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Why was Australia lit up like Christmas tree?

Composite image of Australia at night

The apparent abundance of lights in this satellite image of Australia’s desolate outback, is easily explained – the image is made up of multiple images taken over many days and combined one on top of the other. So occasional fires or lightning bursts here and there have apparently joined up to produce large light shows in remote areas.

TWO WEEKS AGO, NASA’S Earth Observatory web site published a new map of the Earth at night, built by Earth Observatory designers together with colleagues at the US National Geophysical Data Center. That map—made possible by a new NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite—showed the footprint of human civilisation on the planet, as revealed by the lights we use to brighten the darkness.

But it turns out the map showed something more. Astute readers noticed lights in areas that were thought to be uninhabited. Many of those readers pointed to Western Australia and asked: How can there be so much light there?

The image above shows the night-lights of Australia as observed by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012. It is made up of multiple images that show both manmade light sources and the light of fires. The images were acquired over nine days in April 2012 and thirteen days in October 2012.

A closer view of Western Australia at night.

A closer view of Western Australia at night.

The extent of the lighting is a results of combining multiple images. Fires and other lights that were detected on one day were integrated into the composite, multi-day picture despite being temporary phenomena. Because different lands burned at different times that the satellite passed over, the cumulative result is the appearance of a massive blaze. But while the cities are fixed, the fires were temporary, moveable features.

Not every light in the night view matches up with a fire—partly because the fire map does not include fires from April and partly because not every fire leaves a scar that is detectable from space. Even simple cloud cover could prevent burn scars from being observed.

Aside from the fires, some of the night lights appearing in uninhabited areas can be attributed to natural gas flares, lightning, oil drilling or mining operations, and fishing boats—all of which can show up as points of light.

Adapted from information issued by NASA Earth Observatory. NASA Earth Observatory images by Robert Simmon, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data provided by Chris Elvidge (NOAA National Geophysical Data Center); MODIS Active Fire & Burned Area Products; and urban data from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. Suomi NPP is the result of a partnership between NASA, NOAA, and the Department of Defense. Caption by Michael Carlowicz.

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Australia from Space – Outback fires

Aqua satellite image of fires in Western Australia

NASA's Aqua satellite took this image showing dozens of fires scattered across the Kimberley region of Western Australia in early May. The red colours are markers of the locations of the fires, not actually visible flames.

WHEN THIS IMAGE WAS CAPTURED on May 2, 2012, dozens of fires—most likely management fires started by government authorities—were burning in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Fire season in this part of Australia usually begins in May and ends in November. Once started, fires can be difficult to control. Much of the vegetation is fire prone, and the terrain is hard to access with the big machines (such as bulldozers) used to extinguish fires.

But since May is only the beginning of the dry season, vegetation is still relatively moist, and fires are relatively easy to contain. Authorities take advantage of this by starting management fires that are designed to remove vegetation that could fuel large wildfires later in the season.

Because officials are concerned that wildfires are taking a toll on the local tourism industry, they have intensified their efforts to prevent damaging wildfires. As part of this effort, they have begun setting patches of oval-shaped fires rather than burning linear fire breaks as they did in the past, according to an article published by Australian Geographic. The new approach has reduced the overall fire size, and posed fewer threats to animals and plants in the Kimberley region.

The image above was acquired at 12:20pm local time on May 2 by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Fires continued to burn nearby over the following days, although clouds moved in around May 6, 2012. The LANCE MODIS Rapid Response system provides twice daily images of northwestern Australia.

NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid Response. Text adapted from information issued by caption by Adam Voiland and Michon Scott, NASA Earth Observatory.

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Australia from Space: Part 4

MORE WONDERFUL IMAGES of Australia’s coastline, courtesy of the European Envisat Earth-monitoring satellite. Envisat was launched in March 2002 and at 8.5-tonnes is one of the largest satellites ever put into orbit. It circles the Earth every 101 minutes from north to south.

Satellite image of the Great Barrier Reef

An Envisat MERIS image of the Great Barrier Reef centred on Cape York Peninsula. Taken on 19 August 2004, this MERIS Full Resolution mode images has a spatial resolution of 300 metres.

Satellite image of the Southern Great Barrier Reef

This Envisat image features the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s Queensland coast. It is the world’s most protected marine area, one of its natural wonders and a World Heritage site. Spanning more than 2,000 km and covering an area of some 350,000 sq km, it is the largest living structure on Earth and the only one visible from space. This image was acquired by Envisat’s Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) on 8 November 2010 at a resolution of 300 metres

Satellite image of the Northern Great Barrier Reef

Another view of the Great Barrier Reef. Australian researchers have discovered that Envisat's Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) sensor can detect coral bleaching down to 10 metres depth. This means Envisat could potentially map coral bleaching on a global scale. MERIS acquired this image on 18 May 2008, working in Full Resolution mode to yield a spatial resolution of 300 metres.

