Why social media are more like chocolate than cigarettes

 The negative effects of social media have pushed tech  
companies to take more responsibility for the health of their users. 

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took to the social platform last week to announce a call-out for ideas about how to measure the health of online conversations. The initiative follows recent demands for government to regulate the negative consequences of social media.

Discussing the possibility of such regulations in January, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff compared social media with the tobacco industry, saying:

I think that you do it exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry. Here’s a product: cigarettes. They’re addictive, they’re not good for you.

However, our research suggests that social media are more like a chocolate than a cigarette – it can be healthy or unhealthy depending on how you use it. While health ratings make no sense for cigarettes, they do help consumers make informed decisions about the level of sugar, oil and other additives they want to consume when buying particular chocolate products.

Social platforms under fire

Twitter’s planned “health metrics” will measure the civility of public conversation, which Dorsey admits is poor on Twitter. He told users:

We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers. We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough.

The metrics, based on research by the MIT Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines, will gauge:

  • shared attention: is there overlap in what we are talking about?
  • shared reality: are we using the same facts?
  • variety: are we exposed to different opinions grounded in shared reality?
  • receptivity: are we open, civil and listening to different opinions?
Replying to @jack
We don’t yet know if those are the right indicators of conversation health for Twitter. And we don’t yet know how best to measure them, or the best ways to help people increase individual, community, and ultimately, global public health.
What we know is we must commit to a rigorous and independently vetted set of metrics to measure the health of public conversation on Twitter. And we must commit to sharing our results publicly to benefit all who serve the public conversation.
It sounds like a step toward responsible computing, but Twitter isn’t the only platform dealing with these issues. Recent online incidents have heated up the debate about the negative effects of both YouTube and Facebook.

Late last year, YouTube Kids failed to filter disturbing videos in which popular characters kill or torture each other. Facebook admitted that its platform can be bad for its users’ mental health. There was also a sharp increase in cyber-bullying against teens in Australia in 2017, with a recent report revealing a 63% increase in violent threats and revenge porn.

So how seriously should we take these issues? And where is the line between healthy and unhealthy use of social media?

Social media can be good for well-being

The inherent potential of social media is that it allows us to connect. We keep in touch with family and friends, reach out to favourite brands, share our views and feelings with the world, and stay up-to-date with news and events.

Some people go further and use social media for self-development and empowering others. In 2014 and 2015 we interviewed 25 ovarian cancer patients, followed by a survey of another 150 to ascertain the impact of specialised social media groups on patients. We learned that some cancer patients use moderated Facebook groups to share information and experiences with like-minded people, which considerably improved their psychological well-being.

In 2016, we examined past studies and interviewed a number of experts in the aged care industry. We found that social media can help older people to tackle isolation and loneliness, connect with their community, and even generate income through reaching out to new markets.

Our analysis of social media posts about natural disasters in Australia also showed that many people use Twitter to stay updated about bushfires and flooding alerts, and to post relevant pictures and news to help members of their community.

Adverse impacts

We also conducted an extensive review of past studies on the impacts of social media applications on users, and discovered various negative effects. These include feelings of stress, depression, jealousy and loneliness, as well as reduced self-esteem and life satisfaction, and violations of privacy and safety.

We found that while some users are conscious of developing negative feelings through using particular social media platforms, others may be unaware of such adverse effects until their psychological health deteriorates. These negative experiences can hurt our well-being, and in some cases may lead to extreme consequences, such as harming others or suicide.

 Read more: No, you’re probably not ‘addicted’ to your smartphone – but you might use it too much

How to ensure your usage is healthy

A healthy habit of using any social media platform involves asking ourselves what values we expect from our online engagements. We need to be cautious whether such engagements will create positive or negative outcomes for us, or for the people we interact with.

We recommend:

  • Educating yourself about risks of using social media platforms and making yourself aware of safety recommendations. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner actively posts educational articles informing Australians about risks of – as well as strategies for – using social media and internet platforms.
  • Being mindful of private information you share about yourself or others on social media. Consider how you might feel if what you’re sharing was exposed to a third party. Assume that your conversations will be preserved.
  • Trying not to become penned in by algorithmic decision-making. Place less trust in recommendations and actively venture beyond the content served up on your screen.
  • Supervising your children. Take advantage of features tech companies offer for parental guidance, but don’t stop there. Actively monitor your children’s online activities and connections.

This article was written by:
Image of Babak Abedin
Babak Abedin [ Senior Lecturer, University of technology Sydney,]




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Close up: the government’s facial recognition plan could reveal more than just your identity

 Zapp Photo shutterstock.

A Bill to set up the federal government’s biometric identity system is currently going through Parliament. But there are concerns over just how much information the system would be allowed to gather, and how that might be used to establish more than just the identity of a person.

Strongly based on the FBI model in the United States, the Identity Matching Services Bill and its Explanatory Memoranda prescribe what data can be collected, shared and processed, by who and for what purposes.

The Bill is based on the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreement, signed in October 2017.

The public purpose of the system is to provide identity-matching services to government agencies and some private entities (such as banks and telcos). But the Bill will also establish the Department of Home Affairs as an incredibly data-rich law-enforcement and security agency, with a wide remit for data collection and use.

Accessing the ‘hub’

The first layer of the identity matching system is what’s called the “interoperability hub”. This is the interface for those government and private entities seeking access to identity services.

These identity services effectively answer the questions: “is this person who they say they are?” and “who is this person?”.

The hub works on a query and response model. This means that users of the system do not have access to any of the underlying data powering the biometric processing. They won’t be able to browse the databases; they will only have their identity verification questions answered.

The second layer of the system, underneath the hub, is the databases that drive the biometric identity matching. These include passport and citizenship information as well as the new National Drivers License Facial Recognition Solution database, which will be housed in the Department of Home Affairs.

Along with images, these databases include an extraordinary amount of personal information. Roads agencies, like VicRoads in Victoria, hold rich databases of biographical information including names and addresses, age and gender. Those records are also linked to information about vehicle ownership and registration.

Commonwealth criminal intelligence agencies have been seeking access to state-held driver’s licence images and associated personal information for years. The 2017 COAG agreement is what will finally enable a Commonwealth agency to have custodianship over this data on behalf of states.

You ask, it collects

But the use of the hub for identity-matching services means that the amount of data in these database will grow. Each time a user makes a request for identity-matching services, the hub will supply more data to the Department.

The Department can collect and process all information included in an identity document that has a photograph. It can also collect all of the information associated with that document held by the authority that created it.

