A brief history of solar-terrestrial physics in Australia
© The Author(s) 2016
Received: 3 January 2016
Accepted: 4 June 2016
Published: 18 July 2016
Solar-terrestrial physics research in Australia began in 1792 when de Rossel measured the southern hemisphere geomagnetic field at Recherche Bay on the southern tip of Tasmania, proving the field magnitude and direction varied with latitude. This was the time when the French and British were competing to chart and explore the new world. From the early twentieth century Australian solar-terrestrial physics research concentrated on radio wave propagation and communication, which by the 1950s fed into the International Geophysical Year in the areas of atmosphere and ionosphere physics, and geomagnetism, with some concentration on Antarctic research. This was also the era of increased studies of solar activity and the discovery of the magnetosphere and the beginning of the space age. In the 1960s, Australia became a world leader in solar physics which led to radio astronomy discoveries. This paper outlines the historical development of solar-terrestrial physics in Australia and its international connections over the years and concludes with examples of specific research areas where Australia has excelled.
Australia, being an isolated and relatively newly discovered continent, does not experience the advantages or disadvantages of Europe which is steeped in history. By the turn of the twentieth century Europe and the UK could claim over 800 years of well-established and successful University development in education and research. Correspondingly, Australia was a colony of the British Empire comprising a group of independent states which combined into the Commonwealth of Australia with a constitution in 1900.
Internal communications were the first priority to be considered by the new nation, followed by reliable connections to the rest of the world. Then followed the disturbing war years, and more recently the space age, all of which bolstered the advancement of discovery and technology. Over these times, since the ionosphere and magnetosphere were discovered, solar-terrestrial physics (STP) was fundamental and made a vitally important contribution to this chain of events. Now in the twenty first century we are experiencing a rapid expansion of digital and space technology, and this is providing opportunities to embark on large scale instrumentation accumulating and assimilating vast quantities of data never before imagined.
Due to space limitations this paper can only briefly outline the role STP played in Australia’s development from a primitive colony to an advanced technology dependent country in just over two centuries. A fuller account of radio science and ionospheric research in the British Empire between the two world wars is included in Anduaga (2009). As well as being initially dependent on the UK some of Australia’s experience involved New Zealand scientists and more detail on this has been provided by Fraser (2005). “The pre-1900s” section considers the beginnings of communications while “The twentieth century” section describes the early modern era where Australia takes advantage of high frequency communication leading into ionospheric research. Activities associated with Australian STP over the interval between the two world wars are covered in “Between the two world wars 1918–1939” section, while post world war II achievements are documented in “Post world war II: 1945–1980” section. Finally, “The modern era: post 1980” section considers the post 1980 era up to the present. This section is necessarily brief as most modern information is now available on specific institutional websites and online literature. Emphasis has been placed on the middle twentieth century, an extremely interesting time to be an STP researcher in Australia.
The twentieth century
The importance of high frequency radio in Australia
On 1 January 1901, Federation of the Australian colonies was achieved after a decade of planning. This established the Commonwealth of Australia as a Dominion of the British Empire. During the early years of the century, telegraphy continued to be the primary medium of communication over this vast country. Prior to about 1920, most radio propagation experimentation took place at long and medium wavelengths. In the mid-1920s, it was realized that much shorter wavelengths could be used for long-distance propagation, which resulted, in 1926, of the introduction of shortwave high frequency (HF) wireless telegraphy stations, using relatively low power, and directional antennas (Padula 2015).
HF radio provided a means of communicating throughout Australia and to the rest of the world. News and other programs, including School of the Air to educate children in remote areas, were broadcast through Radio Australia. Typical early receiving systems are illustrated in Fig. 2c, d (Padula 2015). From the research as well as application point of view, the ionosphere and upper atmosphere became important in understanding the predictions of HF circuit conditions. Over the second half of the twentieth century, this will be seen to become even more important through aircraft navigation, defence applications, Antarctic and general communications, and over the horizon radar.
After World War I, British science was redesigned to suit the political ideals of the British Empire. However, it was also noted that the Australian scenario was significantly different from the UK approach. For example, mining development was forging ahead using Australia’s vast natural resources, and there was a need for efficient communications and aviation services spanning large distances.
