My Favourite Units

Since the dawn of civilization, we have needed ways to define and quantify the world around us, to conduct trade, build homes, and explore further. To do this, we need to agree on the way we measure the world, we need to agree on the units. While we no longer use the size of the king’s nose or the number of doughnuts a pregnant duck can eat to quantify things, and instead rely on carefully defined standards sweated over by the world’s best metrologists (measurement scientists), people have invented some wild and wacky ways of figuring out how much of something there is. Here are some of my favourite weird units of measurement.


Helen

First on my list, the helen, because it made me laugh.

The helen is a reference to Helen of Troy, the “face that launched a thousand ships”. One millihelen is the amount of beauty needed to launch one ancient Greek warship.

American author David Goines has further standardized the helen scale, defining a picohelen to be the amount of beauty required to “barbecue a couple of steaks and toss an inner tube in the pool”, while a terahelen will “launch the equivalent of one quadrillion Greek warships and make serious inroads on the welfare of the galaxy”.


Beard-second

The beard-second is a unit of length inspired by the light-year, but is considerably shorter. It is defined as the average length a beard grows in one second. Some sources define this length to be equivalent to 10 nanometres (about the size of a virus), but Google defines a beard-second to be 5 nanometres. I think Google’s measurements of average beard growth may include women.

As stupid as it sounds, beard-seconds would actually be useful in applications related to nanotechnologies such as integrated circuits.

Beard

My sternum is about 15 beard years from my chin.


Smoot

A smoot is a unit of length equivalent to the height of Oliver R. Smoot when he was a college freshman in 1958 (170 cm). As part of Smoot’s initiation to the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, Smoot and other freshmen were tasked with measuring the length of the Harvard Bridge by laying Smoot on the ground and using him as a yardstick.

They found the bridge to be 364.4 smoots long, plus or minus an ear. Smoot’s fraternity brothers also painted marking on the bridge at roughly 10 smoot intervals.

Smoots have turned out to be surprisingly useful. When the bridge was renovated in the 1980s, the local police asked that the smoot markings be maintained because they were useful markers for indicating the position of an accident on the bridge.

Google, of course, recognises the smoot as a unit of measurement.

Smoots make the list because Oliver Smoot himself took up a career in metrology, and even became the chairman of the American National Standards Institute, so the smoot is a unit with some pedigree.

Smoot

Metrology can be a real drag.


Pirate Ninja

This is probably my favourite unit in the list. The pirate ninja is a unit of power invented by author Andy Weir for his best-selling novel The Martian.

In The Martian, Weir’s hero, astronaut Mark Watney, has to carefully monitor and balance his daily power usage if he is to survive being stranded on Mars. Watney decides that “kilowatt hours per sol” (sol = Martian day) is annoying and cumbersome to say so decides he’ll call them “Pirate Ninjas” instead, making one pirate ninja equal to one kilowatt hour per sol.

The reason that pirate ninjas are probably my favourite unit is that the Mars rover teams at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ACTUALLY USE THIS UNIT! Taking inspiration from The Martian, instead of talking about the Curiosity rover’s power generation and usage in terms of watthours per sol, they now talk in units of “millipirate ninjas”.

All this faffing about doesn’t make much sense to me though, because one kilowatt hour per sol is just a unit of power, and could be easily be converted to watts. One pirate ninja is equal to 40.6 watts. Pirate ninjas are more fun though.

pirate

Give me 5 millipirate ninjas and I’ll shoot this rock with a laser.


Shake

The shake makes the list because, although it’s not an official unit, it is actually used in practice. Equivalent to 10 nanoseconds, the shake is a reference to “two shakes of a lamb’s tail”. It was invented during the Manhattan Project developing the nuclear bomb because 10 nanoseconds is a convenient time interval for nuclear physicists, being roughly equal to the time taken for one step in a nuclear chain reaction.

Shakes might also be useful for signal propagation time in integrated circuits.


