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Oldest known star found by Australian astronomers

A TEAM LED BY ASTRONOMERS at The Australian National University has discovered the oldest known star in the Universe, which formed shortly after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

The discovery has allowed astronomers for the first time to study the chemistry of the first stars, giving scientists a clearer idea of what the Universe was like in its infancy.

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to unambiguously say that we’ve found the chemical fingerprint of a first star,” said lead researcher, Dr Stefan Keller of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

“This is one of the first steps in understanding what those first stars were like. What this star has enabled us to do is record the fingerprint of those first stars.”

The star was discovered using the ANU SkyMapper telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory, which is searching for ancient stars as it conducts a five-year project to produce the first digital map the southern sky.

Star SMSS J031300.36-670839.3

Astronomers have determined that star SMSS J031300.36-670839.3 is the oldest yet found.

A different star recipe

The ancient star is around 6,000 light years from Earth, relatively close in astronomical terms. It is one of the 60 million stars photographed by SkyMapper in its first year.

“The stars we are finding number one in a million,” says team member Professor Mike Bessell, who worked with Keller on the research.

“Finding such needles in a haystack is possible thanks to the ANU SkyMapper telescope that is unique in its ability to find stars with low iron from their colour.”

Dr Keller and Professor Bessell confirmed the discovery using the Magellan telescope in Chile.

The composition of the newly discovered star – known only as SMSS J031300.36-670839.3 – shows it formed in the wake of a primordial star, which had a mass 60 times that of our Sun.

“To make a star like our Sun, you take the basic ingredients of hydrogen and helium from the Big Bang and add an enormous amount of iron – the equivalent of about 1,000 times the Earth’s mass,” Dr Keller says.

Dr Stefan Keller with the SkyMapper telescope

Dr Stefan Keller with the SkyMapper telescope

“To make this ancient star, you need no more than an Australia-sized asteroid of iron and lots of carbon. It’s a very different recipe that tells us a lot about the nature of the first stars and how they died.”

No sign of iron

Dr Keller says it was previously thought that primordial stars died in extremely violent explosions that blasted their iron into huge volumes of space. But the ancient star shows signs of pollution with lighter elements such as carbon and magnesium, and no sign of pollution with iron.

“This indicates the primordial star’s supernova explosion was of surprisingly low energy. Although sufficient to disintegrate the primordial star, almost all of the heavy elements such as iron, were consumed by a black hole that formed at the heart of the explosion,” he says.

The result may resolve a long-standing discrepancy between observations and predictions of the Big Bang.

The discovery was published in the latest edition of the journal Nature.

Adapted from information issued by ANU.

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Digital survey to find ‘fossil’ stars

Star field

Federal Government funding will boost Australian astronomical research, including the search for the oldest stars in the galaxy.

THE FIRST DIGITAL IMAGING SURVEY of the southern night sky will be developed thanks to funding from the Federal Government.

Announcing funding for 106 projects, Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr said that investing in research was vital for the development of new ideas, the creation of jobs and a better quality of life for all Australians.

Dome of the SkyMapper telescope

The work will use the ANU's SkyMapper telescope at Siding Spring Observatory.

Researchers at the Australian National University, working with Australia’s newest Nobel Laureate, Professor Brian Schmidt, will use a $390,000 grant to image one billion stars and galaxies in the Southern Sky Survey, underpinning science programs of international prominence such as the search for the oldest stars in the galaxy.

The Southern Sky Survey will be the first digital imaging survey of the entire southern hemisphere sky. The information resulting from a billion stellar and galaxy images will underpin a number of significant national science programs of international prominence. These include the discovery of the oldest stars in our galaxy, fossils from its formation. Chief investigator for the newly-funded project is ANU Professor Gary S. Da Costa.

Adapted from information issued by the office of the Innovation Minister and ANU. Images courtesy ANU and Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA/ESA).

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Million-dollar boost for Aussie telescope

Dome of the 2.3-metre telescope at SSO

The ANU's 2.3-metre telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales. A million-dollar upgrade is underway.