Close up of the sea off northwestern WA

Sea and coral atolls off the West Australian coast, as seen by Envisat's MERIS ocean colour sensor.

Earlier Australia from Space pictorials:

Australia from Space: Part 1

Australia from Space: Part 2

Australia from Space: Part 3

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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Australia from Space: Part 3

Lake Acraman seen from space

Lake Acraman sits inside the eroded ruins of an ancient impact crater in the Gawler Ranges in South Australia. Presently about 20 kilometres wide, the original crater could have been up to 85 or 90 kilometres across. It is thought to have formed during the impact of a large meteoroid about 580 million years ago.

AFTER ANTARCTICA, AUSTRALIA IS THE DRIEST continent on Earth, and is largely covered by desert. But even the desert sometimes gets rain, as witnessed by the salt lakes spread throughout the landscape. Although usually dry, they very occasionally can receive water, often as runoff from higher ground.

These amazing images of the Australian ‘outback’were taken by Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli during his stay aboard the International Space Station.

Lake Cadibarrawirracanna seen from space

According to Wikipedia, Lake Cadibarrawirracanna has the distinction of having the second-longest official place name in Australia. This salt lake is found within the Woomera Prohibited Area in South Australia. Woomera was once a very active rocket launch facility in the 1950s and 1960s. The name Cadibarrawirracanna means 'stars dancing on water'.

Lake Frome seen from space

Another salt lake is Lake Frome, also in South Australia. An ephemeral lake, it spends most of its life dry but sometimes fills with water. According to indigenous Australian Dreamtime mythology, the Rainbow Serpent Akurra drank all the water in the lake.

Lake Noondie seen from space

Lake Noondie, another salt lake, is located in the remote Murchison area of Western Australia.

Terrain near Lake Willis seen from space

This looks like an amazing piece of artwork, or maybe stained tissue cells under a microscope. In fact, what we see here is the dramatic red landscape near Lake Willis in Western Australia.

Red sand dunes in Western Australia, seen from space

Another apparent artwork, this time red sand dunes in outback Western Australia. Fuffy white clouds show there is some moisture in the air.

Earlier Australia from Space pictorials:

Australia from Space: Part 1

Australia from Space: Part 2

Adapted from information issued by ESA / NASA.

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Earth from Space — Outback crater

The Shoemaker Impact Structure in Western Australia, seen from orbit.

The Shoemaker Impact Structure in Western Australia, seen from orbit.

THE SHOEMAKER (FORMERLY TEAGUE) IMPACT STRUCTURE—located in Western Australia in a drainage basin south of the Waldburg Range—presents an other-worldly appearance in this photograph taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.

The Shoemaker impact structure is approximately 30 kilometres in diameter and clearly defined by concentric ring structures formed in sedimentary rocks (brown to dark brown, image centre).

The structure is thought to have formed following the impact of a large meteoroid approximately 1.63 billion years ago, although some age-dating analyses of rocks at the core of the structure have called this age into question.

Several saline and ephemeral lakes—Nabberu, Teague, Shoemaker, and numerous smaller ponds—are found between the ring structures. Differences in colour result from both water depth and from suspended sediments, with some bright salt crusts visible around the edges of smaller ponds (image centre).

The Teague Impact Structure was renamed Shoemaker in honour of Dr Eugene M. Shoemaker (1928-1997), a pioneer in impact crater studies and planetary geology, as well as the founder of the Astrogeology Branch of the US Geological Survey. Dr Shoemaker (and his wife, Carolyn) made many trips to Australia to scout out impact craters. He died tragically in a head-on car collision during one of those expeditions.

Astronaut photograph provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Centre. Text adapted from information issued by William L. Stefanov, Jacobs/ESCG at NASA-JSC.

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Radio astronomy protected in Western Australia

Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope.

Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope.

ENHANCED PROTECTIONS are now in place for the Mid West Radio Quiet Zone (RQZ) in remote Western Australia (near Boolardy Station), around 200 kilometres east of Meekatharra…a candidate site for the proposed Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The RQZ was established in 2005 to provide an environment that protects highly sensitive equipment used for radio astronomy from unwanted radio communications signals.

These arrangements protect the radio telescopes currently in place at the Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory—such as the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) and the Murchison Wide-field Array (MWA)—as well as those proposed in the Australian-New Zealand bid to host the SKA.

ASKAP dish

One of the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) dishes.

“A clear regulatory framework to support radio quiet arrangements will further assist Australia to create the world’s best radioastronomy facility,” said Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) Chairman, Chris Chapman.