When an entity (like law enforcement) seeks identity verification, it will likely supply images from its own camera or CCTV systems (or supplied by other parties), along with whatever data associated with those images that might help identify the person.

That could include where and when the images were taken or supplied, and potentially what a person was doing at the time the image was taken or supplied. All of those data are provided to the Department of Home Affairs when an identity verification is done.

Similarly, when banks and telecommunications companies use the hub, that potentially links those records to the Department databases – or at least facilitates those linkages down the track.

This creates the possibility of aggregated criminal and civil histories in a single identity record, like what has occurred with the FBI’s biometric system in the US.

This is all without access to the largest, most sophisticated facial recognition database in existence: Facebook. If sources such as public CCTV and social media are eventually linked into the system, its significance changes again, radically.

Joining the dots

So what is all this data for? On one hand, it provides identity services to hub users. But on the other hand, it generates insights on behalf of the Department of Home Affairs for the sake of policing. Data at a large scale, and especially when used in the context of security and intelligence, means insights and predictions.

The purposes for which the Department can use the information it gathers are very broad. They include preventing and detecting identity fraud, law enforcement, national security, protective security (protection of government assets, persons or facilities), community safety (for instance where a person is acting suspiciously in a crowded public place), and road safety.

Those categories include criminal intelligence gathering and profiling, policing of public spaces and public events, and policing of activist communities and protests.

Many of these policing exercises are highly data-driven, using new predictive techniques to identify criminal suspects and political agitators before any activity has even occurred.

Identity technologies have historically been used by governments to answer two questions:

1) What person is that? 2) What kind of person is that?

Identity is more than merely biographical information. It is a narrative that we tell about ourselves and that others tell about us. That narrative is what is at stake in this type of security surveillance.

Beyond facial recognition, we have already seen machine vision systems designed to predict sexuality on the basis of a person’s image. It’s research that has already generated plenty of controversy.

If the data sets can be construed, and the results are to be accepted, there is no reason why machine vision systems cannot be targeted to answer questions about criminal propensity, IQ, suitability for certain tasks, political leanings, or anything else.

We need to understand what these new database arrangements will enable in terms of high-level or political policing by the Department of Home Affairs, and what this new technical and bureaucratic architecture means for Australia’s broader surveillance arrangements.

This article was written by:
Image of Jake GoldenfeinJake Goldenfein – [Lecturer in Law, Swinburne University of Technology]




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How landline phones made us happy and connected

 Phone calls create an opportunity for genuine  
exchange that written communication lacks. Flickr/PhotoAtelier

Smartphones and the internet have revolutionised society, commerce, and politics, reshaping how we work and play, and how our brains are wired. They have even revolutionised how revolutions are made.

For enthusiasts, these technologies enhance freedom and democratise the flow of information, putting more power in the hands of people to generate political change. In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, high school students have used social media to provoke a public debate about guns in the United States. However, detractors counter that social media and the internet foster “slactivism”: weak, low-effort commitments that do little more than make users feel better.

It’s difficult to evaluate today’s communication technologies unless we understand how people communicated in the past. My own research looks back at how political activists used the phone in the years before the mobile phone revolution, using the records of activist groups and interviews to find out how phone talk shaped what they did and how well they did it.

The results higlight how important phone calls were in fostering a sense of community, intimacy and connection. This suggests that we have lost as much as we have gained with our high-tech gizmos.

The landline’s role in political protest

Before Facebook, the internet and mobile phones, political movements used traditional technologies to recruit like-minded people, raise money, organise events and advocate for change.

Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. Wikimedia

Activist groups called people on the phone, as well as printing, mailing and – by the late 1980s – faxing information. In the second half of the 20th century, the phone was essential to political activism, and it helped to create lasting movements in which people felt emotionally bonded.

The phone was crucial for sharing information quickly. In the US in the 1950s and 1960s, when most Americans had telephones, the civil rights movement relied heavily on the telephone. Thousands of participants in the Montgomery bus boycott of the mid-1950s, for example, found ride shares by using phone trees.

Phone trees, still in use today, are based on lists of people who call other people: ten people each call ten people, who then each call ten people. Before email, the phone tree was one of the quickest and most efficient ways to disseminate information. A well-organised tree could quickly trigger thousands of phone calls to elected officials or turn thousands of people out for demonstrations.

In 1961, Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) lines were introduced, allowing unlimited long-distance calls for a fixed fee. They saved the lives of some activists by giving grassroots workers who could not afford expensive long-distance calls a way to call headquarters to report dangerous situations.

The San Jose Chicano rights marches in California in the 1960s. Flickr/San José Public Library

By the 1980s, 1-800 calling cards had become common. Activists could call anyone from any phone while leaving the charges to be paid by headquarters. The number of calls made by activist groups exploded.

As new movements for environmental protection, nuclear disarmament, feminism, Chicano rights, Native American rights, gay rights, and conservative causes such as school prayer gathered steam in the 1970s and 1980s, the landline phone remained central.

The power of the human voice

In 1986 Americans placed 1.97 billion calls a day – eight calls for every woman, man and child. They were having about seven times as many telephone conversations as they had had in 1950, and the number was still rising. One human rights staffer told me of his work in the mid-1980s:

All the work was done by phone. If I wasn’t in a meeting, I was on the phone.

Those calls were about much more than sharing information. Calling on a landline phone was a labour-intensive form of communication, but it provided immediate personal contact, an opportunity for genuine exchange, and an emotional depth that written communication lacked.

Calls were able to knit far-flung people into deeply felt communities because the phone transmits the capacities of the human voice.

The voice is one of our most powerful instruments, designed not only to communicate but also to build intimacy. Our voices convey emotion so effectively that we can identify emotions in speech even when the words themselves are muffled by walls. The voice indicates whether you are sincere – or whether you are drunk.

Landline phones went through numerous iterations. Flickr/Powell Burns

The powers of the human voice help to explain why talking on the phone can foster feelings of connection. Research on the telephone in the 1980s showed that a call made people feel wanted, needed, included, and involved.

This is why a recent Harvard Business Review study found that face-to-face requests were 34 times more successful than emails.

Better technology doesn’t equal better communication

Critics of digital media say that it corrodes human relationships. The generation that has grown up on smart phones, which have become devices for avoiding talk, lack empathy and struggle to form friendships based on trust, according to one study.

In online communities, people tend toward narcissism and often dramatically fail to care about the feelings of others. Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian whose anonymous Facebook page in 2011 helped topple a dictatorship, concluded that social media facilitated “the spread of misinformation, rumours, echo chambers, and hate speech. The environment was purely toxic.” Empathy vanished, he says.