A MILLION DOLLAR UPGRADE of one of Australia’s longest serving telescopes has just begun at Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran in New South Wales, involving the four principal designers who worked on the project when it began at Mt Stromlo in Canberra in the early 1980s.

Dr Gary Hovey from the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at The Australian National University has been dragged out of retirement to play a major part in the upgrade of the 2.3-metre telescope along with 87-year-old mechanical engineer Herman Wehner.

“The four of us have periodically worked on the telescope for 30 years but we haven’t worked together as a design team since the early 1990s,” he said.

“For most of us, building the 2.3 metre telescope was the major and formative experience of our careers so it is gratifying to see that ‘the old workhorse’ is still able to make a contribution to modern astronomical research.”

“The last decade has seen a marked degradation of the fabric of the building, frequent electronic damage from lightning strikes and increasing problems with the procurement of spares,” Dr Hovey added.

“The proposed refurbishment will address these issues and will ensure that the 2.3 metre telescope functions well as a remotely controlled observing facility for all Australian astronomers.”

ANU 2.3-metre telescope

The ANU's 2.3-metre telescope

Major upgrade

The two-year overhaul will involve substantial reconditioning of the mechanical and electronic systems of the telescope and the co-rotating building, which serves as a dome, as well as fixing the building cladding and redesigning the ventilation system.

The other members of the original design team involved are John Hart and Jan van Harmelen. They will be working with the past and current maintenance engineers at Siding Spring Observatory, Malcolm Harris and Geoff White, managed by Liam Waldron.

“Although telescopes such as the 2.3-metre seem small in comparison to the behemoths now being built overseas, they can play a vital role in defining the frontiers of research and in the training of post-graduate students,” Dr Hovey said.

“If the promise of high performance instruments such as the new Wide Field Spectrograph is to be realised, then it is essential that the performance and reliability of the telescope be secured for another decade.”

Adapted from information issued by ANU.

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Aussie ‘plasma thruster’ set for blast off

Plasma thruster-powered spacecraft

The Australian plasma thruster will help satellites travel for longer and further into deep space.

A $3.1 MILLION GRANT from the Federal Government will help the Australian National University (ANU) propel Australian satellite technology and exploratory missions into the furthest reaches of deep space.

The University will partner with national and international bodies to make a revolutionary plasma thruster engine, invented and developed at ANU, ready for spaceflight. If successful, the engine could be used in satellites and deep space missions as soon as 2013.

Project leader Professor Rod Boswell, from the Plasma Research Laboratory in the ANU College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, said the engine will be based on his colleague Professor Christine Charles’ Helicon Double Layer Thruster (HDLT).

“The HDLT is the first thruster of its kind in the world and can be used to keep satellites in their desired orbit as well as in interplanetary travel,” he said. “It is an elegant, almost fuel-independent as well as energy and cost effective, propulsion system.

The future of space propulsion

Plasma thruster engines are set to be the future of all space exploration and satellite activities. They have characteristics that will eventually lead to their wide deployment as space propulsion systems.

They are much less powerful than conventional chemical rocket engines, but in principle are more efficient, for long periods of time, making them ideal for deep space missions.

HDLT apparatus with Orson Sutherland, Dr Christine Charles and Professor Rod Boswell.

HDLT apparatus with Orson Sutherland, Dr Christine Charles and Professor Rod Boswell.

In the long term, the development of plasma thruster technology will extend the range of human and robotic exploration into the Solar System and beyond.

In the short term these types of thrusters will become important to the telecommunications industry because they are ideally suited for station keeping, or keeping satellites in their orbits, for long periods of time. This will extend their operational lifetimes and save huge sums of money.

Professor Boswell added that the HDLT can also be used to de-orbit satellites that have reached the end of their missions.

“These satellites are at risk of becoming hazards for other satellites,” he said. “This is something which spacecraft manufacturers take very seriously.

