Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Is my observation right?

Recently I ran and organised a couple of science communication events for students, community members and academics. At each of those events I had a telescope for either a cool photo op with a politician during science week, or a solar filter on it for observing the sun for a university open day. It was on for young and old!

There are 2 places you can look in a telescope, this is not the right place!
Hundreds of people walked past my telescope to see what was going on, and while the telescope was unattended, 9 out of 10 people looked down the barrel of the telescope, not in the very obvious eyepiece. At first I was annoyed. "Why don't these people know how to look through a telescope?" But then I got a bit sad. These people do not know how to look through a telescope. They've never directly observed the sun and seen a sunspot. They've never seen the moons craters, they've never interacted with the universe they live in this way.

By the way, I still love that moment when you show someone Saturn through a telescope and they firstly say a big" WOW!" then try to look in the mirror to find the sticker of Saturn I put there!

I don't mind if most people don't know what the suns life cycle is, or how the colour and temperature of stars are linked, or if anyone has seen, heard of or understands the H-R diagram or stellar spectra, that's ok. but I do think we should all know at least, which part of a telescope to look through. Sure it might not be obvious at first. But it should be known.

The H-R Diagram.
It tells us about a stars life cycle
While my telescope was being stored ready for its science week appearance with a politician, it had not moved its orientation, even though I know it had been used for a number of photo opportunities during the week. This indicated to me that people were so afraid of moving it and breaking it, that they didn't. Again, a huge lack in their knowledge of how a telescope works! Further, I have a great photo of a federal politician looking through the telescope in the daytime, indoors, pointing up at the roof, with the lens cap on, and using his closed eye! I would love the opportunity to go to Parliament and give a quick tutorial on how to use a simple amateur telescope.

If I present someone with microscope, I'm pretty sure they're not going to try and look up the lens the wrong way. So why did 9 out of 10 people look through the wrong part of a telescope? The answer is I think simple...No one has shown them. A major part of Science is observations, and if we can't get that right, or we have never been shown how to use simple instruments to help us with these observations, then we really need to try harder at science education.

While I was teacher I would often get the question during a student experiment, "Is my observation right?" A fascinating question! My answer was always, "It's your observation, you observed it, record what you saw." It seems as though our observation skills are very poor, and our understanding of equipment to assist in our observations is also poor.

I'm not blaming people for not knowing, but I am inspired to do more science education because of it. It has renewed my enthusiasm to share my passion for science. If I can be the one that shows as many people as possible how to use a telescope, and to not be afraid of it, and actually excited about it, then that'll make me happy! And if you don't know how to use a telescope, please ask me, I'd love to show you!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

An Australian Space Policy

Australia is a user of space. We consume it. We've done so for a very long time and we are very good at it. There are some people (myself included) that really think Australia should take a few steps beyond this relationship we have with space, the international space industry and space based technologies. We have a lot people working on space in Australia and we are renowned worldwide for our contributions and ingenuity.

This blog post is what I think an Australian space plan should look like. It is taken from the Space Policy I wrote for the Future Party.

This plan has been developed to take the best ideas from the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) National Committee for Space Science (NCSS), who have studied it, and who know how best Australia can be a part of it.
The three main ideas are:
  1. Adopt expert recommendations of the Decadal Space Plan from the National Committee for Space Science.
  2. Create an Australian Space Agency, ASTRA
  3. The Woomera launch facility
1. The Decadal Plan 
The plan's vision is ‘Build Australia a long term, productive presence in Space via world-leading innovative space science and technology, strong education and outreach, and international collaborations’. The plan has 14 recommendations with five key imperatives in mind:
Spooky Dish
The Parkes Radio Telescope
Photo Credit: Tom Gordon
  • Enable Australia to develop a strong space industry, and offset the risks of depending primarily on foreign space capabilities.
  • Position Australians to solve major scientific and technological problems.
  • Actively nurture, coordinate, and manage Australia’s investment in space science.
  • Leverage increased public investment in space science.
  • Provide government, community and business with the information needed to guide investment in space science and technology.
The plan document outlines the importance and current status of space science in Australia, and the specific scientific goals of the Australian space science community the next decade and build on our strengths.
With a very large group of experts in their field of astronomy and space science, and a sizeable group of experts from industry and business. I would like Australia to be a place that is known for not only its innovation with existing space based technologies but also an innovator in the field and a provider of world class facilities and programs.

The decadal plan seeks to establish government, commercial, industry and public collaborations to better develop and strengthen our niche technologies in order to be a contributor to the international space industry. 
There's even a cheeky reference to creating Australia's own space agency (like NASA) in the plan. I'd like to go that extra step and I'll come to that now.

2. ASTRA: Australia’s Space Agency
ASTRA (Australian Space Technology & Research Agency) will serve many purposes including:
Spooky Dish
Australia from Space
Photo Credit: NASA [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia
  • Developing a strong, internationally recognised, Australian space capability.
  • Create partnerships of Australian and international government and private stakeholders such as NASACSAESA,JAXA and SpaceX for example.
  • Provide strong economic, educational, government, and strategic benefits to Australia.
  • Provide structure for further research into space and space-based technologies.
Space provides exciting opportunities for humanity to advance itself. Technological development occurring in space research and related fields has already provided us with new technology in the fields of communication, transportation, energy, physics and biology as well as some amazing spin-offs from space-based technologies. Some of these technologies are used regularly by people all over the world.

I think that Australia has the potential to be a hub of space investment and technological development. To do so, however, would require Australia to make serious plans to invest in space research domestically and to attract investment from abroad. Establishing ASTRA will allow us to collaborate with the other major space agencies (and not major ones) around the world and start becoming a part if the conversation and benefit from those membership.

3. Woomera Launch Facility

Australia’s launch facility at Woomera in South Australia will once again become world leading, open to governments and commercial groups wanting to use the facility.
Spooky Dish
Launch Area 6. Woomera, South Australia
Photo Credit: Max Ryan

The conditions are perfect for this redevelopment (images of the phoenix rising out of the ashes are invoked here!) due to recent technological developments in the space industry such as reusable launch vehicles that would benefit greatly from a vast area to land.

The Woomera Launch facility is a largely flat, featureless, quiet electromagnetic and vast terrain of 124 000 km2 the largest landlocked range in the world, approximately the size of England, which allows easier access for test object recovery (an important safety feature for launch activities). Rainfall is rare, and the climate is generally warm and dry. 

The stable conditions virtually assure the ability to conduct year-round operations, with little downtime.
Although Woomera isn’t as close to the equator as some launch sites, (the issue being the further from the equator you are the more speed, or delta-v, you need to get to the right orbit) this is out weighed by the fact that a launch can almost be guaranteed and launch insurance considerations, time and costs will dramatically decrease.

The town of Woomera, meaning spear thrower, is perfect for redevelopment into a support community for the launch facility with heavy influence from Industry, instrumentation, education & research, technologies and services. You have heard of charter cities, well Woomera would be a perfect candidate for that!


Australia is currently a user of space and space based technologies. We have good relationships with countries that have big and exciting space plans and projects and we let them spend their money on those things. However, I think believe our chance and indeed our duty to become a formal member of that group has arrived. We too must spend our money, and of course reap the benefits of that investment into the future!

Technologies are moving so fast, and although we contribute to the efforts and have some world class researchers and industries here, there is a chance to gain some national benefits from actively contributing and supporting the international space industry with our resources, expertise, facilities and ingenuity.

With such an impressive number and quality of experts in their fields and in the space industry, it is imperative that we listen to them and trust their evidence backed advice and recommendations. This, together with some future thinking and planning, Australia’s place in the space industry will be worthwhile and beneficial.