Small Kiwi team pushing to Mars with SpaceX

Professor Sergei Gulyaev (centre), director of AUT's Institute of Radio Astronomy and Space Research, stands with colleagues Tim Natusch (left) and Stuart Weston.
Professor Sergei Gulyaev (centre), director of AUT's Institute of Radio Astronomy and Space Research, stands with colleagues Tim Natusch (left) and Stuart Weston.

A small team of Kiwi scientists expect to keep working with SpaceX as the California-based company makes an ambitious push for Mars.

On its Facebook page, SpaceX has just announced plans to send its unmanned Dragon space craft to the red planet, as early as 2018.

The missions -- a partnership with Nasa -- would help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars, the company said.

Propulsively meant landing a craft to a stable position where it was potentially re-useable.

Meanwhile, Professor Sergei Gulyaev of AUT University's Institute of Radio Astronomy and Space Research (IRASR) said he'd been assured his team would continue to support SpaceX's efforts from the ground in New Zealand.

From a radio astronomy observatory at Warkworth in 2012, Professor Gulyaev's team tracked the launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space craft from Cape Canaveral, in what was the first commercial unmanned flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

The company, owned by billionaire and PayPal founder Elon Musk, has contracted AUT to monitor up to 12 space flights a year, both because of its location and its experience with space agencies including Nasa, Jaxa, and the European Space Agency.

Using radio astronomy -- whereby objects in space can be tracked by radio frequencies -- the observatory has the world's best vantage point from which to monitor the descent of SpaceX crafts as they splash into the Pacific Ocean, near the California coast.

Professor Gulyaev said New Zealand was basically the last point from where most of the descending trajectory could be observed -- without it, the tracking accuracy could be poor.

"And this will become really important when SpaceX begins its manned flights because if there is an emergency, our telemetry will provide that greater accuracy."

SpaceX is on track to send astronauts to the ISS next year.

Neutrino discovery "the beginning of a new era"

Meanwhile, IRASR has played a big part in a breakthrough that linked a powerful outburst produced by a black hole at the centre of the galaxy to a record-breaking neutrino.

Astronomers say the blast from the super-massive black hole, known as PKS B1424-418, happened nearly nine billion years ago and produced light and neutrinos that began arriving at Earth in 2012.

Using data from Nasa's Fermi gamma-ray space telescope, along with other space and ground-based observatories, scientists discovered the first plausible association between a single extra-galactic object and a cosmic neutrino.

Neutrinos are considered the fastest, lightest and least understood fundamental particles known to science, and only in recent times have researchers become capable of detecting high-energy ones arriving from beyond our galaxy.

Although neutrinos far outnumber all the atoms in the universe, they rarely interact with matter, which makes detecting them a huge challenge.

But this same property lets neutrinos make a fast exit from places where light cannot easily escape -- such as the core of a collapsing star -- and zip across the universe almost completely unimpeded.

Helping detect them is the IceCube Observatory, an Antarctic research station comprising 5000 optical sensors frozen into ice deep below the South Pole.

To date, the IceCube science team has detected about 100 high-energy neutrinos and nicknamed some of the most extreme events after characters on the children's TV series Sesame Street.

In 2012, IceCube detected an event known as Big Bird -- a neutrino with an energy exceeding two quadrillion electron -volts, a record-breaking amount.

This month, a paper in the journal Nature Physics suggested the PKS B1424-418 outburst and Big Bird were linked, calculating only a five per cent probability the two events occurred by chance alone.

This came after researchers determined how the energy of the eruption was distributed across the electromagnetic spectrum and showed that it was sufficiently powerful to produce a neutrino at an energy level of that shown by Big Bird.

During the year-long outburst, PKS B1424-418 shone between 15 and 30 times brighter in gamma rays than its average before the eruption.

AUT's radio telescope and radio telescopes in Australia and South Africa had also began registering this unusual object in 2011, and again saw it in 2012 and 2013.

By that time it had changed dramatically -- it was four times as bright and had changed shape.

Professor Gulyaev, who worked on the research along with colleagues Tim Natusch and Observatory Engineer Stuart Weston, said the discovery was of similar importance to space research as the recent gravitational waves announcement.

"This discovery reminds me of the one made here in New Zealand in 1948 when for the first time radio emission coming from the sky was identified with well known astronomical objects such as supernova remnants and galaxies," he said.

"What we have today is the beginning of a new era in neutrino astrophysics and physics of cosmic rays.

"Our role now will be to look at future events and see if we can confirm that quasars are responsible for generation of the most energetic particles in the universe."

- NZ Herald

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