“An inexpensive, light, reliable way of moving satellites at the end of their life into a graveyard orbit or into an orbit where they eventually re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up is commercially very attractive.”

Australian know-how

The grant won by Professor Boswell and his colleagues in the Plasma Research Laboratory will also help build a space simulation facility at ANU. Based at Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra, the Space Simulation Facility will incorporate a thermal/vacuum device that will enable testing of the HDLT and other satellites in space-like conditions.

The facility will also be made available to other scientists, astronomers and industry bodies seeking to develop space equipment.

The grant to ANU forms part of a $6.1 million investment in space research and education announced last Friday by Innovation Minister, Senator the Hon Kim Carr.

Adapted from information issued by ANU. Images courtesy ANU and NASA.

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Space boost for Aussie research

Australia from space

Three new projects have been given the green light under the Australian Space Research Program.

IMPROVING THE WAY SATELLITES move in orbit, having more accurate weather predictions and creating a new education pathway for science and engineering students are the possibilities that will stem from the Federal Government’s $6.1 million investment in new space research and education projects.

Announcing three new projects under Round 4 of the Australian Space Research Program (ASRP), Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr said discoveries in space science may help solve some of Australia’s and the world’s biggest challenges.

“Space science is no longer about a race to the Moon. Rather, it has the power and potential to help us address major issues that affect our quality of life like health care, food production and climate change,” Senator Carr said.

“Australia’s space and engineering research is among the best in the world—Excellence in Research for Australia showed 85 per cent or more of the units assessed in the space sciences and related areas of engineering are world standard or above—and our space-related industries are growing.”

Through the ASRP, South Australian company Vipac Engineers & Scientists will partner with research bodies to develop a sensor to improve the measurement of greenhouse gases. The Government is investing $2.3 million in this project, which will help better detect climate change and predict the weather.

The Australian National University will partner with national and international industry bodies to develop a better propulsion system for satellites and deep-space missions.

Exhaust of a plasma thruster in a laboratory experiment at ANU.

Exhaust of a plasma thruster in a laboratory experiment at ANU.

The Australian Plasma Thruster project will aim to develop a spaceflight-ready Australian plasma thruster design based on the helicon double layer technology invented and developed at the Australian National University.

If successful it will find a market in satellite propulsion systems, including for station-keeping, end-of-life satellite insertion into graveyard orbits, and ultimately for deep space missions.

The $3.1 million in funding will also help build a space simulation facility at the ANU. The facility will be a research hub for space scientists, astronomers and industry bodies looking to develop space equipment.

Supporting the next generation of researchers, the University of New South Wales will partner with national and international space industry bodies and use their $675,000 grant to formulate and deliver a two-year Masters degree program in satellite systems engineering.

The aim is to help address the current education gap and help prepare graduates with industry experience for Australia’s developing space industry.

Adapted from information issued by the Australian Government.

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Aussies to help build Super Scope

Artist's impression of Giant Magellan Telescope

Artist's impression of the Giant Magellan Telescope, for which ANU teams will design and build instrumentation.

  • Giant Magellan Telescope will be the biggest optical telescope in the world
  • It’ll produce images 30 times sharper than currently possible from the ground
  • ANU teams will contribute instrumentation to give GMT its ‘eyes’

AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY researchers are helping to build a super-sized telescope that will allow scientists to see deeper into space in the visible light range than ever before.

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT)—with a primary mirror the equivalent of 24.5 metres in diameter—will produce astronomical images up to 30 times sharper than existing ground-based telescopes.

Launching the next stage of the ANU’s Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre (AITC) at Mount Stromlo in Canberra, Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr said the GMT promises to answer some of astronomy’s biggest questions.

“It will tell us about the early universe including formation of the first stars and the evolution of galaxies only a few million years after the Big Bang,” Senator Carr said.

The ANU—which is developing instrumentation for the $700 million telescope—is part of an international consortium that will build the telescope in the Chilean Andes.

Artist's impression of Giant Magellan Telescope

The $700 million Giant Magellan Telescope will see 30 times sharper than current ground-based telescopes.