The first direct evidence of the existence of electrified regions in the upper atmosphere was carried out by Appleton and Barnett in Southern England (Appleton and Barnett 1925). This experiment initiated the subsequent development of the major new science of upper atmosphere geophysics using radio waves. Australian scientists were to play an important role, both in England and at home, in the early discoveries. The Australian Federal Government established the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1926 (White and Huxley 1975) and provided significant support funding. In the same year, the Australian Radio Research Board (ARRB) was established (White and Huxley 1975), following the British precedent (RRB-UK) which had just commenced research on the ionosphere, now a prestigious and autonomous discipline. The ARRB from 1927 was the first, using Australian Federal Government funding to sponsor university research. Two major research activities were supported. At the University of Sydney, John Madsen led extensive contributions to studies of the electrified regions of the atmosphere, now known as the ionosphere. The University of Melbourne under Thomas Laby devoted primary attention to “atmospherics” or lightning discharges, a major source of radio communication disturbance.
Following the establishment of the ARRB and up to the start of World War II, Australian physicists and engineers were becoming familiar with the variation in the properties of the ionosphere, particularly the vertical distribution of ionization and many interesting and important studies were published. David Martyn, a University of London graduate, was one of the four scientific officers selected to join the ARRB in 1929, and was assigned to Melbourne. Martyn was a complex man but an excellent theoretician. Early on he developed an important theorem showing information on obliquely incident waves, can be obtained from those of vertical incidence (Martyn 1935). Following a visit to the UK in the mid-1930s, Martyn introduced UHF studies into Australia and was appointed head of the newly established ARRB Radio Physics Laboratory (RPL) at the University of Sydney.
The structure of research science management in Australia following the establishment of the CSIR and ARRB remained stable up until the end of World War II, when in 1949 the CSIR became the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) with a Division of Radiophysics absorbing the University of Sydney’s RPL. By this time, the University of Melbourne’s atmospheric program had closed down in 1939. To continue regular monitoring of ionospheric conditions following the end of the war, the Ionospheric Prediction Service (IPS) was established in 1947 for what has now become known as space weather forecasting, and is currently located within the Bureau of Meteorology (Space Weather Services 2015). Australia administers some 43 % of the Antarctic continent and established permanent stations for upper atmosphere observations on the edge of the continent or nearby beginning in 1947 at Casey, Davis Mawson and Macquarie Island (Marchant et al. 2002). This provided Australian scientists with access to the high latitude outer regions of the magnetosphere from a low manmade noise environment.
Between the two world wars 1918–1939
Over this time, Victor Bailey at Sydney collaborated with Martyn in examining what was called the ‘Luxemburg Effect’; the modulation of one wave travelling through the ionosphere by another. The effect is due to the nonlinear effects of the medium (Bailey and Martyn 1934).
Post world war II: 1945–1980
Over this period, Australia’s STP research flourished with expansion of the National University System from 10 institutions in 1960 to 19 institutions in 1975, the injection of significant Federal government funding and the establishment of major research facilities. The STP field of study expanded too, from the ionosphere through the newly discovered magnetosphere and Van Allen radiation belts to solar radiation and radio astronomy where Australia became a world leader.
Other research programs were developing at this time. Ionosphere and atmosphere research flourished at the University of Adelaide, following the rich physics history of leadership under A. P. Rowe and L. G. H. Huxley. There Graham Elford and Basil Briggs established radar meteor research, MF and HF ionospheric research and radio astronomy all at the Buckland Park field site. Meanwhile, the newly established La Trobe University under Keith Cole, who previously worked with D. F. Martyn, undertook both theoretical and experimental ionospheric and magnetospheric research. An important finding by Cole (1962) was that Joule heating of the ionosphere by electric currents was a major source of energy input into the upper atmosphere. At the University of Queensland, Hugh Webster and David Whitehead established an ionospheric research program, concentrating on ionosonde research. The University of Newcastle NSW continued radar meteor research under Clif Ellyett and Colin Keay, begun earlier in NZ. Following a PhD degree under Appleton Jack Piddington returned to Madsen’s group in Sydney and worked on radar development. At CSIRO, he later returned to theory concentrating on radio astronomy, astrophysics and magnetospheric physics, developing new ideas on solar wind-magnetosphere interaction and producing a closed magnetosphere model, similar to Axford and Hines; some years later a reflection on this model is given in Piddington (1979). In 1979, Don Melrose commenced research at Sydney University in the Centre for Astrophysics. Amongst his research into nonlinear plasma processes, he considered wave-particle interaction in magnetospheres (e.g. Melrose 1986).
The beginning of radio astronomy
During World War II most active Australian radiophysicists were seconded to radar or associated duties in the UK or locally for the Pacific war. Consequently, all radio and ionospheric researches were classified and not available to the scientific world. However, following the conclusion of the war some 300 or so radar experienced staff were available at the Radio Physics Laboratory (RPL) to recommence civilian scientific research.