Landline calls helped to instil positive emotions: feelings of connection, pride, gratitude, a sense of elevation and happiness.

Psychologists tell us that whether we are extroverts or introverts, we need human contact and feel more alive after connecting with other people. Phone calls created those connections. They made people more optimistic and resilient and broadened their mindsets. For activists, talking revealed connections they would otherwise have missed, and deepened their personal commitment to the cause and to one another.

The Garfield phone was around in the 1980s. Flickr/echoesofstars

The landline phone, of course, was not a flawless medium – static, missed calls, busy signals, dropped connections, prank calls and phone threats guaranteed frustration. You can bond over the phone, but you can also argue.

But the rise of smart phones – which Americans check 8 billion times a day – has not meant that we communicate better. More communication can mean that we hear each other less. Among American millennials, the number of voice calls they make is falling as texting soars. And that means we may be losing a powerful part of what connects us to each other.

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Mobile World Congress 2018: 3D selfies, super slo mo video and 4G for the moon

 A visitor arrives to Fira Barcelona congress centre on the 
third day of the Mobile World Congress. AAP/Andreu Dalmau

The biggest mobile showcase of the year – the Mobile World Congress (MWC) – wrapped up in Barcelona yesterday, where some 2,300 exhibitors revealed their latest products and technologies.

Hardware manufacturers, such as Samsung and Google, showcased new smartphones, apps and features. While the conference arm of MWC brought experts together to discuss how enterprise solutions in networking, messaging, Internet-of-things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) could be applied to industries like agriculture, manufacturing and health.

So what were the big announcements?

Nokia goes retro – and takes 4G to the Moon

Nokia is focusing on building the cheapest and simplest phones for users who do not need the dozens of features offered by the flagship smartphones. The company announced five new phones, including the new Nokia 1 – which runs on Android Go and retails for US$85.

But one of Nokia’s most talked about products at MWC was its retro offering. The company is re-releasing a banana-yellow version of the 8110 featured in the original Matrix film. 


Nokia also announced that it’s partnering with Vodafone to develop a space-grade 4G network weighing less than a bag of sugar. The endeavour is part of what is anticipated to be the first privately-funded Moon landing.

It involves using 4G technology to connect two Audi lunar quattro rovers – delivered to the Moon via SpaceX – to a base station. Nokia says the technology will enable “the first live-streaming of HD video from the Moon’s surface to a global audience”.

Nokia has partnered with Vodafone to create the first 4G network on the Moon, connecting two Audi lunar quattro rovers to a base station. Audi

Sony catches up, and gives us 3D selfies

Sony launched its new Xperia XZ2, which offers the best design of any of the phones that Sony has introduced in years. The XZ2’s camera offers 4K video recording, but its missing headphone jack has sparked outrage among fans.

One cool feature is the addition of Sony’s 3D scanning capability to the XZ2’s front-facing camera so users can create 3D selfies.

Hello from ! Here’s the third edition of our special @qz Daily Brief from Barcelona, including an original chart on just how poor the gender split is for the keynote speakers here
sign up for tomorrow’s brief here ! https://qz.com/newsletters/mwc-brief/  pic.twitter.com/1Xv3B1oBAy
 you’ll also be treated to this TERRIFYING GIF of a scan that Sony made of my face — you’re welcome ! [Just click my picture] pic.twitter.com/8vSgXQQDb8
Samsung makes incremental, yet interesting, enhancements

Samsung unveiled its new Galaxy S9 and S9+ – more or less a rebrand of the S8 with some enhancements on the camera. That includes dual optical image stabilisation for creating quality images in low light, and double the frame rate of the S8’s super slow motion video function.

The Galaxy S9’s super slow motion feature.

The Galaxy S9 and Galaxy 9+ use a new modem that allows users to download at speed of up to 1.2 gigabits per second, providing an enhanced surfing and streaming experience. The fingerprint sensor on the S9+ is now underneath the camera for a better user experience, and the new speakers in S9+ are louder than the S8+.

Samsung is also pushing its new artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistant Bixby 2.0, and has introduced a new feature that creates an animated emoji of your face.

 Has the Samsung Galaxy S9 AR Emoji feature captured my likeness? What do you think? Read my hands on review of the S9 at http://techguide.com.au 
 5G is (still) coming

Ericsson, Huawei, ZTE, Telstra and many others players are on the run to make 5G a reality. 5G is the next generation in wireless mobile data connectivity. It will run on higher frequency signals than 4G, providing higher capacity and lower latency (the time is takes to complete a function) compared to 4G. Users are likely to see a boost for video streaming and multi-player video games.

More importantly, the technology is required as the backbone for a massive explosion in the IoT industry, which is anticipated to number around 20 billion devices by 2020. That includes smart home appliances, driverless cars and a wide variety of consumer equipment.

The first specification of the 5G standard was announced late last year by 3GPP — the organisation that governs cellular standards. Since then, vendors have started shipping 5G compliant network equipment. Technology research company Gartner expects it will take more time before we start to see commercial 5G networks. According to its recent report, only 3% of the world’s service providers will launch 5G commercially by 2020.

At MWC, Telstra announced its plan to roll out 5G in collaboration with Ericsson and Intel in Australia’s major cities in 2019. The plan includes deploying, this year, more than 1,000 small cells in metro areas to increase capacity, and 4G and 5G integration trials. Earlier this year, Telstra announced its 5G Innovation Centre on the Gold Coast, where the telco will trial different usage cases for smart cities and smart homes.

Innovations on the horizon: IoT and AI

At MWC this year, we didn’t see really surprising breakthroughs on the hardware side, and companies seemed to be more focused on the end user and enterprise applications.

Looking ahead, all the big companies are working on new sensors and wearable technologies, especially in the health domain. Both Apple and Samsung have made it a priority to develop consumer-grade sensors that can measure blood pressure. There’s also likely to be a continued focus on improving user experience in AI-powered applications, such as virtual assistants and camera apps.

This article was written by:
Image of Mohamed AbdelrazekMohamed Abdelrazek – [Associate professor, IoT and Software Engineering, Deakin University]




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NBN faces irrelevance in cities as competitors build faster, cheaper alternatives

Ongoing cost, technology and customer service  
problems have damaged the NBN brand. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Malcolm Turnbull is now connected to the National Broadband Network (NBN) at his Point Piper home on a 100 megabits per second (Mbps) plan, it was revealed in Senate Estimates yesterday. But only because his department intervened to avoid delays affecting other customers.