“This will provide a platform that should be ideal for future radioastronomy projects, including the €1.5 billion SKA project.”

Mr Chapman said the new protection measures provide greater clarity and certainty to the arrangements that protect radio astronomy services in the RQZ.

‘The new measures continue to provide for radio quiet while supporting the use of spectrum by other users and placing the lowest feasible burden on industry in the region,’ said Mr Chapman.

The introduction of the enhanced protections for the RQZ follows a very extensive consultation process in which the ACMA sought the views of interested stakeholders.

More information: ACMA Planning for the radio astronomy service

Adapted from information issued by ACMA. Images courtesy SPDO / Swinburne Astronomy Productions / CASS / Terrace Photographers.

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Australia from Space: Part 2

Kimberley shoreline, Western Australia

The Kimberley is a large region in northern Western Australia. Bordered on the north by the Timor Sea, it is the place where the ancestors of Australia's indigenous inhabitants are thought to have landed after crossing from the Indonesian archipelago. This image shows only a small part of the Kimberley coastline.

THESE BEAUTIFUL IMAGES of the Australian coastline and islands were taken by European astronaut Paolo Nespoli from his vantage point aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS circles the globe in every 91 minutes, with different parts of our planet’s surface visible underneath each orbit as the Earth rotates.

Elizabeth Reef

Elizabeth Reef in the Tasman Sea, is a coral reef that measures about 8 kilometres long by 5.5 kilometres wide. It is located 45 kilometres from Middleton Reef (see next photo), 160 kilometres from Lord Howe Island, and a little over 500 kilometres from the coast of New South Wales. The reef, normally almost fully submerged except at low tide, has claimed a number of shipwrecks during the years, including a yacht in 2007, whose lone British sailor was winched to safety by a Royal Australian Navy helicopter.

Middleton Reef

Middleton Reef is a twin of Elizabeth Reef, located only 45 kilometres away, and around 200 kilometres from Lord Howe Island. It's almost the same size too, being just 8.9 kilometres long by 6.3 kilometres wide. Like Elizabeth Reef, Middleton is almost entirely submerged except at low tide.

King Sound, Western Australia

King Sound is a gulf in northwestern Western Australia, fed by the Fitzroy River. It has the highest tides in Australia, reaching a height of 11.4 metres at Derby, a town on the shore of the Sound. William Dampier was the first European to explore the Sound, in 1688 aboard the ship Cygnet. This image shows only a small part of the Sound, the full dimensions of which are 120 kilometres in length by 50 kilometres width.

Section of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef, which stretches 2,600 kilometres along Queensland's coastline, is the world's largest reef system. It has almost 3,000 separate reefs, around 900 islands and covers an area of just under 350,000 square kilometres. This image shows only a tiny part of it.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / NASA.

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Australia from space

Astronaut photo of the Petermann Ranges

The Petermann Ranges span 320 kilometres from eastern Western Australia into southwestern Northern Territory. The Range has been classified as a site of National Significance and lies within the proposed Katiti-Petermann Indigenous Protected Area.

THESE AMAZING IMAGES of selected landmarks in Australia were taken by European astronaut Paolo Nespoli during his current six-month stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS circles the globe in every 91 minutes, with different parts of our planet’s surface visible underneath each orbit as the Earth rotates.

Astronaut photo of Prominent Hill Mine

Prominent Hill Mine is a gold, silver and copper mine in northwest South Australia. Currently owned and operated by OZ Minerals, sale of the mine to the Chinese company Minmetals Australia Pty Ltd was blocked by the Australian Government on national security grounds…the mine is located within a high-security military area.

Astronaut photo of Mount Conner

Mount Conner is a flat-topped mountain in the Northern Territory, rising 300 metres above ground level (or 859 metres above mean sea level). It is thought to be part of the same sub-surface rock substrate that lies beneath the more famous Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata-Tjuta (the Olgas).

Astronaut photo of Lake Gairdner

Lake Gairdner is a huge salt lake in central South Australia, about 450 kilometres northwest of Adelaide. It is approximately 160 kilometres long and 50 kilometres wide, and in some places the salt deposits are over a metre thick. When flooded, it is deemed the fourth-largest salt lake in Australia, and it has hosted numerous land speed record attempts.

Astronaut photo of Queensland's Sunshine Coast

Queensland's Sunshine Coast is an expanse of coastline north of Brisbane that takes in the towns Noosa Heads, Maroochydore and Caloundra.

Images courtesy ESA / NASA.

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Future stars to meet ancient stars

Stargazers with telescopes

The Aspire to Astronomy programme in Western Australia, will give locals the chance to learn about astronomy, and hopefully will give students the incentive to consider going on to university.