Bowen worked on Air Warning and Airborne radar during World War II in the UK and the RPL in Sydney after 1944. He continued to work on air navigation which later resulted in the first civil aviation Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) and adopted for aircraft flying in Australia in 1953. Later over 1953–1978 Wild and colleagues designed and developed the Interscan Microwave Aircraft Landing System (Wild 1975) which was adopted internationally in 1978 and used until 1995 when the USA adopted the more accurate GPS for aircraft landing.
After WWII, Bowen worked on cloud and rain physics where dry ice seeding of clouds could produce rain, of vital importance to the dry Australian continent. Bowen also led the establishment of the 3.8 m Anglo–Australian optical telescope at Siding Springs in north-west New South Wales in 1974.
International geophysical year 1957–1958
The IGY was the birthplace of a new form of science—International science, where collaboration between groups of nations finally led to the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959, essentially preserving the territory for scientific exploration. This is one of the lasting outcomes of the IGY. For upper atmosphere and space physics, this human unpopulated low electrical noise environment provided an ideal natural laboratory while the high latitude location favours studies connected to the outer regions of the magnetosphere and polar cap.
The modern era: post 1980
In 1965, the Australian Government established the Australian Research Grants Scheme (ARGS) to provide project grants to support mostly basic research within the national university system. This agency was renamed the Australian Research Council (ARC) in 1988, and since then a wide range of grant categories have been established covering some 36 universities, government agencies and industry collaboration.
Two government grant schemes are available for the establishment of research centres: The ARC Centres of Excellence (CoE) and the Co-operative Research Centres (CRC) schemes. The ARC CoE involves research collaboration between universities, publicly funded research organisations, other research bodies, government and business. The CRC program supports industry driven research partnerships between publicly funded researchers, business and the community to address major long term challenges. The latter scheme established the CRC for satellite systems (CRCSS) which built and launched the microsatellite FedSat in 2002.
Recent and current research in STP being undertaken by Australian institutions and agencies
University of Adelaide Space & Atmospheric Physics
Radar meteors; D-region; Lidar; MF/HF/VHF/ST radars; superDARN radar; Antarctic research
La Trobe University Theoretical & Space Physics
E–F-Regions; ionospheric propagation & currents; FedSat; SuperDARN radar; CRCSS; TEC; ULF waves; photometers; Antarctic Research
University of Newcastle Centre for Space Physics
Magnetospheric/ionospheric modelling; superDARN radar; FedSat; ULF-EMIC waves; riometer absorption; CRCSS; Antarctic Research
University of NSW Astronomical and Space Sciences
Pico- and CubeSats; satellite communications & instrumentation; space debris
DSTO Defence Science & Technology
Jindalee & JORN over horizon radar; FedSat
Observatories; geomagnetic data & surveys
University of Sydney Space & Solar Physics
Heliophysics; solar radio emissions; wave-particle interactions; STEREO Mission; Murchison wide field array; CubeSats
Australian Antarctic Division Space Weather
Geomagnetic, iosospheric and auroral monitoring; Riometry; Lidar; Cosmic Rays; SuperDARN; spectrometers; photometers
Bureau of Meteorology Space Weather Services
HF communications/surveillance; Geophysical exploration; power systems/pipelines; satellite operations; WDC solar-terrestrial science
Over more than one century beginning in the late 1800’s, Australia has exhibited a rich history of achievement in solar-terrestrial physics, ranging from simple geomagnetic measurements to sophisticated radars and satellite payloads. These endeavours have been supported by competent and continuing theoretical and modelling programs. Beginning at the time of the Second World War applied research was fostered by close collaboration between UK, Australian and New Zealand physicists which later included the USA. As a consequence, great progress was made in association with the World War II effort and this continued through until the 1960’s, and was a time when Australia was at the forefront of international STP research. An advantage over this period was, due the history evolving over the previous three decades that political implications were largely and conveniently absent from scientific planning and implementation. However, in the following three decades, until the end of the century, there was significant investment from the Australian Federal Government to expand research with applied research increasing, albeit supported with only modest private industry investment. In the new millennium, more emphasis has been placed on large projects. For example, the future multibillion dollar astronomical telescope, the Square Kilometre Array Project (SKA 2015) under development coupled with the need for detailed knowledge of ionospheric variability to interpret astronomical sky maps, suggests the possibility of a healthy decade or two of STP research ahead.
Support was provided by the University of Newcastle and the Centre for Space Physics. The following provided important information on historical and recent Australian STP research: Peter Dyson, Grahame Fraser, John Kennewell, Iain Reid and Phil Wilkinson.
The author declares that there are no competing interests.
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