And while the Prime Minister might be happy with his NBN connection, that’s not the case for the 2.5 million customers waiting on a connection through their pay TV or cable service who have been left in limbo.

Lauded in the 2009 Commonwealth Budget as the single largest nation building infrastructure project in Australian history, the NBN is at risk of becoming an expensive white elephant in our cities. Years of political interference, poor technology decisions and a monopoly business attitude have damaged the brand.

Rather than meeting its objective of connecting 90% of homes and workplaces with broadband speeds of up to 100 Mbps, the NBN is looking more like a giant sponge. It soaks up public infrastructure dollars and returns high prices, long delays, unacceptably slow data speeds and service standards that are now the subject of an ACCC investigation.

As a result, a growing number of competitors are bypassing the NBN by undercutting prices and beating performance standards.

Read more: The ACCC investigation into the NBN will be useful. But it’s too little, too late

Adelaide bypasses the NBN

The latest challenge to the NBN came after South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill denounced the “very poor NBN outcome” and last week announced A$35 million in funding for an Adelaide fibre network alternative if he is reelected in March 2018.

The plan was warmly welcomed by Mighty Kingdom, an app and games developer who told the ABC, “I don’t have what I need to get me to the rest of the world.”

This follows news announced last year that Adelaide City Council is working with TPG to deliver an NBN-alternative broadband service to local businesses. The service promises fibre internet up to 100 times faster than the NBN, at lower prices, and with no installation costs for city businesses or organisations.

Lord Mayor Martin Haese said:

This technology will be a game changer for the city of Adelaide. It will be a boom for local businesses and other organisations, but will also attract business from interstate and across the globe.

Read more: The NBN: how a national infrastructure dream fell short

NBN alternatives for Melbourne homes and businesses

Meanwhile two aggressive startups in the Melbourne market are hoping to take a serious bite from NBN’s lunch.

Lightening Broadband is connecting homes and businesses using microwave links capable of delivering both 100 Mbps download and upload speeds. That’s better than the comparable NBN Tier 100, which offers 90 Mbps download and 30 Mbps upload speeds.

The company is constructing microwave transmitters on tall buildings, connected to the telco’s core network using microwave links. Customers within a two-kilometre radius share a microwave transmitter, requiring a dish on their roof.

Another telco start-up, DGtek is offering its customers a full fibre alternative service.

Upon its launch in 2016, DGtek’s founder David Klizhov said:

“Ideally the NBN would have worked if it was fibre to the home, but it’s taken quite a lot of time and we thought that we could have a go at the Australian market using technology that’s been implemented already overseas.”

DGtek uses Gigabit Passive Optical Networks (GPON) and runs it directly into tightly packed homes with the dense population of inner Melbourne. As a sweetener, DGtek offers free internet service to government organisations – such as schools and hospitals – in areas they service.

The threat from 5G and other new technologies

New entrant competition is not the only threat to NBN Co. Optus and Telstra are both launching 5G services in 2019. This represents a quantum leap in wireless technology that could win away millions of current and potential NBN customers.

While Vodafone CEO Inaki Berroeta has said that 5G is unlikely to replace the NBN in Australian homes, Optus Managing Director of Networks Dennis Wong recently told BIT Magazine:

Everyone has heard of concepts like self-driving cars, smart homes, AI and virtual reality, however their full potential will require a fast and reliable network to deliver. Seeing 5G data speeds through our trial that are up to 15 times faster than current technologies allows us to show the potential of this transformative technology to support a new eco-system of connected devices in the home, the office, the paddock and in the wider community.

Read more: 5G will be a convenient but expensive alternative to the NBN

5G is not the only technological game changer facing the NBN. iiNet in Canberra has launched its Very-high-bit-rate Digital Subscriber Line (VDSL2) as its own superfast network.

According to iiNet, it is made up of fibre and copper and provides a faster connection than ADSL and most NBN plans. The network is independent from Telstra and differs to NBN in that iiNet’s VDSL2 network uses its own copper lines.

Levelling the field for smaller players

The huge capital requirements of rolling out telecoms infrastructure has always acted to deter more competition in the Australian market. But following a regulatory decision of the ACCC in 2017, smaller entrants can now enjoy cost-based access to some of the largest networks – including Telstra, TPG and Opticom – allowing them to better compete both with the big telcos, and with the NBN.

By providing access to superfast broadband access service (SBAS) and the local bitstream access service (LBAS), new entrants will be able to sell NBN-like fixed line superfast broadband wholesale.

So where to for the NBN?

Today the government released a working paper forecasting that demand for bandwidth will double for households with high internet usage over the next decade. The report also suggests that the NBN is equipped to meet those needs.

However, cost, technology and customer service problems continue to threaten the commercial success of the NBN. Without a radical rethink, it is doomed to fail its initial mission.

This article was written by:
Image of Allan AsherAllan Asher – [Visitor, Regulatory Institutions Network (RegNet) & Chair of Foundation for Effective Markets and Governance, Australian National University]





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A brief history of Martian exploration – as the InSight Lander prepares to launch

 An artist’s rendition of the InSight  
lander- which will collect data on what’s inside the planet Mars. NASA

Roughly every two years Mars and Earth wander a bit closer to each other, making the leap between these two planets a little easier. In July this year, Mars will only be about 58 million kilometres away – and NASA is set to take advantage by launching their next mission to the red planet in May 2018. The InSight Lander, will be the first Mars mission to investigate the planet’s “inner space”, and will listen for marsquakes to investigate the crust, mantle, and core.

InSight will join two rovers currently exploring the surface of Mars, and 14 spacecraft that are in orbit about it – albeit only six of which are currently sending us data.

Why does Mars, the red planet, have such a hold over us?

There are, after all, seven (or eight) other planets to explore – and yet we seem to have such a hang up on this one.

I guess it’s the tantalising nature of Mars. Here is a planet that we could conceivably walk on (unlike the gas giants), without being crushed by atmospheric pressure (like on Venus), having to deal with the radiation of being closer to the sun (Mercury) or just being far too far away (like Pluto). It calls to us through science fiction and fact, a planet that is so like our own Earth, but so unlike it at the same time.

Mars fly-over movie, made by visual artist Seán Doran, 
via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

The six current operational missions show that the fascination with Mars isn’t limited to one country, as European, Russian, American and Indian space agencies all have stakes in these crafts.

For comparison: our other nearest neighbour, Venus, only has one spacecraft currently in orbit about it, Akatsuki the spacecraft that wouldn’t quit. In fact, after the dramatic ending of the Cassini spacecraft, the only other planet currently being orbited by an Earth-built satellite is Jupiter, with the Juno mission.