The government is contributing nearly $90 million towards the telescope through the Education Investment Fund—$65 million for our share of construction costs and $23.4 million to ANU for enhancements to the AITC, development of new instruments for the telescope and for industry engagement.

The funding, on behalf of the ANU and the Australian astronomical community through Astronomy Australia Ltd, would buy Australian astronomers time on the telescope once it is operational later this decade.

“This will be the premier optical-infrared facility for our astronomers. Being part of the consortium building the telescope will keep Australia at the forefront of optical astronomy, complementing the radio-based capabilities of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA),” Senator Carr said. “The association will further strengthen our case to host the SKA.

Australia’s part in building the GMT is expected to create at least 95 highly skilled jobs and at least 145 other supporting positions.

History of innovation

The ANU, through its Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA, and its forerunner, the Mount Stromlo & Siding Spring Observatory, MSSSO) has a long history of technological innovation, and has designed and built instrumentation that is now used in Australia and overseas.

In the early 1980s, the then MSSSO built the 2.3-metre Advanced Technology Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory. It featured an altitude-azimuth (‘swivel and tilt’) mounting design, which was very uncommon at the time but which has become the standard for large telescope these days.

GSAOI being lifted into place

The ANU-designed Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager (GSAOI) being lifted into place on the Gemini South telescope in Chile.

This was followed by several advanced imaging and spectrographic instruments for Australian and international observatories, including the European Southern Observatory in Chile, plus equipment for an astronomy site testing station in Antarctica.

In more recent times, RSAA has designed and built instruments for some of the largest telescopes in the world.

One of these units is NIFS—the Near-infrared Integral-Field Spectrograph—which is used on the Gemini South telescope in Chile, one of the largest telescopes in the world. Worth $6 million, NIFS was designed by RSAA and rebuilt by Canberra firm AUSPACE (after the original NIFS was destroyed in the Canberra bushfires in 2003).

NIFS enables astronomers to observe astronomical objects at a resolution on par with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Another success story is GSAOI—the Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager—which is due to go live on Gemini South later this year. GSAOI is a wide-field imaging system that operates in the near-infrared part of the spectrum and, like NIFS, gives almost Hubble-like views of the cosmos.

Adapted from information issued by ANU. Images courtesy ANU / GMT Office / Gemini Observatory.

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Aussie space research facility launched

AITC exterior shot

Construction has begun on the second stage of the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre at Mount Stromlo near Canberra.

CONSTRUCTION OF A STATE-OF-THE-ART facility to develop and test advanced space science technologies has been officially launched at Mt Stromlo Observatory.

Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr launched the building of phase two of the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre (AITC-2).

The new one-of-a-kind facility, funded under the Education Investment Fund program, will initially support development of the international, billion-dollar Giant Magellan Telescope and a number of Australian Space Research Program projects.

The Australian projects include supplying broadband Internet access to research teams in Antarctica; taking gravity field measurements for water management across Australia and monitoring the movement of dangerous space debris.

Director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Mt Stromlo, Professor Harvey Butcher, said that the goal is to make the AITC a national centre for university, government and industry collaboration.

“This new building aims to provide a ‘one stop shop’ to develop and test small satellites for remote sensing and telecommunications, as well as instruments for astronomy and astrophysics,” said Professor Butcher.

“The assembly of such precision equipment requires high-quality clean rooms, vacuum chambers, test benches and a vibration table designed to test the dynamical behaviour of instrumentation, for example such as occurs during launching into orbit.”

“Astronomy is remote sensing at its most remote, and the facility will be available for use by the remote sensing community from universities, government organisations and commercial industry,” he added.

“An important focus will be collaboration with industry, including a partnership with EOS Space Systems to develop Adaptive Optics—a technology capable of de-blurring images made through the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Adapted from information issued by ANU.

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Aquarius younger by billions of years

Stars in the Milky way

Astronomers have identified a massive swarm of stars within the Milky Way, now known as the Aquarius Stream, that seem to be the remains of a smaller, external galaxy that was destroyed by the Milky Way's gravitational pull.

