from Mars, and because water in the Ice Home could potentially be converted to rocket fuel for the Mars Ascent Vehicle, the structure itself doubles as a storage tank that can be refilled for the next crew.

Another critical benefit is that water, a hydrogen-rich material, is an excellent shielding material for galactic cosmic rays – and many areas of Mars have abundant water ice just below the surface. Galactic cosmic rays are one of the biggest risks of long stays on Mars. This high-energy radiation can pass right through the skin, damaging cells or DNA along the way that can mean an increased risk for cancer later in life or, at its worst, acute radiation sickness.

Space radiation is also a significant challenge for those designing potential Mars outposts. For example, one approach would envision habitats buried underneath the Martian surface to provide radiation shielding. However, burying the habitats before the crews arrive would require heavy robotic equipment that would need to be transported from Earth.

The Ice Home concept balances the need to provide protection from radiation, without the drawbacks of an underground habitat. The design maximizes the thickness of ice above the crew quarters to reduce radiation exposure while also still allowing light to pass through ice and surrounding materials.

“All of the materials we’ve selected are translucent, so some outside daylight can pass through and make it feel like you’re in a home and not a cave,” Kempton said.

Selecting materials that would accomplish these goals was a challenge for materials experts.

“The materials that make up the Ice Home will have to withstand many years of use in the harsh Martian environment, including ultraviolet radiation, charged-particle radiation, possibly some atomic oxygen, perchlorates, as well as dust storms – although not as fierce as in the movie ‘The Martian’,” said Langley researcher Sheila Ann Thibeault.

In addition to identifying potential materials, a key constraint for the team was the amount of water that could be reasonably extracted from Mars. Experts who develop systems for extracting resources on Mars indicated that it would be possible to fill the habitat at a rate of one cubic meter, or 35.3 cubic feet, per day. This rate would allow the Ice Home design to be completely filled in 400 days. The design could be scaled up if water could be extracted at higher rates.

Additional design considerations include a large amount of flexible workspace so that crews would have a place to service robotic equipment indoors without the need to wear a pressure suit. To manage temperatures inside the Ice Home, a layer of carbon dioxide gas would be used as in insulation between the living space and the thick shielding layer of ice. And, like water, carbon dioxide is available on Mars.

It’s important, Kempton said, for astronauts to have something to look forward to when they arrive on the Red Planet.

“After months of travel in space, when you first arrive at Mars and your new home is ready for you to move in, it will be a great day,” he said.

Eric Gillard, NASA Langley Research Center


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2016: the year in space and astronomy

The achievements of astrophysicists this year were as groundbreaking as they were varied. From reuniting a lander with a mothership on a comet, to seeing the most extreme cosmic events with gravitational waves, 2016 was truly out of this world for science.

Here are some of the highlights of the year that was.

1. Gravitational Waves

The spectacular announcement that ripples in the very fabric of spacetime itself had been found (and from surprisingly massive black holes colliding) sent similarly massive ripples through the scientific community. The discovery was made using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and represents a fundamentally new sense with which to see the universe.

Animation showing how colliding black holes cause a ripple in spacetime that moves outwards into the universe as a gravitational wave.

The gravitational waves cause one arm of the LIGO detector to stretch relative to the other by less than a thousandth of the width of a proton in the centre of the atom. Relatively speaking, that’s like measuring a hair’s-width change in the distance to the nearest star.

This discovery was the end of a century-long quest to prove Einstein’s final prediction that these gravitational waves are real. It also allows us to directly “see” that famously and fundamentally invisible entity: the black hole (as well as definitively proving its existence). The fact that the two black holes collided 1.3 billion years ago and the waves swept through Earth just days after turning the detector on only add to the incredible story of this discovery.

The ‘sound’ of the black holes colliding where the measured signal from LIGO is converted to audio, the rising chirp sound towards the end is the two black holes spiralling together ever more quickly. A surprisingly wimpy sound for the most extreme collision ever detected.

2. SpaceX lands (and crashes) a rocket

The year started so well for SpaceX with the incredible achievement of sending a satellite into orbit, which is no mean feat itself at such low cost, before then landing that launch rocket on a barge in the ocean. A seemingly unstoppable sequence of launches and landings made it appear that a new era of vastly cheaper access to space through rockets that could be refuelled and reused was at hand.

A Falcon 9 first-stage automatically returns to the barge/droneship ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.

Unfortunately, with the explosion of a Falcon 9 on the launchpad, the company was grounded, but apparently hopes for a resumed launch in early January.

SpaceX outlines a vision for travel to Mars with planned Interplanetary Transport System.

Add to that the visionary plans to settle Mars outlined by Elon Musk, albeit not without some audacious challenges, and it’s been a year of highs and lows for SpaceX.

3. Closest star may harbour Earth-like world

Proxima Centauri is our Sun’s nearest neighbour at just over four light years away, and it appears that its solar system may contain an Earth-like world. Until this year, astronomers weren’t even sure that any planets orbited the star, let alone ones that might harbour the best extrasolar candidate for life that spacecraft could visit within our lifetime.

What a trip to the Sun’s closet neighbour would look like.