Water on Mars

But, while our progress to walking on Mars has been very slow, our progress in understanding our neighbour has been really quite impressive. When I started my planetary science degree in 2001, the course did not include sedimentology, the branch of geology that investigates how water has shaped rocks. It was deemed there was no point as no water has been seen on any other planet.

By the time I was in third year, the first years students behind me were getting well versed in how water could push around sand, silt and clay on other planets.

Finding water on Mars had been an obsession to many, and thanks to data from Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity and latterly Curiosity  we know that it’s there – just trapped in the rocks. A couple of years ago it was thought that we had even found water flowing on the surface of Mars, but that evidence is (ahem) drying up now.

However, whether the water flows or is trapped in the rocks, the next question is where is the rest of it? If many of the rocks we see on Mars had been laid down by water – where is that water now?

The answer would be tangled up with the fate of Mars’s atmosphere. Though pitifully thin now, it must have been thick enough in the past to support flowing water on the surface. The mission of the spacecraft Maven (along with others) has been investigating this question – and all evidence is pointing to the Sun as the culprit for Mars’ missing atmosphere, with the solar wind gradually stripping it away.

Mars’ surface

It’s often touted that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do the bottom of our own oceans – and in terms of mapping resolution that’s true. Through the efforts of four orbiting missions we know how old most of the surface is, as well as how active it has been.

You can spend a joyful afternoon of procrastination flitting through HiRISE images that show sweeping dunes and pock-marked plains on Mars. With these images we can really apply our understanding of processes on Earth to what makes up the surface of Mars – from the formations of geological features, the movement of dust and sand and how the ice caps change through the seasons.

What’s inside Mars?

So we know there is water on Mars, we know where its atmosphere went and also the shifts of its sands – but there’s a missing piece of the puzzle. What’s on the inside?

To be fair, in this respect the interior of our own Earth is just as much of a mystery – but we have had centuries of seismic studies. From monitoring the passage of earthquakes through our planet we have built a picture of the layers that make up its interior. From that we’ve been able to undertake experiments that recreate the conditions and add more to that picture. At the moment we can only guess at the conditions within the interior of Mars – something that the InSight mission will answer.

After this, the next hurdle will be getting something back from Mars. We have a handful of meteorites that we know came from Mars, but having a sample that’s been collected and returned from a known location will priceless. NASA’s next rover, Mars 2020, will plan to do just this – but the return to Earth bit is still to be worked out.

From sample return to human exploration is still a massive step, and will require a number of innovations to get there. But with the knowledge we’ve built from the missions over the last decade, it’s becoming more of a reality.

This article was written by:
Image of Helen Maynard-Casely Helen Maynard-Casely – [Instrument Scientist, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation]



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Charging ahead: how Australia is innovating in battery technology

 Since sodium is abundant, battery technology that uses it 
side-steps many of the issues associated with lithium batteries. 
Paul Jones/UOWAuthor provided

Lithium-ion remains the most widespread battery technology in use today, thanks to the fact that products that use it are both portable and rechargeable. It powers everything from your smartphone to the “world’s biggest battery” in South Australia.

Demand for batteries is expected to accelerate in coming decades with the increase in deployment of electric vehicles and the need to store energy generated from renewable sources, such as solar photovoltaic panels. But rising concerns about mining practices and shortages in raw materials for lithium-ion batteries – as well as safety issues – have led to a search for alternative technologies.

Many of these technologies aren’t being developed to replace lithium-ion batteries in portable devices, rather they’re looking to take the pressure off by providing alternatives for large-scale, stationary energy storage.

Australian companies and universities are leading the way in developing innovative solutions, but the path to commercial success has its challenges.

Australian alternatives

Flow batteries

In flow batteries the cathode and anode are liquids, rather than solid as in other batteries. The advantage of this is that the stored energy is directly related to the amount of liquid. That means if more energy is needed, bigger tanks can be easily fitted to the system. Also, flow batteries can be completely discharged without damage – a major advantage over other technologies.

ASX-listed battery technology company Redflow has been developing zinc-bromine flow batteries for residential and commercial energy storage. Meanwhile, VSUN Energy is developing a vanadium-based flow battery for large-scale energy storage systems.

Flow batteries have been receiving considerable attention and investment due to their inherent technical and safety advantages. A recent survey of 500 energy professionals saw 46% of respondents predict flow battery technology will soon become the dominant utility-scale battery energy storage method.

Redflow ZBM2 zinc-bromine flow battery cell. from Redflow


Lead-acid batteries were invented in 1859 and have been the backbone of energy storage applications ever since. One major disadvantage of traditional lead-acid batteries is the faster they are discharged, the less energy they can supply. Additionally, the lifetime of lead-acid batteries significantly decreases the lower they are discharged.

Energy storage company Ecoult has been formed around CSIRO-developed Ultrabattery technology – the combination of a lead-acid battery and a carbon ultracapacitor. One key advantage of this technology is that it is highly sustainable – essentially all components in the battery are recyclable. Ultrabatteries also address the issue of rate-dependent energy capacity, taking advantage of the ultracapacitor characteristics to allow high discharge (and charge) rates.

These batteries are showing excellent performance in grid-scale applications. Ecoult has also recently received funding to expand to South Asia and beyond.

Ecoult Ultrabatteries photographed during installation on site. from www.ecoult.com
Ecoult Ultrabatteries photographed during installation on site. from www.ecoult.com

Repurposed storage solutions

Rechargeable batteries are considered to have reached their “end of life” when they can only be charged to 80% of their initial capacity. This makes sense for portable applications – a Tesla Model S would have a range of 341 km compared to the original 426 km. However, these batteries can still be used where reduced capacity is acceptable.

Startup Relectrify has developed a battery management system that allows end of life electric vehicle batteries to be used in residential energy storage. This provides a solution to mounting concerns about the disposal of lithium-ion batteries, and reports that less than 5% of lithium-ion batteries in Europe are being recycled. Relectrify has recently secured a A$1.5m investment in the company.

Relectrify’s smart battery management system. from Relectrify

Thermal energy storage

Energy can be stored in many forms – including as electrochemicalgravitational, and thermal energy. Thermal energy storage can be a highly efficient process, particularly when the sun is the energy source.

Renewable energy technology company Vast Solar has developed a thermal energy storage solution based on concentrated solar power (CSP). This technology gained attention in Australia with the announcement of the world’s largest CSP facility to be built in Port Augusta. CSP combines both energy generation and storage technologies to provide a complete and efficient solution.