AN INTERNATIONAL TEAM of astronomers has discovered a new stream of stars in our Milky Way, thanks to data collected at the ANU Siding Spring Observatory.

The research, led by Dr Mary Williams from the Astrophysical Institute Potsdam (AIP), is part of the Radial Velocity Experiment (RAVE) and used data from Siding Spring to measure the velocities of 250,000 stars.

The new ‘Aquarius Stream’ is named after the constellation of Aquarius in which it resides. The stream of stars is a remnant of a smaller galaxy in our cosmic neighbourhood, which was pulled apart by the gravitational pull of the Milky Way about 700 million years ago.

Dr Mary Williams, a former graduate student of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at ANU, said the Aquarius Stream was particularly hard to find, located deep within the Milky Way where it was indistinguishable from the huge quantity of stars blocking our view of it.

Aquarius Stream map

Astronomers have identified a massive swarm of stars within the Milky Way, now known as the Aquarius Stream, that seem to be the remains of a smaller, external galaxy that was destroyed by the Milky Way's gravitational pull.

“It was right on our doorstep, but we just couldn’t see it,” said Dr Williams.

Dr Williams used the RAVE data to draw conclusions about the formation of the Milky Way.  She said that by astronomical standards, the 700-million-year-old Aquarius stream is exceptionally young. Other known streams of stars located on the outskirts of our galaxy are billions of years old.

Professor Matthias Steinmetz, project leader of the multinational RAVE collaboration at AIP said he is optimistic the method used by Dr Williams and her team will lead to many more discoveries of this kind.

“We want to understand the formation history of our Milky Way,” he said. “We want to find out how frequently constellations have merged with neighbouring galaxies in the past, and how many we are to expect in the future.”

While much about the galaxy surrounding our planet Earth remains unknown, astronomers are certain about one thing—the Milky Way’s next huge collision will be with the Andromeda galaxy. This cosmic collision is predicted to take place in about three billion years—unless one of the dwarf galaxies discovered over the past few years beats Andromeda to it.

This video shows a highly speeded up computer simulation of the collision between the Milky Way and Andromeda. See what happens to the shape of the Milky Way following the collision:

RAVE is a multinational project, involving scientists from Australia, Germany, France, UK, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Slovenia and the USA.

Adapted from information issued by ANU. Images courtesy ANU and Hubble Heritage Team (AURA / STScI / NASA / ESA).

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Space museum for Australia

Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre

Mount Stromlo's Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre (AITC), one of the new facilities built in the wake of the 2003 bushfires. It will soon be joined by a new space and astronomy museum built in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. Image courtesy ANU.

THE SIGNING OF AN AGREEMENT overnight in Washington DC between the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and The Australian National University represents a giant leap forward for efforts to build a national astronomy and space science museum at Mount Stromlo.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Chubb AC and National Air and Space Museum Director General John ‘Jack’ Dailey signed the agreement. It sets out the first steps for co-operation that will support the development of a museum to tell the story of Australia’s contribution to space science and space technologies, and celebrate the special role Australian astronomers have played in the exploration of the cosmos.

The signing comes as the University prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the iconic Mount Stromlo Observatory and will see a number of key curatorial staff from Washington come to Canberra in coming months to take part in a planning conference for the proposed museum.

“The National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC is one of the great science museums of the world. We want to build a museum that will inspire our young people, melding science, art, culture and history—and growing our already close relationship with the Smithsonian Institution will ensure that we create something wonderful for Australia,” Professor Chubb said.

Mount Stromlo bushfires

An aerial view of part of Mount Stromlo on fire during the 2003 bushfires. Image by Ray Brown.

Mount Stromlo Observatory was almost completely destroyed by the terrible 2003 bushfires that ravaged Canberra and surrounding regions. The ANU has been rebuilding the facility.

Professor Chubb said the museum would draw on the long history of co-operation between the United States and Australia in astronomy and space science, and the Smithsonian Institution has always been part of that cooperation.