Barn

Unlike the rest of the units on this list, the barn is an officially recognized unit. Like shakes, barns come from nuclear physics and the Manhattan project and are used to quantify the cross-sectional area of atomic nuclei. It’s a reference to “couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn” and was originally coined to prevent eavesdroppers realizing that scientists were talking about nuclear reactions, but has become a standard unit in particle physics. One barn is roughly equal to the cross-sectional area of a uranium nucleus.

The nuclear physicists also took the analogy further, referring to microbarns as “outhouses” and yoctobarns (10-24 barns) as “sheds”.

Nuclear

The new nucleus is 1 barn wide plus or minus an outhouse…


The measure of things

While metrologists around the world work hard to carefully define and standardize the official SI units of measurement, this list shows that convenience and practicality, and a little bit of humour, will usually determine what and how a measurement is made. While I doubt we will be measuring milk in Hubble-barns and marathon times in microcenturies any time soon, imagination and creativity will continue to supply us with weird and wacky ways to measure the world around us. Though so far my colleagues have resisted all my attempts to define the power of our lasers in eye-meltyness…

Gravitational Waves are Not the Ultimate Test of General Relativity

Last year’s ground breaking gravitational wave detections generated some of the widest media coverage of a scientific discovery to date. Many articles and reports described the detection as the “ultimate” test of general relativity, the “final” test of general relativity, or confirmation of Einstein’s “last” prediction. For a theory that is 100 years old, that was developed by one of the most celebrated physicists of all time, and has survived every experiment thrown at it, you could be forgiven for thinking that general relativity is done and dusted. However, general relativity is far from facing its “ultimate” test.

Gravitational Waves — another success for General Relativity, but not the final test.

Gravitational Waves — another success for General Relativity, but not the final test.

Over the past century, general relativity has been put through its paces with some of the brightest minds on the planet developing new ways to test it. General relativity explains anomalies in the planet Mercury’s orbit around the Sun, why the universe cannot be static, and the way star-light is deflected by massive bodies like the Sun and distant galaxies. Predictions of general relativity have been tested using high-precision gyroscopes on satellites orbiting the earth and atomic clocks, by timing the orbits of distant neutron stars, and now, by the direct detection of gravitational waves. General relativity has survived every test, passing with flying colours. Even the fact that GPS functions properly is evidence of the success of general relativity.

But the nature of the scientific method means that no test that general relativity survives will be its ultimate test. Scientists will never stop testing general relativity until it fails. We know general relativity is not the final solution to a theory of everything, and we are reasonably certain that general relativity must fail at some point. While general relativity has been spectacularly successful in describing the large-scale workings of the cosmos (such as solar systems, galaxies, and the entire visible universe), it does not work on the small scale (atoms, nuclei, and fundamental particles), for which we need quantum mechanics. General relativity does not tell us what goes on inside a black hole, or at the moment of the Big Bang, because, in those situations, we are dealing with much smaller scales where quantum mechanics comes in to play. While we are very aware of general relativity’s ultimate limitations, this does not give us a very convenient starting point for developing a replacement theory. Like an engineer investigating the collapse of a bridge, if we can find the exact point of failure, we are better able to develop a solution. Because of this, many tests of general relativity today seek to determine the exact point at which general relativity breaks.

Most of the current approaches to breaking general relativity assume the devil is in the detail, and aim to make more precise measurements of previously tested phenomena. As more and more gravitational wave events are detected and studied, they will provide ever more stringent tests of the predictions made by general relativity. One research group wants to measure the precise orbits of different types of metal around the Earth, while another wants to time the fall of different types of atoms, things that general relativity says should show no difference between the different materials and atoms. The ESA’s ACES mission aims to make the most precise measurements ever of gravitational time dilation and gravitational redshift. If general relativity passes these tests, physicists will celebrate another success for a brilliant theory and for human intellect, and will then set about designing the next test. However, if, for any of these experiments, the predictions of general relativity do not match the data, physicists will celebrate the discovery of the breaking point, and the dawning of a new era in our understanding of the nature of the universe.

In order to get to space, throw yourself at the planet, and miss.

High precision space- and ground-based experiments aim to test General Relativity in minute detail

Rest assured, articles claiming “[Some experiment] is the ultimate/final test of Einstein’s greatest theory” are not yet a thing of the past.

