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ANU's Down to Earth Research in 2017

This year ANU scientists have contributed to our understanding of the universe and Earth’s history, are fighting hunger, and helping to better address climate change. The University even contributed to the Nobel-Prize-winning detection of gravitational waves.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three American researchers – Professor Barry Barish, Professor Kip Thorne and Professor Rainer Weiss – for their leading role in the detection of gravitational waves.

They are the main figures in the establishment of the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which uses an incredibly sensitive system of lasers and mirrors to detect tiny ripples in space-time. Einstein predicted the existence of these gravitational waves, produced by cataclysmic events such as the collision of two black holes, in 1916.

The ANU led the Australian contribution to the four-nation collaboration, supplying equipment and expertise.

The ANU vice chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt, himself a Nobel prize winner, congratulated the winners.

‘A triumph of physics,’ he said. ‘The discovery of gravitational waves has led to a new age of gravitational wave astronomy, allowing scientists to unlock many secrets of the Universe… On behalf of ANU, I congratulate the winners, and ANU and Australian researchers who have helped make this amazing discovery possible.’

ANU astronomers have been busy making other discoveries too.

In April, two citizen science projects were launched on the ABC’s Stargazing Live program. In part of one, called ‘Exoplanet Explorers’, Australian citizen scientists found four ‘super earth’ sized planets in close-orbit around a small star 597 light years away from Earth.

The other project, run by the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA), used data from the ANU’s SkyMapper telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, to search for a mysterious ninth planet in our solar system.

PhD student at the RSAA, Ryan Ridden-Harper, told Woroni that citizen science projects like these are ‘a very valuable thing to have if we want to bring people into science, and include them in the process.’

The University has also been part of an international project, along with the University of New South Wales and University of Sydney, to develop and launch miniaturised satellites, called CubeSats, to explore the lower layers of Earth’s atmosphere.

Consisting of 10 cubic centimetre units, CubeSats are less expensive than larger satellites, allowing students to be more involved in their development, and to access the data they gather. They are also a more sustainable response to the increasing congestion of Earth’s atmosphere.

As part of its commitment to developing Australia’s capability in this field, the ANU signed a memorandum of understanding with UNSW Canberra in September, creating a collaboration with ‘end- to-end’ capability from the design, to the testing of CubeSats.

The University also announced in September that it will be working more closely with the German space agency, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft Raumfahrt (DLR), on future research projects.

Closer to Earth, researchers at the Research School of Earth Sciences contributed pieces to the puzzle of Earth’s history.

Geological detective work, examining ancient zircon crystals from granite in the Jack Hills region of Western Australia, led to the conclusion that early Earth did not have plate tectonics.

Because of this, the early Earth would have been much f latter than the planet we know, with islands emerging from the sea covering most of the planet, and a high concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The research built on ANU work going back to the 1980s, when a machine specifically to analyse zircon crystals was built, as well previous examination of zircon crystals found in the Lachlan Fold Belt, in southeast Australia.

ANU researchers also contributed to the ANU Climate Change Institute’s climate science update in July, where a representative from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change spoke on the most recent climate science developments.

ANU Research School of Earth Sciences’ Professor Eelco Rohling presented his research on rising sea levels, highlighting the new vulnerabilities in Antarctica that had been discovered. Professor Sharon Friel, of the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance, spoke on the need to acknowledge the health issues climate change will bring.

Also looking to secure future human wellbeing, in September ANU biologists joined an international consortium seeking to engineer more productive crops, by improving the process of photosynthesis. Their contributions build on 20 years of expertise as one of the leading plant research groups in the world.

In particular, researchers are focussing on improving crop plants for smallhold farmers in the developing world. Plants will be field tested to ensure they can be farmed using traditional methods, and will be made available royalty-free to farmers in the developing world.

Researchers hope that their developments, which will be field- ready in 10-20 years, will help to ensure greater food security, and feed Earth’s growing population.