“The Smithsonian Institution has been linked to Canberra since 1907, when Smithsonian Secretary Walcott provided expert advice on the establishment of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory at Mount Stromlo. The observatory was designed so that it would complement the research of Smithsonian astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere,” Professor Chubb said.

“In the 1990s a joint ANU-Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics (CfA) research team discovered the acceleration of the universal expansion of the Universe, one of the major mysteries of modern science. And both the ANU and the Smithsonian are foundation partners in the billion-dollar Giant Magellan Telescope, which will push the boundaries of science.”

“A museum on Mount Stromlo, which is an active hub of leading edge international astronomy and space research, will ensure that we inspire future generations of young Australians to look to the skies.”

Adapted from information issued by ANU.

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Gravity mission down under

Artist's impression of the twin GRACE satellites

Artist's impression of the twin GRACE satellites, which measure Earth's gravity field.

  • Funding for Australia to develop laser system
  • For use on the GRACE Follow On science satellite
  • GRACE measures Earth’s gravity field

The Australian National University has welcomed the announcement of $4.7 million in funding for the next stage in the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite program, which will include laser testing and results analysis at the University.

GRACE measurements reveal melting of the polar ice caps and are used to monitor changes in ground water.

The announcement was made by Senator the Hon Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, as part of a suite of funding announcements from the Australian Space Research Program (ASRP).

Dr Paul Tregoning

Dr Paul Tregoning's team will analyse the data from the new GRACE mission.

The project, led by The Australian National University, will bring together expertise from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, EOS Space Systems, the CSIRO’s Australian Centre for Precision Optics, the National Measurement Institute and Germany’s Albert Einstein Institute.

Researchers will develop prototype hardware for a laser ranging system to fly on NASA’s GRACE Follow On mission. GRACE is a satellite mission that has provided new and unexpected insights into the natural processes of Earth.

The laser system will be developed by researchers from the ANU Centre for Gravitational Physics led by Dr Daniel Shaddock, while a team led by Dr Paul Tregoning from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences will analyse the data from the new mission.

“This new laser system for GRACE Follow On will improve the measurement by a factor of 25 compared to the original GRACE mission,” said Dr Shaddock.

“Australian researchers will partner closely with NASA and German scientists to ensure that our system will perform in the harsh space environment.”

“This funding will make Australia a partner in a space mission of global importance,” added Dr Tregoning.

Gravity mapping satellite

The joint NASA-German Aerospace Centre GRACE project is a five-year mission to precisely measure Earth’s shifting water masses and map their effects on Earth’s gravity field.

It measures Earth’s gravity field by measuring the separation between Dr Paul Tregoning’s with an accuracy of one millionth of a metre (less than 1/10th the width of a human hair).

GRACE geoid

GRACE map showing how the Earth's gravity field is not smooth, but bumpy due to uneven distribution of mass.

Launched March 17, 2002, GRACE senses minute variations in Earth’s surface mass and corresponding variations in Earth’s gravitational pull.

The monthly gravity maps generated by Grace will be up to 1,000 times more accurate than current maps, substantially improving the accuracy of many techniques used by oceanographers, hydrologists, glaciologists, geologists and other scientists to study phenomena that influence climate.

Environment studies

“The GRACE mission has already provided significant and valuable data to researchers, including allowing us—for the very first time—to see just how much water has been lost from the Murray Darling Basin as a result of drought,” said Dr Tregoning.

“The GRACE data showed us just how serious that problem was, and that we had lost some 200 cubic kilometres of water over six years; that’s the equivalent of 400 Sydney Harbours.”

“Obviously, information like this is essential for policy makers to plan for a healthy and prosperous future for the country,” said Dr Tregoning.

“But the funding also allows for fantastic opportunities for researchers to analyse this data and work on an international space project. It will allow local academics to show that Australian research is competitive in the international space arena,” he said.

Adapted from information issued by ANU. Photos by Cole Bennets / NASA.

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