What the Detection of Gravitational Waves Means

Unless you live under a rock, the announcement in February of this year of the detection of Gravitational Waves by LIGO cannot have escaped your attention. Scientists around the world celebrated the achievement, and public curiosity about what all the scientists were yelling about was high enough that the world’s media ran the story for several days. Physicists and science communicators, whether they had anything to do with the discovery or not, were called upon to explain to the public what all the fuss was about.

If two Black Holes crash in deep space, and there is no detector to hear them, do they still make a Gravitational Wave?

The enormous release of energy from the collision of two Black Holes, detected for the first time

For a public that had never heard of Gravitational Waves before the announcement of their discovery, a key question that needed answering was, “So what does it mean?” Many scientists and science communicators did an outstanding job of answering this question, but their responses often left out an important element, that is, they did not answer the implied question, “what does it mean for me?”

Following the announcement earlier this week of a second Gravitational Wave detection (and another detection candidate), I want to take the opportunity to outline some of the ways in which the discovery of Gravitational Waves directly affects the average member of the public, but in the interest of providing a complete answer, I will first recap the importance of the discovery from a scientific perspective.

1) Amazing Achievement

First of all, the detection of Gravitational Waves is significant because it is direct confirmation of a prediction made 100 years ago by Albert Einstein. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is the best model physicists have for describing the action of gravity and the behaviour of the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe. Scientists constantly try to invent new experiments to push our understanding of the universe to the breaking point. It is by knowing the point at which our understanding of the universe fails that we are able to make the greatest progress. General Relativity has survived every test it has been subjected to for 100 years. Even the fact that GPS functions properly is a demonstration that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is correct.

In 1916, Einstein used General Relativity to predict that bodies orbiting each other, such as the Sun and Earth or two black holes, warp spacetime such that energy from the two bodies is carried away as ripples in the very fabric of the cosmos. These are Gravitational Waves, and their detection is not only another success for Einstein and General Relativity, but for the power of human ingenuity.

Insert fat joke here.

Gravitational Waves are ripples in spacetime caused by massive bodies in orbit

The LIGO detectors are the most sensitive instruments ever created and represent the culmination of 50 years of work by thousands of scientists. Although the first of the detected Gravitational Wave events represents an explosion 50 times more powerful than the power output of all the stars in the universe combined, the energy of the event has spread out and weakened during the 1.4 billion light-year trip to Earth, and so the LIGO detection represents the smallest amount of energy ever successfully detected. The very fact that humanity has the ability to detect Gravitational Waves is something we, as a species, can be proud of.

Couldn't think of funny alt-text.

The Advanced LIGO detectors in Livingston and Hanford

2) A New Spectrum, a New Science

The two confirmed and one candidate Gravitational Wave detections represent the beginning of a new era in studying the universe, a new way of doing astronomy, Gravitational Wave Astronomy.

All of astronomy, and everything we have discovered about our universe through astronomy, has been done using light. Whether we use radio telescopes, optical telescopes, or gamma-ray telescopes, all of these devices detect energy from the electro-magnetic spectrum, they all detect some form of light. Gravitational Waves are not a type of light. They exist in a completely different spectrum.

The Gravitational Wave spectrum gives astronomers a completely new way of studying the universe because the properties of Gravitational Waves are very different to those of electro-magnetic waves. Unlike light, Gravitational Waves are not absorbed by matter. They pass unhindered through the Earth, interstellar gas clouds, and entire galaxies. Unlike light, they cannot be blocked by stuff getting in the way. Gravitational Waves allow us to see past the bright glare of galaxies, and through vast interstellar dust clouds to corners of the universe our other telescopes will never be able to see.

We can also use Gravitational Waves to study things that don’t emit light. As far as our current theoretical understanding tells us, the collision of two black holes, like the Gravitational Waves events seen so far, should not emit any light. These events, and events like them, can only be studied using the Gravitational Wave spectrum.

Since the end of its first, and now famous, observing run, LIGO has been undergoing upgrades that will roughly double the sensitivity of the detector. With this boost in sensitivity, and based on the three events detected so far, Gravitational Wave physicists expect LIGO to detect around one event per week when it is switched back on later this year. With that amount of data, Gravitational Wave Astronomy will become a field in its own right, and one that will revolutionize our understanding of the universe by studying regions of the cosmos previously invisible to us.

woooooOOOOP!

Gravitational Waves open up a new spectrum with which to study the universe

3) What it means for me

The detection is an amazing technological achievement and Gravitational Wave detectors are some of the most advanced pieces of equipment in the world. To be able to build their detector, scientists and engineers have had to invent new technologies along the way, and these new technologies have a huge range of spin-offs and applications that will impact on our every-day lives.

To build the LIGO detectors, super-reflective mirror coatings and polishing techniques had to be developed, vibration isolators that guard against everything from minor earthquakes to people coughing had to be built, hyper-precise lasers and sensitive read-out systems had to be invented, and all of this had to operate in hard vacuum, even special super-hard glues had to be formulated. To actually detect the signal, advanced analysis software had to be written. This is only a taste of the work involved. The complete list of innovations by Gravitational Wave scientists would take dozens of pages to list like this, and I don’t even know most of them!

With this type and variety of advanced technology in the works, it is almost inevitable that other applications would be found for the scientists’ innovations. Just one example from the University of Western Australia, where I am studying for my PhD, is the Rio Tinto Gravity Gradiometer. This new technology, which will detect ore bodies from an aeroplane by measuring tiny changes in the Earth’s gravitational field, spun-off from Gravitational Wave research at UWA.

This thing sits in the lab across the hall from me.

The VK1 airborne Gravity Gradiometer will detect ore bodies below the ground, and spun-out from Gravitational Wave research

Over the coming decades, technology originally developed for Gravitational Wave detectors will be worth billions of dollars, create many thousands of jobs, and will enrich our every-day lives for generations to come.

 

If you’d like to learn more, you can go here to watch PhD comics explain Gravitational Waves.

Great Australians — Ruby Payne-Scott

We Australians excel at remembering and celebrating our sporting heroes, from cricketers to particularly successful race horses, but are not so good at celebrating the great people who helped build our civilization, particularly when those builders are Australian. Today, I want to celebrate the birthday of a brilliant Australian scientist, Ruby Payne-Scott.

 

Southern Star

Ruby Payne-Scott is remembered as one of Australia’s most outstanding physicists. As well as contributing to other sciences, she was a pioneer of radio astronomy and made major discoveries about the nature of radio emissions from the Sun. Payne-Scott also has the distinction of being the first female radio astronomer.

Ruby Payne-Scott (28 May 1912 – 25 May 1981) — Physicist, pioneering astronomer

Ruby Payne-Scott (28 May 1912 – 25 May 1981) — Physicist, pioneering astronomer

Early life and education

Ruby was born in 1912 in the town of Grafton, NSW. She demonstrated remarkable talent at school and moved to live with her aunt in Sydney, where she could get a better education. She was awarded honours in mathematics and botany, and won two scholarships to the University of Sydney where she studied physics, chemistry, mathematics, and botany. As was typical of the era, Ruby was often the only woman in her classes.

Research

Despite the prejudice and difficulty in getting a job that female physicists faced at the time (compounded by the Great Depression), Ruby’s excellent academic performance landed her a job as a physicist on the University of Sydney’s new cancer research project. One project she worked on was to determine the effect that the Earth’s magnetic field had on the vital processes of living beings. Working with William Love she cultivated chick embryos in magnetic fields up to 5000 times stronger than the Earth’s field. They found no observable differences in the chicks and determined that the magnetism of the Earth had little or no effect on living creatures.

The cancer research project closed down in 1935, and Ruby was forced to take one of the few career options open to educated women at the time, teaching. She completed a diploma of teaching and started working at a school in South Australia. Ruby was constantly alert for ways to get back into physics and eventually managed to land a job with Australian Wireless Amalgamated, a major hirer of physicists. Although she was hired as a librarian, Ruby managed to get involved in some research projects in the company’s standards laboratory and eventually worked her way into full-time research.

In 1939, Australia, following Britain’s lead, declared war on Germany. The CSIR (the precursor to the CSIRO) was charged with developing an Australian radar capability. As happened in Britain and the USA, mobilization for war created a shortage of trained men and provided women with the opportunity to break into jobs and careers they were previously bared from. Ruby and another woman, Joan Freeman, managed to get hired to work as researchers in the CSIR’s new Radiophysics laboratory. The women excelled in their roles, under the leadership of another great Australian physicist, Joe Pawsey, and both Ruby and Joan later commented that their colleagues treated them as “one of the boys”. The two women mainly had to deal with discrimination from administrators and petty bureaucrats who imposed absurd and unfair rules such as banning women from smoking or wearing shorts, rules which Ruby took the lead in breaking. Ruby even married her Husband, Bill Holman Hall, in secret in 1944 because married women were not allowed to hold permanent positions in government agencies.

Wartime radar research in Britain had discovered that the Sun occasionally produced significant amounts of radio waves. Excited by this, in their spare time Ruby and Joe Pawsey ran some experiments to follow up on this discovery, but did not have the right equipment to make the observations. When the war ended the Radio Physics laboratory was due to be scrapped, so the team put together an application to continue as a radio physics research division, concentrating on rain making and radio astronomy. At the time, radio astronomy was a very new field of research and the astronomy community showed very little interest. Despite this, the CSIR decided to fund radio physics and Australia remains a world leader in radio astronomy to this day.

Along with Joe Pawsey and Lindsay McCready, Payne-Scott used decommissioned radar equipment to make detailed radio-frequency observations of the Sun. This small team was the first to construct a radio-astronomy interferometer. Radio interferometers greatly increase the resolution of their observations by using a long baseline between two or more radio antennas. The CSIR team managed to construct an interferometer using only one antenna.

Great TV reception... Just had to wait for Australia to get TV.

Decommissioned radar antenna at Dover Heights, run by CSIR Radiophysics.

The radar antenna they were using was a coastal installation mounted on a sea-cliff. The antenna received radio signals directly from the Sun but also from reflections off the sea below. This simulated a baseline of around 200 metres between two antennas and allowed Payne-Scott, Pawsey and McCready to determine that solar radio radiation was coming from patches of the Sun that had sun-spots, a major discovery that boosted Australia’s international scientific reputation. The team also showed that the Sun’s corona has a temperature of over a million degrees centigrade, a phenomenon that remains a mystery to astrophysicists. Payne-Scott is also credited with the discovery of type I and type III solar outbursts.

Built to defend against the land of the rising Sun.

Dover heights sea-cliff interferometer — used to study the Sun

Workplace activist and career cut short

Throughout her time at the CSIR and its successor the CSIRO, Payne-Scott was an active advocate of equal rights and pay for women. She fearlessly and vocally opposed women’s workplace restrictions and pay reductions, clashing with CSIRO chairman Sir Ian Clunies Ross on several occasions. Eventually her secret marriage was discovered by CSIRO administrators and she was demoted to a temporary position. Payne-Scott left the CSIRO for good in 1951 (aged 39) to give birth to her son Peter.

Later life

Payne-Scott had a second child, a daughter named Fiona, and in 1963 returned to teaching. She retired in 1974 and died in 1981 at the age of 69.

Today, Ruby’s legacy is remembered in the CSIRO by the Payne-Scott award which is given to support the careers of women researchers. Her influence on radio astronomy and her discoveries means that her name is known by a large section of the Australian astronomy community, though they may not be completely aware of how hard Ruby had to fight to be able to do her ground-breaking research.

Who comes up with these Google doodles?

Google celebrated Ruby’s 100th birthday.

In 2012, on what would have been her 100th birthday, Ruby Payne-Scott was celebrated with a Google doodle. However, this great Australian is still completely unknown to the majority of Australian people. Ruby, her research, and her fight for women’s rights deserves greater recognition.

More information on the life and work of Ruby Payne-Scott can be found at the CSIRO Staff Association, National Archives, or Payne-Scott’s Wikipedia page.

The Wright Stuff

A lesson in innovation from the Wright Brothers

The Australian government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda webpage asserts: “Innovation is at the heart of a strong economy — from IT to healthcare, defence and transport—it keeps us competitive, at the cutting edge, creates jobs and maintains our high standard of living.This recent article from ABC Radio National titled Curiosity, the mother of innovation argues that if we want to stimulate innovation, we need to encourage curiosity. In the article, Peter Macinnis takes his cue from the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”:

“Necessity, or perceived necessity, won’t do as a starting point for improving the world. What we really need is innovation, and that stems from curiosity, making it the mother of innovation, while serendipity is the midwife and necessity is a mere passing commentator. The message for me as an educator is that if we want innovation to go on into the future, far past my lifetime, we need to ensure that the next generation acquires a strong streak of curiosity.”

The piece is very good and I recommend that you listen to the whole thing, but while I was listening to it, a particularly famous story of innovation and invention came to mind.

As an aviation nerd, I am more familiar with the story of the Wright Brothers than the average person, and I know more of the details of their flying experiments. Popular culture, or at least what I watched and read as kid, often spins the story of the Wright Brothers as a pair of genius inventors who secreted themselves away in their workshop, away from outside influence, applied their brilliance, and emerged with a working flying machine they had invented from scratch. This is patently wrong. I am not disputing that Wilbur and Orville Wright were two of the most influential geniuses of the 20th century, but they were not great inventors, they were brilliant innovators.

The Wright Brothers did not work without external influence and their aeroplane was not composed mostly of their original ideas. Like all great scientists, the Wright Brothers stood on the shoulders of those who came before them, and innovated, adding their own ideas and methods to a science and technology that was already more advanced than the usual stories give credit to.

In the 1890s the goal of powered, heavier-than-air flight was within reach. Sir George Cayley had pinned down the theory of the aeroplane and by 1853 had successfully flown the first manned glider, the cambered aerofoil (aeroplane wing shape) had been developed by both Cayley and Australian engineer Lawrence Hargrave, Samuel Langley had successfully flown some large, steam-powered model aeroplanes, and Octave Chanute had developed an extremely successful biplane hang glider. The Wright Brothers had been keenly following the exploits of the German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal and believed that a successful aeroplane was only a few years away. They had been interested in flying since their father brought home a rubber-power toy helicopter made of paper, bamboo and cork, which the young Wrights played with until it broke, and then built their own.

I can see my house from up here.

The Wrights were fans of German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal.

In 1896, Lilienthal was killed when he lost control of his glider. The Wright Brothers were inspired to begin their own work in aviation, and drew on the work of all of these pioneers, an influence that the Brothers always acknowledged. The Brothers based the structure of their gliders and eventual aeroplane on the biplane design of Chanute, they understood the work of Cayley and Hargrave and used published aerofoil research to design their glider’s wings, and they decided to adopt the development process employed by Lilienthal, which was to master gliding flight before moving on to powered machines.

Strap canvas and bamboo to your back and jump of a cliff.

Chanute’s Pratt truss structure bi-plane was the basis of the structure of the Wright Flyer.

The Wright Brothers believed that wings, engines, and airframes were sufficiently advanced and that authoritative control was the final remaining hurdle in developing a successful aeroplane. Lilienthal, Chanute, and other glider pioneers controlled their gliders by shifting their weight. The Wright Brothers believed that this did not provide sufficient authority and developed the 3-axis method of control still used on all aeroplanes today. They built kites and gliders with elevator, rudder, and a wing-warping system that controlled lateral roll. Over successive glider flights the Brothers improved and added to their control system. The 3-axis control is often cited as the Brothers’ greatest contribution to aviation.

High as a kite...

The kite the Wrights used to test their wing-warping control system.

The Wrights’ early gliders produced less lift than they had calculated and so they began testing aerofoils to trace the root of the problem. They attached model wings and metal plates to a balance mounted on a bicycle and pedalled hard to create an airflow over the apparatus, allowing them to measure the lift of the model wing. They later, famously, built a small wind tunnel in which they tested a variety of aerofoils. From this they learned that the cause of the smaller than expected lift of their early gliders was inaccuracies in the published lift information they had been using. The Wrights tested around 200 aerofoils, selecting shapes that improved the lift-to-drag ratio of their wings, and produced a better glider.

Easier than the bicycle.

The wind tunnel the Wrights built to test wing sections.

By 1902 the Wrights were satisfied with their glider experiments and believed they were ready to attempt a powered flight. At this point they encountered more hurdles. The Brothers found that there was very little data on either air or marine propellers and they were unable to find enough information to give them a good starting point in designing a suitable propeller. They returned to their wind tunnel experiments and produced a remarkably efficient propeller. Next, they enlisted the help of their bicycle shop mechanic to build an engine, because they were unable to purchase a sufficiently light-weight unit. They combined all of their experience and innovation in the optimistically named Flyer.

Come and get me Orville!

The Wrights’ 1902 glider was an efficient and controllable flying machine.

The rest, as they say, is history. On 17th December 1903, the Wrights made the first successful aeroplane flight, and age of the aeroplane began.

The Wright Brothers’ efforts and methods provide us with an exciting and influential lesson in innovation. They did not create their Flyer in a technological vacuum, and it was by adding their own ideas and developments to those of others that allowed them to succeed. Articles and photographs of dramatic glides by Lilienthal, as well as a much-used toy helicopter from childhood, piqued the Wrights’ curiosity about aviation, and it was this curiosity that provided them with the drive to research, build, and innovate, and create the world’s first aeroplane. Curiosity will always be the greatest driver of innovation and technological progress, and we should be encouraging it wherever we can.

A flight of 37 metres.

December 17, 1903, the Wright Flyer makes its first flight.

Space for Innovation

Australia needs a space program.

As 2015 drew to a close, Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull unveiled the government’s Innovation Statement with a plan to invest $1.1 billion to drive an Australian “ideas boom”. Before this announcement, the government had already commenced its Review of the Space Activities Act 1998 stating that Australia is in a transition ‘to an advanced economy that cultivates and commercialises innovative technologies’ and that ‘there is significant potential for space technologies to play a role in facilitating this transition…’ It is high time Australia invested in a space program.

Australia is the only OECD country that does not have a space agency or coordinated space program. China and India both established space agencies in the mid-20th century which have contributed immensely to the countries’ technological capabilities and economic growth. Even Ethiopia has recognized the huge advantages afforded by a dedicated space program, establishing a space agency in August 2015.

Why does Australia need a space program?

In the 21st century a space program will be a key instrument for sustainable development. For the average person, the impact that space technologies have on their lives is not immediately obvious, often being hidden away behind some product, service, or app, but all of us benefit immensely every day from what space programs have brought us. We would all notice very quickly if we lost our GPS and satellite communication infrastructure, but space technology goes much further. Satellites are used for environmental monitoring, weather prediction, soil monitoring, water and agricultural management, as well as to search for ore bodies, track bushfires, and in disaster planning. This short list barely makes a dent in the complete list of important space technologies, and doesn’t even touch on the spin-offs, the technologies developed by space agencies that have found other uses and applications.

A space program will cultivate scientific thinking and technological innovation, and provide the training to engineers, scientists and students that Australia needs if we want to maximize the progress from our “ideas boom”.

A national space program will ensure that innovative ideas are exploited to their fullest by stabilizing funding to projects under its aegis. A space agency is also necessary if we are going to cooperate with other countries in the exploration and exploitation of space, since an agency with technical expertise that represents the Australian government will be in a position to negotiate with NASA, the ESA and other countries’ space agencies. An Australian space agency will even reduce the time and cost required to purchase flights on other countries’ launch vehicles.

I liked the picture of a satellite.

Out of sight, out of mind: vital technologies are operating overhead all the time.

They’re expensive. Couldn’t the money be better spent on something other than rockets?

When figures like NASA’s $19.3 billion 2016 budget are bandied around, and even a small space mission costs tens of millions of dollars, it often seems that space programs are too expensive to be worthwhile and that there are other problems we should be using this money to solve. However, put in context with other spending, a space program doesn’t appear to be so expensive.

NASA’s $19.3 billion represents only 0.5% of the US government’s spending, while the US military takes more than 15% of the total. The economic return to the USA gained from NASA’s products, patents, services, and spin-offs means that NASA more than pays its way. Australia is in a not-too-dissimilar position, with around A$30 billion being spent on defence. If we were to copy the US, we would direct around $1 billion to a space program. Australia has the money for a space program, it is only a matter of public choice and political will to divert the necessary funds. And that’s not even taking into account that space programs generate revenue for the government. History has shown that space programs are a very good investment. An Australian space program would begin to pay for itself after only a few years.

NASA’s $19.3 billion sounds like a lot less money when you take into consideration the huge range of projects NASA is responsible for. A reasonable summary of NASA’s active and on-going projects would fill a small book. They include climate and crop monitoring, satellite tracking, observational astrophysics, space-vehicle development, aeronautics, launch contracting, running a space-station and driving a nuclear-powered laser-equipped science-car on Mars. Australia is unlikely to match this commitment (at least in the short-term).

Individual space missions, even pioneering interplanetary missions, can be quite cheap when compared to other things we are willing to spend huge amounts of money on. India became the first country to successfully reach Mars orbit on its first go with the Mangalyaan Mars orbiter, which cost only US$73 million. Major blockbuster movies rarely cost less than $100 million these days. James Bond Spectre cost $245 million, the CGI movie Tangled cost $260 million, while Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides cost an eye-watering $378.5 million.

Also, we do not have to spend big money on huge projects such as shuttles and space stations like Russia, China, and the US. The UK and Canadian space agencies provide a very good model for a similar Australian organization. We don’t need to have a launch vehicle, we just need to start contributing to international space project collaborations.

A space program is not a luxury. It is a key to a sustainable future and developing scientific thinking.

We should totally build one of these any way.

As cool as it would be to have one of these, this is probably not what an Australian space program will look like.

What have we got to offer?

I have come across the belief that Australia has little it can offer the international space science community (and therefore should leave space up to other countries) disturbingly often, and nothing could be further from the truth. Australia has had a small but outstanding role in space since the 1960s, and in a field as diverse as space research, there is always something we can offer both in international collaborations and from Australia-only projects.

Universities and research organizations across the country already have some involvement in space research. We are world leaders in the development of scramjet technology, we are internationally renowned in radio astronomy and computer sciences, we are participating in space missions such as eLISA and the GRACE follow-on, we have important deep-space tracking facilities, and we have the most productive geodetic observatory in the world.

A space program also affords Australia the opportunity to focus efforts on problems that are unique to Australia. This article in The Conversation from 2013 addresses the reasons why Australia urgently needs a space program to solve our own problems and to stop piggybacking on other countries’ space projects.

Western Australian Space Centre

The Western Australian Space Centre: the site of the world’s most productive laser ranging station.

What should we do?

We need to establish a space agency with its own slice of government funding. This is necessary to produce the funding stability I discussed previously and exploit space research to the full.

The Review of the Space Activities Act needs to provide appropriate recommendations so that future legislation minimizes red tape and makes it easy for Australian agencies and research organizations to conduct research within Australia, and to collaborate with other nations.

We need to start training our students for the space sector. A huge number of brilliant STEM students are being attracted to space science at the undergraduate level, but there are too few programs and training opportunities for all but a few of them to continue down this path. Increased support for space research at all levels of education will be needed to develop and exploit Australia’s intellectual resources and drive innovation.

We need to get the public excited about space through science communication, media attention, and school programs.

The public excitement will only grow as Australia’s space program progresses. By collaborating with NASA, the ESA and other space agencies and contributing to international projects, Australia will be eligible to select its own astronauts. While Australian-born Americans have flown in space, no one has gone to space with an Australian flag on their shoulder. The media attention surrounding Canada’s Chris Hadfield and the UK’s Tim Peake show just how much public excitement is generated by space flight, and with proper science communication efforts, this excitement will feed back into greater support for space science and the benefits it has to offer.

Has anyone got a suggestion for a good name for our space agency?

This is here just because I like this picture.

WRESAT: Australia’s first satellite.