1414 degrees is developing a technology for large-scale applications that stores energy as heat in molten silicon. This technology has the potential to demonstrate very high energy densities and efficiencies in applications where both heat and electricity are required. For example, in manufacturing facilities and shopping centres.

Research and development

Sodium-ion batteries

At the University of Wollongong I’m part of the team heading the Smart Sodium Storage Solution (S4) Project. It’s a A$10.5 million project to develop sodium-ion batteries for renewable energy storage. This ARENA-funded project builds upon previous research undertaken at the University of Wollongong and involves three key battery manufacturing companies in China.


Researchers at the @UOW believe they have found revolutionary a way to store using sodium. Jonathan Knott explains.

We’ve selected the sodium-ion chemistry for the S4 project because it sidesteps many of the raw materials issues associated with lithium-ion batteries. One of the main materials we use to manufacture our batteries is sodium chloride – better known as “table salt” – which is not only abundant, but also cheap.

We’ll be demonstrating the sodium-ion batteries in a residential application at University of Wollongong’s Illawarra Flame House and in an industrial application at Sydney Water’s Bondi Sewage Pumping Station.

Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach – the location for the demonstration of sodium-ion batteries. Paul Jones/UOW

Gel-based zinc-bromine batteries

Gelion, a spin-off company from the University of Sydney, is developing gel-based zinc-bromine batteries – similar to the Redflow battery technology. They are designed for use in residential and commercial applications.

The Gelion technology is claimed to have performance comparable with lithium-ion batteries, and the company has attracted significant funding to develop its product. Gelion is still in the early stages of commercialisation, however plans are in place for large-scale manufacturing by 2019.

Challenges facing alternatives

While this paints a picture of a vibrant landscape of exciting new technologies, the path to commercialisation is challenging.

Not only does the product have to be designed and developed, but so does the manufacturing process, production facility and entire supply chain – which can cause issues bringing a product to market. Lithium-ion batteries have a 25 year headstart in these areas. Combine that with the consumer familiarity with lithium-ion, and it’s difficult for alternative technologies to gain traction.

One way of mitigating these issues is to piggyback on established manufacturing and supply chain processes. That’s what we’re doing with the S4 Project: leveraging the manufacturing processes and production techniques developed for lithium-ion batteries to produce sodium-ion batteries. Similarly, Ecoult is drawing upon decades of lead-acid battery manufacturing expertise to produce its Ultrabattery product.

Some challenges, however, are intrinsic to the particular technology.

For example, Relectrify does not have control over the quality or history of the cells it uses for their energy storage – making it difficult to produce a consistent product. Likewise, 1414 degrees have engineering challenges working with very high temperatures.

Forecasts by academicsgovernment officialsinvestors and tech billionaires all point to an explosion in the future demand for energy storage. While lithium-ion batteries will continue to play a large part, it is likely these innovative Australian technologies will become critical in ensuring energy demands are met.

This article was written by:
Image of Jonathan KnottJonathan Knott – [Associate Research Fellow in Battery R&D, University of Wollongong]




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How a German migrant planted citizen science in Australia – and why it worked

 Mueller came to Australia in the mid 19th century - 
and gave women a rare opportunity to be involved in science. 

In 1847, a young German named Ferdinand Mueller came to Adelaide, with a dream: to be the botanist who catalogued every plant species in Australia.

Off he went, collecting plants from Queensland to Victoria, up mountains and over deserts, for the better part of a decade.

He demonstrated beyond any doubt that Australia was very large and had a lot of plants.

Then inspiration dawned.

A collection of collectors

Mueller realised that the way to catalogue plants wasn’t to walk around Australia collecting them – but to sit very comfortably in Melbourne, collecting collectors.

That’s exactly what he did. He recruited through advertisements in the newspapers, teachers in country schools, and the contacts made on his travels. Over the next forty years, more than 1,300 amateur enthusiasts would contribute to Mueller’s flora of Australia. His network spanned the continent, decades before Australia was a country. It included more than two hundred women and twenty young girls, the youngest just six years old when she sent Mueller her first plant.

One of the most prolific collectors was Mary Kennedy. She lived on a sheep station in Wilcannia in New South Wales, about as far inland as you could go at the time without falling off the map, with eleven children to raise. We know she collected more than five hundred plants.

Along with the specimens themselves, she asked the local Indigenous people for the names of these plants and their uses; preserving a rich treasury of traditional knowledge that endures to this day.

Mueller gave her a legacy in exchange, a species of grevillea named in her honour: Grevillea kennedyana.

Grevillea kennedyana, named after a citizen scientist. Michael Somerville/flickr

A century would pass before the term “citizen science” entered into the academic lexicon, and decades again before it gained deep credibility.

In hindsight, we can see that’s exactly what Mueller’s project was: a pioneering scientific project powered by people. It satisfied the three criteria that we look for in any great citizen science endeavour today: quality science, linked with the community, and with a broader goal of making the world a better place.

Citizen science has to be good science

To be good science, citizen science must be consistent with the exacting standards we apply to every other experimental process.

Mueller knew that his claims to a comprehensive flora of Australia would be widely reported and intensely scrutinised. Tripping through the fields collecting wildflowers is easy. Peer-reviewed botany is hard. His collectors, including those with limited education or grounding in the scientific method, had to appreciate the difference. He made it his priority to explain.

When a woman on a sheep station picked up her basket and headed off into the scrub, or put the samples on the mantelpiece to dry, she did so in the name of science.

It gave purpose to the collectors, and rigour to Mueller’s research.

Citizen science has to be a door to the world of science for the community

Mueller was an opportunist in his advocacy for amateur botany.

He recruited children, because they were sharp-eyed and enthusiastic; school teachers, because they could outsource the work to students; and women, because he saw their talent going to waste.

In an era when women rarely went to university, or entered the professions, he offered a taste of a world that many longed to enter. They proved they were worthy of far more: full and equal access with men, on merit.

Times have changed, and very much for the better, thanks in large part to those female pioneers. The need for those doors to science in the community remains.

Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, with a bust of Ferdinand Mueller at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. Alan Finkel, Author provided

Citizen science has to make the world a better place

In the end, that’s what makes it worth doing.

That spirit shines through in the letters written to Mueller by farmers’ wives and stockmen’s daughters.

It’s the 1800s: the era of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, when a newly prosperous people were falling in love with the bush. There’s talk of Federation in the newspapers.

Here was a project that united men and women from every colony, with a mighty vision, and a love of country.