The planet, creatively named “Proxima b”, was discovered by a team of astronomers at Queen Mary University in London. Using the light of Proxima Centuari, the astronomers were able to detect subtle shifts in the star’s orbit (seen as a “wobble”), which is the telltale sign that another massive object is nearby.

An artist’s impression of Proxima b’s landscape. ESO/M. Kornmesser

While Proxima Centuari is barely 10% the size of our Sun, Proxima b’s orbit is only 11 days long, meaning it is very close to the star and lies just within the so-called habitable zone. However, follow-up with either Hubble or the upcoming James Webb Space telescope is necessary to determine if the exoplanet is as well suited for life as Earth.

4. Breakthrough Listen listening and Starshot star-ted

With a potential Earth twin identified in Proxima b, now the challenge is to reach it within a human lifetime. With the breakthrough initiative starshot, which has been funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and endorsed by none other than Stephen Hawking, lightweight nanosails can be propelled by light beams to reach speeds up to millions of kilometres an hour.

Such speeds would allow a spacecraft to arrive at Proxima b in about 20 years, thus enabling humans to send information to another known planet for the first time.

However, there are many challenges ahead, such as the fact that the technology doesn’t exist yet, and that high-speed collisions with gas and dust between stars may destroy it before it can reach its target.

But humans have proven to be resourceful, and key technology is advancing at an exponential rate. Incredibly the idea of sailing to another world is no longer science fiction, but rather an outrageously ambitious science project.

One of the founders of the Breakthrough initiatives, Yuri Milner, discusses the technology needed for breakthrough starshot.

Perhaps, aliens are already sending out their own information in the form of radio transmissions. In another breakthrough initiative called Listen, also championed by Hawking, astronomers will be searching the habitable zones around the million closest stars to try to detect incoming radio transmissions. Involving Australia’s very own Parkes telescope (as well as the Green Bank Telescope and Lick Observatory at visible wavelengths of light), observations have been running through 2016 and the search for alien signals will continue for the next decade.

5. Philae reunited with Rosetta

In 2014 the Philae lander became the first space probe to land on a comet, and even though its crash landing dictated that its science transmission would be a one-off, its recent rediscovery by Rosetta has allowed it to continue to contribute to analysis of comet 67P.

Philae’s crash location, as well as the orientation of the doomed probe, has allowed astronomers to accurately interpret data taken by Rosetta regarding the composition of the comet.

Where’s Philae? ESA

While Philae has literally been living under (crashed on) a rock for the past two years, Rosetta has been the busy bee, taking numerous images, spectroscopy and other data of the comet.

In fact, data taken from Rosetta’s spectrometer has been analysed and revealed that the amino acid, glycine, is present in the comet’s outgassing, which breaks away from the surface of the comet as it becomes unstable from solar heating. Glycine is one of the fundamental building blocks of life; necessary for proteins and DNA, and its confirmed extraterrestrial confirms that the ingredients for life are unique to Earth, and that we may have comets to thank for providing our microbial ancestors with those crucial ingredients.

Dust and gas emitted from comet 67P reveal an amino acid. ESA

Outlook for Down Under

The future for astrophysics in Australia in 2017 looks particularly bright, with two ARC Centres of Excellence: CAASTRO-3D studying the build of atoms over cosmic time; and OzGRav exploring the universe with gravitational waves; as well as SABRE, the world’s first dark matter detector in the Southern Hemisphere, installed by end of the year.

If you thought 2016 was a great year in space, then you’re in for a treat in 2017.

The Conversation

Alan Duffy, Research Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology and Rebecca Allen, PhD candidate researching galaxy formation and evolution, Swinburne University of Technology


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Minneapolis: The tale of two cities 

By Robert J. Garrison

The council’s decision to divest from Wells Fargo because of their investments in the DAPL is just a political ploy by the council. They most likely haven’t thought through the ramifications of that action. The ramifications of a strictly political decision that just harms those living within the community. Yet they made it a political issue to draw attention away from their failures.

2016-11-18-1Aside from the points mentioned above my question to our readers is, how does this divestment vote address the poverty in Minneapolis?

Well, it doesn’t! It’s a political ploy by politicians to divert the focus away from their failures to address the real issues that are affecting minorities living in Minneapolis – poverty. Matt Johnson has pointed this out in his recent blog In Minneapolis, Black poverty is the problem not Wells Fargo.

This inaction of dealing with real issues of those living within the community is why so many voters have become disillusioned with typical politicians and are revolting. People are tired of talk and they want action and they want it now!

This revolt has opened the door for “political outsiders” to enter the local races in Minneapolis. One of those “outsiders” is  Nekima Levy-Pounds who is a Black Lives activist and former president of the Minneapolis NAACP. Whether Levy-Pounds wins or not, the voters can be assured issues that really matter will be at least brought up during the race.

However, as always the elites always find a way to silence or undermine “political outsiders.” We saw this happen to Senator Bernie Sanders when the DNC and Hillary’s campaign colluded to beat Sanders in the Democratic primaries.