THE NIGHT SKY WILL IGNITE the imagination of school students in Western Australia’s Pilbara region in a series of upcoming community events next month.

Staff from The University of Western Australia, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, SPICE and Scitech are currently working in partnership with local high schools to bring the ‘Aspire to Astronomy’ event to Pilbara communities.

Armed with a passion for science, a host of hands-on activities and several large telescopes, ‘Aspire to Astronomy’ will mobilise in late May, visiting schools and students by day and delivering ‘observing on the oval’ events for communities at night.

In this fortnight long outreach initiative, Aspire to Astronomy will visit Port Hedland, Karratha, Roebourne, Tom Price and Newman.

Locals will be invited to join in the cosmic fun and can even bring along binoculars and telescopes of their own, adding to the equipment to be brought up from Perth.

The Moon

Aspire to Astronomy will be fun, with lots of night sky viewing through telescopes.

On the celestial menu will be the gas giant planet of Saturn, the Orion Nebula, the Jewel Box star cluster, globular cluster Omega Centauri and a host of other night sky wonders.

Aspire to Astronomy will also include a special presentation about the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a $2 billion global science project to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope.

In the Murchison Shire of mid-west WA, teams of scientists and engineers are currently constructing new radio telescopes that test new technologies and demonstrate Western Australia’s ability to deliver world-class science.

Next year the international community will decide if Southern Africa or Australia and New Zealand are to host the radio telescope.

Aspire to Astronomy is part of Aspire UWA, a partnership between the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, the School of Indigenous Studies and Student Services at UWA.

Aspire UWA offers an on-going program to encourage students from communities under-represented in higher education to aspire to university study.

Aspire UWA partners with schools in the Pilbara region and outer metropolitan Perth that have a significant Indigenous student population.

It is funded by the Federal Government’s Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and The University of Western Australia.

Adapted from information issued by UWA. Images courtesy IAU / TWAN / Babak Tafreshi / Lee Pullen / Andreas O. Jaunsen / IYA2009.

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Aussies unite for outback astronomy

MWA antennae

A small part of the Murchison Wide-field Array, which will comprise over 500 separate antennae…most of them located in a cluster 1.5km wide. The antennae are of an advanced new type, with no moving parts.

A QUEST TO DISCOVER the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang is underway with the first major pieces of a revolutionary new radio telescope built in remote Western Australia.

The Murchison Wide-field Array (MWA) is being built by an Australian consortium led by The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia, in close collaboration with US and Indian partners.

MWA industry partner and Fremantle-based high-technology company, Poseidon Scientific Instruments (PSI), recently succeeded in packaging sensitive electronics into environmentally controlled enclosures tough enough to withstand the harsh conditions of outback WA.

Professor Steven Tingay, ICRAR Deputy Director, said PSI’s delivery of this first electronics package was a critical milestone for the MWA project.

MWA receiver

The MWA Receiver with Professor Steven Tingay (ICRAR), Jesse H Searls (PSI), Derek Carroll (PSI), and Mark Waterson (ICRAR).

“This is the first of 64 such enclosures that will service a telescope made up of over 500 antennae, spread over a nine square-kilometre area of the remote Murchison region in WA,” said Professor Tingay.

Professor Tingay said the innovative enclosure would also prevent electronics from interfering with other equipment on the site, preserving the uniquely quiet environment of the Murchison.

“The combination of the MWA and the radio quiet environment of the Murchison will allow us to search for the incredibly weak signals that come from the early stages in the evolution of the Universe, some 13 billion years ago,” he said.

The MWA is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, a site operated by the CSIRO and a proposed core site for the multi-billion dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

It is one of only three official SKA Precursor telescopes, proving the technology and science on the path to the SKA.

One of ICRAR’s goals is to partner with Australian industries, helping position them to participate in future radio astronomy opportunities, such as the SKA. The MWA partnership with PSI is one such success story.

Breaking new ground

Meanwhile, work is gathering pace out in the Western Australian desert.

Following a tender evaluation process, McConnell Dowell Constructors (Aust) Pty Ltd. has been selected by CSIRO as the successful tender in the construction of support infrastructure at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO).

Artist's impression of the SKA

Artist's impression of the central part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The project commences immediately, has a 45-week schedule and is a significant milestone in the ongoing development of the site.

The scope of work involves the construction of several kilometres of access roads and tracks, power and data infrastructure, a central control building and 30 radio antenna concrete foundations, as well as ancillary works.

The MRO is located in the Mid West region of Western Australia, and will be home to world-class instruments including CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope. The MRO is also the Australia–New Zealand candidate core site for the future $2.5bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project.

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR / CSIRO. MWA image courtesy Paul Bourke and Jonathan Knispel (supported by WASP (UWA), iVEC, ICRAR, and CSIRO).

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