We often focus on the “science” part of citizen science. The “citizen” is important as well. It reminds us that we are part of something greater than ourselves, with a duty to generations to come.

There are some who believe that citizen science will be left in the twentieth century: a relic of an era before advances in artificial intelligence made human-power obsolete.

I disagree. If humans today are anything like the humans of Mueller’s day, we will never stop inventing new ways to be useful.

This article is based on a speech Dr Finkel delivered to the Citizen Science Association Conference 2018 in Adelaide on February 7.

Image of Alan Finkel Alan Finkel – [Australia’s Chief Scientist, Office of the Chief Scientist]




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From rocket launches to a crashing space station, we’re in for a huge year in space

 Rocket Lab successfully launched its Electron rocket 
from the company’s complex on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand. Rocket Lab

A Blood Moon, a trip to the Moon and back for two explorers, a space station crashing to Earth and the launch of a new mission to find planets around other stars: these are just some of the exciting things to watch in space in 2018.

Elon Musk’s Space X also plans to launch one of the new Falcon Heavy rockets, the largest since the manned Moon landings.

Read more: The next Full Moon brings a lunar eclipse, but is it a Super Blood Blue Moon as well? That depends…

The Blood Moon came from the lunar eclipse last night, which is also being claimed as a Blue Super Full Moon (or is it?)

A Blood Moon – when the Moon turns red during a total lunar eclipse. The red comes from the sunrise and sunset here on Earth, continuing out into space and lighting up the Moon. NASA

All of Australia, plus most of Asia and the Pacific region, was treated to this spectacular lunar event on January 31. If you missed it, don’t worry, you’ll get another total lunar eclipse on the night of July 27 and early morning hours of July 28.

Unlike a Solar eclipse, you do not need any special equipment to see a lunar eclipse and it is safe to look at with your eyes.

Speaking of solar eclipses, Tasmania and southern parts of Victoria and South Australia will be treated to a partial Solar Eclipse on July 13.

Goodbye Kepler, thanks for the Exoplanets!

The Kepler Space telescope was launched nearly nine years ago and has changed our view of the cosmos and our place in it, but its mission is coming to an end this year.

Kepler has confirmed around 2,500 exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars), with thousands more potential planets. It discovered the first Earth-like planet in a habitable zone , an area where water could exist as a liquid.

An artistic impression of NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

Kepler also showed that rocky, potentially Earth-like and/or habitable planets are commonwith potentially tens of billions (yes, billions with a b) existing in our galaxy alone.

After a failure of two reaction wheels (the things that help it point) in 2013, a new mission, K2, was conceived. It was able to keep stable by using a combination of short thruster firings and using the Sun to steer it like a sail.

Kepler continued its exoplanet-finding quest, along with discoveries such as shockwaves from exploding stars and even picking up sound waves deep in the heart of stars (a technique called asteroseismology).

But this extra thruster firing is causing Kepler to use up its fuel, and it is due to run out sometime this year, which will cause NASA to put it into hibernation.

Where one missions ends, a new one begins. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is set to be launched between March and June, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. If the stars align, we might even have overlap between these two exoplanet-discovering machines.

A conceptual image of TESS in space and its targets – planets orbiting other stars. NASA

Rockets, rockets and more rockets

The privatisation of space continued this year with the US-based Rocket Labs having its first successful launch, from a site across the Tasman in New Zealand.

SpaceX also had its first static test of the new Falcon 9 Heavy, the largest rocket since the Saturn V that took US astronauts to the Moon.

View image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on Twitter
The Falcon 9 Heavy is scheduled for a first launch in early February where it will carry one of Musk’s Tesla Roadsters. We may even see an appearance of the company’s Dragon 2 that will carry humans into space this year. SpaceX has already announced that two people have paid to go on a tour around the Moon.

It’s not just private companies exploring space, with China aiming for 40 launches in 2018alone.

Exploring the small things in our Solar System

The Moon is on the radar for both India and China. India’s Chandrayaan-2 is set to land on the Moon in March, while China’s Chang’e 4 will be its second lunar rover, set to land on the far side of the Moon at the end of 2018. First it will have to launch a special communication satellite, slated for June, to a position called L2, or a special point related to the Earth-Moon system that will allow for communications with Earth and the far side of the Moon.

While it is a bit early for New Year’s Eve 2018, NASA already has big plans. New Horizons, the probe that flew by Pluto in 2015 is set to swing past its second icy world, 2014 MU 69, on December 31. Little is known about 2014 MU 69, which is around 6.5 billion km from the Sun, other than the fact that it might be two objects instead of one and that it needs a better name.

Hubble Space Telescope Wide Field Camera 3 discovery images of 2014 MU69. Positions are shown by the green circles. NASA, ESA, SwRI, JHU/APL, and the New Horizons KBO Search Team

Asteroids are not forgotten in all of this space exploration. Japan’s Hayabusa-2 is set to arrive at asteroid 162173 Ryugu. It’s a new version of Hayabusa, which surveyed the asteroid 25143 Itokawa and took samples before returning back to Earth, landing near Woomera, South Australia in 2010.

Likewise, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will arrive at the asteroid Bennu where it will extend an arm to drill down into the asteroid, and return with samples, in what is the next step towards an asteroid mining future.

An artist impression of OSIRIS-REx extending its arm down to the asteroid Bennu. NASA

A falling space station

If you were around in 1979 and happened to be in Western Australia, you might have a unique souvenir – part of the US space station Skylab, which re-entered and crashed outside Esperance, WA.

If you’ve seen the 2013 movie Gravity (and a spoiler alert for those who haven’t!) you might remember the final scene in which Sandra Bullock’s character returns home by hijacking Tiangong-1, the Chinese space station. She returns safely, but the same can’t be said for Tiangong-1.

Well in March, we are set for a clash of sci-fi against reality when Tiangong-1 comes back down to Earth.

You can track its progress but in short, somewhere between +43 and -43 latitude (or half the Earth), it will re-enter and break apart. Currently, the likely potential (land) areas are around Central and South America, Northern Africa and the Mediterranean, and indeed Western Australia.

Like Skylab, there are likely to be large pieces that survive re-entry. Hopefully you are lucky to be in a position to see it with your eyes, but not so close that it lands on your house, as it’s unlikely to be covered by your insurance policy.

So that’s a summary of some of the things we’re expecting to happen this year. But as with all science, I’m just as excited for those discoveries that we do not know about that will happen in 2018.

This article was written by:
Image of Brad E Tucker Brad E Tucker – [Astronomer and outreach officer, Australian National University]




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The next Full Moon brings a lunar eclipse, but is it a Super Blood Blue Moon as well? That depends…

 Changing colours of the Moon during a total  
lunar eclipse, Mt Buffalo National Park, June 16, 2011. Phil Hart

A total lunar eclipse will occur on tonight, January 31, and Australia is in the perfect position to see it. But it’s also being called many other lunar things, from a Blood Moon to a Blue Moon and a Super Moon.

So what is really going to happen on the night?

This is the first time in three years that we have the chance to see a total lunar eclipse from Australia, and the Moon will spend just over three hours passing through Earth’s shadow.

The great thing about lunar eclipses is that they are lovely to watch and no special equipment is needed to see the events unfold.

From light to dark

At first we’ll see the Full Moon begin to darken. For Wednesday’s lunar eclipse the shadow will approach from the bottom-right, leaving the top part of the Moon in sunlight.

It takes an hour before the Earth’s shadow crosses the Moon entirely and once the Moon is completely engulfed the period known as totality begins.

The steady progression of an eclipse as the Moon drifts into the Earth’s shadow, June 16, 2011. Phil Hart, Author provided

Totality brings its own surprise. The Earth’s shadow is not completely black, but has a reddish hue. This has led many cultures, including some Indigenous Australian communities, to describe a lunar eclipse as a Blood Moon.

Sunlight still manages to reach the Moon but it must first pass through Earth’s atmosphere. This both reddens the light (by scattering away the shorter wavelengths or blue light) and also bends the path of the light, directing it into the shadow.

This week’s lunar eclipse is a fairly deep one and totality will last just over an hour. Thereafter, the Moon will begin to emerge from the shadows, and it will be another hour before we see the brilliance of the Full Moon once more.

How I can see it?

The eclipse can be seen by the entire night side of the globe and everyone will experience the event at precisely the same moment. What affects the eclipse timings are local time zones.


For Western Australia, the eclipse occurs in the early evening, within an hour after sunset. The Moon will be low to the eastern horizon at the start of the eclipse but will move higher in the sky and towards the northeast as the eclipse progresses.

For the rest of Australia, the eclipse occurs two to three hours after sunset. The eclipse will begin with the Moon in the northeast and climbing towards the north.

Check in with your local planetarium or amateur astronomy group, as many organisations are hosting eclipse events so that you can share the occasion with others.

But if the weather doesn’t cooperate in your local area, you can also follow the eclipse via live streaming by Slooh, the Virtual Telescope, or timeanddate.com.

A lunar eclipse over San Francisco Bay in 2014 (note the moons have been enlarged slightly for clarity). John ‘K’/flickr

Super Blood Blue Moon

It seems these days that it’s not enough to be treated to a beautiful natural phenomenon like a total lunar eclipse. Instead, I’ve been hearing a lot of hype surrounding this eclipse and the numerous names applied.

It’s true that lunar eclipses can only occur around the time of Full Moon. That’s when the Sun is on one side of the Earth, while the Moon is located on Earth’s opposite side.

Most of the time the Full Moon sits above or below Earth’s shadow and the Moon remains flooded with sunlight. But twice a year, the three bodies fall into line so that Earth casts its shadow on the Moon.


As well as being a Full Moon, eclipses can also be described as a Blood Moon because of the Moon’s reddish appearance, as mentioned previously.

But the descriptions of Super Moon and Blue Moon may not be quite what they seem.

Look to the sky … it’s a Super Moon!

I’ve written before about the Super Moon sensation and it’s a term that has only taken off in the past seven years.

Back in March 2011, NASA published an article describing a “super full moon”. The precise time of Full Moon that month occurred 59 minutes before perigee, that is, the Moon’s closest approach to Earth as it travels along its elliptical orbit.

As quoted in the article:

The full Moon of March 19th [2011] occurs less than one hour from perigee – a near-perfect coincidence that happens only every 18 years or so.

It must have seemed a worthwhile curiosity to report on at the time.

Seven years later and the Super Moon craze is now a bit out of hand, with some claiming three Super Moons a year depending on the chosen definition.

As a Super Moon this lunar eclipse is definitely on the outer limits, with the Full Moon occurring 27 hours after perigee and at a distance of more than 360,000km (calculated in the usual way from the centre of Earth to the centre of the Moon).

Considering that it’s also quite difficult to tell the difference in both size and brightness between a regular Full Moon and a Super Moon, this one is really pushing the limits of credibility.

Once in a Blue Moon

According to Philip Hiscock, a folklorist at the Memorial University, USA (now retired), the classic saying “once in a blue moon” is more than 400 years old. It originated as something so absurd it could never actually happen, similar to saying “when pigs fly”.

But it is possible on rare occasions for the Moon to turn blue.

Intense volcanic activity or smoky forest fires can fill Earth’s atmosphere with dust particles that are slightly larger than usual. As a result, red light is scattered away, giving everything a blue tinge, including the Moon (normally the atmosphere scatters blue light, hence why the sky is blue).

When Krakatoa erupted in 1883 the Moon turned blue for a couple of years. flydime/Wikipedia

But when it comes to this lunar eclipse, it’s not the colour of the Moon but a quirk of our timekeeping that is in play.

What a difference a day makes

A Full Moon occurs every 29.5 days, but our months are longer (excluding February). This mismatch of timing means that every couple of years there comes a month with two Full Moons.

In recent times, a Blue Moon has referred to the second full moon of a calendar month. For most of the world, this lunar eclipse is occurring during a Blue Moon, except for Australia’s eastern states of New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.

Those states follow daylight saving, which pushes the Full Moon into the following day and out of the month of January (the actual time of Full Moon is 12:26am AEDT, February 1). This leaves January with only one Full Moon for those states and territory.

A lunar eclipse begins in Virginia, USA, December 21, 2010. Flickr/NASA/Bill Ingalls

But there’s more. This modern definition of Blue Moon arose only 30 years ago.

Read more: Stars that vary in brightness shine in the oral traditions of Aboriginal Australians

The original definition is as follows: if four Full Moons occur between an equinox and a solstice (for example, in the three months between a spring equinox and a summer solstice) then the third Full Moon should be called a Blue Moon.

This ensured that the proper names of the Full Moons (common in North America, such as the Harvest Moon) were correct relative to the equinoxes and solstices.

But regardless of the exact flavour of this lunar eclipse, what’s certainly true is that we are part of a grand universe, and Wednesday night is the perfect reminder of that.

This article was written by:
Image of Tanya HillTanya Hill – [Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy), Museums Victoria]




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