Now, pertaining to Minneapolis the same can happen and has happened for decades. Sadly, Minneapolis is a tale of two cities – North Minneapolis and the rest of Minneapolis. It’s always been that way (even while I was growing up in Minneapolis).

North Minneapolis’ problems have been ignored for far too long. The newspapers and media don’t care about the plight going on in North Minneapolis because it doesn’t sell papers or ads. Part of the problem is voting demographics. North Minneapolis only makes up a small percentage of the voting base in the city. Unless Minneapolis begins to act as one community instead of two, the problems of North Minneapolis might never change.

5th-ward-and-13th-ward-crime-pattern-dwmThe only way that Minneapolis can be united as one is if we begin to heal and address the issues that affect us all and come together. Out of sight does not mean out of mind. We must be conscious of the hurting going on around our city. We are our brothers/sisters keeper whether they live next door to us or on the other side of town.

It is only through this united sense of community that we can elect leaders who do not live inside a political bubble that just pay lip service to the voters every election cycle. It’s time to stop playing politics with people’s lives and start serving the community, all of the community. The time is ripe for change, are you ready? are you in?

Matt Johnson also contributed to this article.

Robert J. Garrison is a political and religious writer for The Systems Scientist. You can connect with him directly in the comments section, follow him on Twitter or on Facebook, or catch up on his articles in the Archives.

You can also follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook as well. 

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Graphics Credit: Urban Dynamics

Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist

But surely Wells Fargo is guilty, right? Well that’s not the argument.

By Matt Johnson

I was waiting for a reader to pose a certain question and I’m glad that person did. As the reader asked, didn’t Wells Fargo defraud their customers by creating and charging them for the fake accounts?

Indeed, Wells Fargo created those fake accounts and then charged their clients for them. It was an indefensible business act. Certainly no person in their right mind would have defended such a business practice – I know I didn’t.

As my readers know, I have not attempted to defend such a practice in any of my articles. It was never my intention to do so, and it was never my argument. In actuality, my argument had many components to it and I built these components into my argument over the course of several blogs.

The first component was simply highlighting what I believed to be an ignorance of science by that of the Minneapolis City Council. As I illustrated, their willingness to unanimously pass a staff directive to explore options to stop doing business with Wells Fargo didn’t match the complex relationship fossil fuels have with the City of Minneapolis.

That is, we use fossil fuels for energy in the forms of heating our houses and energy for our transportation (automobiles, light-rail, etc.); and fossil fuels are found in our everyday products such as shoes, sports gear such as basketballs, and tooth brushes. It’s also used in the supply chain management that provides us our coffee. And we all know our world would fall apart without coffee.

The second component was that the Minneapolis City Council was perhaps just bad at economics. That is, they didn’t understand basic economic principles and more than likely just didn’t do their homework. Instead, it felt as though their rush to end their relationship with Wells Fargo had more to do with narrative than with understanding matters of economics.

As I stated before,

According to the Minneapolis Trends Report, Second Quarter 2016, the average weekly wage for the Financial Industry was one of the highest for all industries in Minneapolis throughout the 2015 year. For example, the average weekly wage was $3,503 in the 1st Quarter of 2015. On average, that’s not bad take-home pay for a week. And over the course of a month and a year, that’s not too bad.

Moreover, the industry employed about 27,000 employees in 2015 according to the Minneapolis Trends Report; and according to the same Star Tribune article linked above, Wells Fargo today employs 11,000 of those workers ranging from entry-level to executive positions. And of course, this doesn’t include the accounts Wells Fargo manages for the city or all of the other accounts Wells Fargo manages for other businesses inside and outside the city, nor does it include the customer base.

And finally, I demonstrated the fact that poverty has increased amongst black folks in Minneapolis since the 2013 election of the Minneapolis City Council and Mayor (see table below). There have been plenty of instances where they have talked about fixing economic disparities, but obviously didn’t. And after this issue, I have concerns.

Year Total  Below Poverty Level  % Below Poverty Level
2013 65,905 29,896 45.4
2014 68,165 32,759 48.1
2015 70,692 32,724 46.3

Again, my argument was never to defend the business practices of Wells Fargo, and I won’t. But let me point this out for the third time, Wells Fargo had already been punished for such practices. As Bloomberg reported in September,

Wells Fargo was fined $185 million by various regulators for opening customer accounts without the customers’ permission…

My argument was to address the ignorant and impolitic economic and scientific thinking of the Minneapolis and Seattle City Councils. I illustrated the complex relationship Wells Fargo has with both city councils, and with the local, state, federal, and international economic systems.

Moreover, the readers of this blog know that Wells Fargo is responsible for the daily financial activities of both city governments. In the case of Seattle, it is responsible for $4 billion annually; and in the case of Minneapolis, the financial institution just invested $300 million in two new buildings in the downtown area and employs 11,000 employees.

So yeah, punish Wells Fargo for terrible business practices, but maintain the relationship with them and take advantage of the services and economic horsepower they provide for the respective city systems.


Matt Johnson is a writer for The Systems Scientist, and a mathematical scientist. You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Twitter or on Facebook

You can also follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook as well. 

Photo credit: Tony Webster 



Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist