VC’s Update – satellites and ‘uncharted territory’

16 Jun 2023

Hi everyone,

It has been a busy few weeks on campus and we have had two public holidays. I spent my Saturday morning at the Quad Fellowship Summit talking about the opportunities of doing graduate school in the United States.  The Quad Fellowships, funded by Schmidt Futures Foundation (no relation to me!) have provided scholarships to 25 students from each of the four countries (100 in total). Independent of the strategic dimensions to the Quad, there is so much complementarity possible between research done in Australia, India, Japan and the US - I am optimistic that this program will help increase the scientific links that will serve humanity well into the future. ANU has six of Australia's 25 scholars - and as a proud father, my son is one of them (a fact that the Foundation hadn't figured out until the Summit). The Fellowships for next year are currently open (closing 30 June) and I encourage our students to apply in relevant disciplines. From personal experience, these are the types of experiences that can really change your life.

I spent the rest of the long weekend with family up on the Central Coast, where my nephew managed to catch us Monday night's dinner.  It is always important for me to take the time with family and friends, and I hope everyone on campus is thinking about ways to take a mini break or maximise your leave with the final public holidays of the year. Remember, you can take a few days off, and really get a good break. This is something we all need to do our jobs well and to have a healthy work-life balance.

On Tuesday, a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket took off from Florida with its Transporter-8 mission.  SpaceX's transporter missions are like carpooling into space - taking multiple satellites up on the same rocket. This included a number of Canberra-based satellites, including one with a new ANU-built propulsion system. Congratulations to my friends at SkyKraft - a Canberra-based start-up company building a network of satellites to improve airplane navigation and communication.

One of those satellites had the Bogong 1.1 Thruster, built by the Space Plasma Power and Propulsion group at the ANU Research School of Physics, led by Professor Christine Charles and Boswell Technologies - Professor Rod Boswell's spin-off company. Aptly named the 'bogong thruster', this is testing a new fuel for satellite propulsion - naphthalene. Yes, the same ingredient in mothballs! However, thanks to unique the properties of naphthalene, it might be the next new, and environmentally friendly, fuel source for satellites - including being potentially 30 per cent more efficient than current fuels used by satellites.

Also this fortnight, the ACT Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, and I launched the new 'Uncharted Territory' festival, which will be held at ANU from 7-16 July. It's great to see ANU working across the capital to produce a hub of winter activity - from family science shows to dancing drones - there will be something for everyone and I encourage you to participate in the program.

At the same time, literally, the Chancellor was at the Shine Dome launching the new Shine-Dalgarno Centre for RNA Innovation. The Centre honours two ANU alumni, John Shine and Lynn Dalgarno, who discovered the Shine-Dalgarno sequence, which is among the most impactful Australian life science discoveries of all time. The sequence tells the bacteria where to start protein synthesis so that the genes are read correctly. It is great to see a 50-year legacy of RNA discovery now centred into one place. As we know from the COVID pandemic, RNA is among the most impactful discoveries to aid humankind.

On Wednesday, the breadth of the university's activities were on display as I attended two events across campus. The first was the First Nations Portfolio seminar series (number three) which is looking at a new economic policy framework for First Nations Australians. The second event was the Australasian Leadership Computational Symposium (ALCS) where they are hosting three-days of talks about supercomputers and their capabilities. Our supercomputer is one of only two in the world that is run 100 per cent by renewable energy!

Finally, I spent more time than usual at Parliament House this week. First, on Tuesday morning, Minister Madeline King, Assistant Minister Tim Watts and Assistant Minister Patrick Gorman joined me at our ANU table to listen to the Prime Minister speak at the annual Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) breakfast. It was an interesting discussion at our table, from Australia's role in critical minerals to the upcoming Voice referendum, and several things in between. On Thursday, as part of the National Foundation for Australia China Relations, we met with Minister Penny Wong, Minister Don Farrell, Minister Andrew Giles, and again with Assistant Minister Tim Watts.  In these discussions, the role ANU is playing at informing and educating the public service and Members of Parliament, was called out on multiple occasions as being particularly useful. So well done to everyone who has been working hard on this.

I am traveling overseas this weekend, so you will need to enjoy the frosty mornings without me for the next 10 days.